CLEVELAND – After getting another quality outing from a starting pitcher — for the fifth consecutive game — the Orioles turned Sunday’s game over to their shutdown bullpen.
And for one of the few times this season, the Orioles had to hold on tightly. Maybe cross their fingers and close their eyes, too, before finishing off their 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians.
“It wasn’t really the way we drew it up, but it seemed to work out,” Orioles closer Jim Johnson said. “We got the win, so it doesn’t really matter.”
With the Orioles leading 4-0 in the ninth, the Indians rallied for three runs and put the tying runner on second and the winning run on first before Johnson struck out Asdrubal Cabrera to end the game. It was Johnson’s major league leading 30th save, making him just the 12th pitcher in club history to reach that mark in a season.
“It was close today, a lot closer than we wanted it,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who had a homer and three RBIs, matching his season high. “But anytime Jim Johnson is on the mound, it is a good feeling.”
The Orioles (51-44) are now an incredible 38-0 when they are leading after the seventh inning. The only other major league team that’s undefeated when leading after the seventh is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are 47-0 in those games.
“You’ve got to give credit to the guys in the bullpen, for when we have leads we are holding them, or if the game is tied we’re holding it there so our offense can come back and score some runs,” Johnson said. “I like that formula.”
No matter how shaky, the bullpen held on to hand Zach Britton (1-0) his first big league victory since Sept. 22, 2011.
Britton was making his second start for the Orioles this year and his first since lasting just four innings and blowing a three-run lead Tuesday in Minnesota. He said that wasn’t on his mind when he took the mound Sunday — and it showed. He threw six shutout innings, allowing just four hits and two walks while striking out five batters.
“I think there are certain situations where there were a lot of emotions going on in Minnesota. I really just completely forgot about that start and moved on to my bullpen and focused on today,” he said. “[Monday], I’ll forget about this one and focus on the next one. I think that’s one of those things I learned in Triple-A, the process of it all and not getting too wrapped up on whether it was a good outing or a bad one.”
Sunday’s outing had the potential of being a disappointing one when Britton loaded the bases with two outs and the Orioles clinging to a 2-0 lead in the sixth. But Britton froze Carlos Santana on a 93-mph sinker that darted back across the plate.
“It was big,” Britton said. “That’s the situation in Minnesota where I kind of let the game get away from me a little bit.”
It may have been his best and biggest pitch of the game, but it was typical of his sinker on Sunday. He said he and Taylor Teagarden, who had never caught him before, chose to work the sinker in the middle of the plate and let its natural movement take over. The result: 11 groundouts, five strikeouts and just two fly outs.
“Zach was impressive,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s a morale boost, too, and an energy boost when you know guys are going to get you on and off the field, especially on day games.”
Britton turned in the Orioles’ fifth consecutive quality start — just the second time the rotation has done that this season (April 28 to May 2). Their five-game winning streak matches a season high that has occurred three other times.
“I want him to be consistent,” Showalter said of Britton. “It is tough to do what he did today, but it’s even tougher to be consistent. And that’s what we are going to have to have if we are going to stay in this thing.”
The Orioles have moved within six games of the American League East-leading New York Yankees and are still a leading contender for a wild-card spot. With another game to be played here Monday night, the Orioles have already clinched the four-game series and have taken three straight in Cleveland for the first time since August of 1998. The Indians (47-48) haven’t been under .500 since April 14, their seventh game of the season.
The Orioles jumped on Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin (5-7) immediately Sunday. Nick Markakis led off with an infield single and Hardy followed with his 14th home run of the year. In the seventh, Hardy picked up an RBI single, his best offensive output since he had two homers and three RBIs on May 6 in Boston.
“The way things have been going for me lately, any time I can contribute and help the team win it feels good for sure,” said Hardy, who has hit just four homers since June 1.
The Orioles scored their fourth run in the eighth when Wilson Betemit hit a 438-foot homer against former Oriole Jeremy Accardo. It was Betemit’s first homer since June 26.
Betemit’s blast proved to be exceptionally important in the ninth.
Luis Ayala, who had thrown two perfect innings, came out for a third because Showalter was hoping to rest his bullpen, and specifically lefty Troy Patton. It was the second straight outing that Ayala had entered for a third inning; previously he hadn’t pitched in three innings since May 20, 2009 when he was with the Minnesota Twins.
“I’ll be a good teammate. I’ll take every ball. I’m glad to pitch every time,” Ayala said. “Sometimes you can’t [anticipate] the job until you get into the game.”
He fanned the first batter in the ninth but allowed a Michael Brantley single before Santana homered to make it 4-2.
“In that third inning, I might have been a little tired, but that’s a situation where you need to focus more on your pitches,” Ayala said. “I made a good pitch to Brantley and he hit a single, and then I made a mistake to Santana.”
Johnson entered and allowed a double to Shelley Duncan that nearly left the park, an RBI single to pinch-hitter Travis Hafner and a flyout before pitching carefully to Shin-Soo Choo and walking him. That set up the battle against Cabrera, which Johnson won.
“I kind of had to force myself to pitch around Choo. I didn’t like the matchup there. Just based on the way I felt on the mound today,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to trust yourself. I felt like I had a better chance to get Cabrera for the last out than Choo.
“You’ve just got to make that one pitch and then everything is forgotten.”