HOUSTON — The Orioles' offense didn't exactly erupt against the Houston Astros on Saturday afternoon, but it was productive enough to finally scrape out a much-needed win three days into their trip to Texas.
These Orioles have drawn their share of criticism for being overly aggressive at the plate, complaints only compounded by two frustrating games here in which they scored just one run each night. But this time, they allowed patience to guide them to victory.
They received their third straight quality start and this time took advantage of a well-timed strong outing from struggling ace Chris Tillman in a 4-1 win over the Astros before an announced 29,609 at Minute Maid Park.
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The Orioles (27-27) took advantage of Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel's sudden control problems, scoring two runs on a pair of bases-loaded walks in the fifth inning.
The win ended the Orioles' season-high four-game losing streak and brought them back to .500 after a May skid in which they lost 13 of their past 19 games.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz continued to carry the offense, hitting his major league-leading 20th homer in the eighth inning and driving in three runs.
Tillman found his groove, holding Houston to one run on four hits over 62/3 for his first win since May 16.
“I think we needed it, not just him,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “You know, very quietly, as much as we keep talking about some of the quality pitching against us, our guys have pitched pretty well. And you've got to do it, as good as [Houston's] starters are.”
Tillman's start followed quality starts from right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez over the series' first two nights. This time, the Orioles were able to take advantage.
“I think we are kind of feeding off each other, kind of getting this thing going a little bit,” Tillman said. “I think it's a part of the game, the friendly competition that we always talk about. These guys went out and set the tone early. I have to follow suit.”
Tillman (5-2), who had allowed 14 earned runs over his previous two starts, recorded his fifth quality start in 12 outings this season Saturday.
Cruz's three-RBI day gave him 52 this season, passing Chris Davis' previous club record of 50 RBIs by the end of May, set last season.
In 30 May games, Cruz hit .339 (39-for-115) with 13 home runs and 27 RBIs. He has five homers in his past seven games and has driven in five of the Orioles' past nine runs.
“As a team, we know we can score runs, no doubt,” Cruz said. “We have, top to bottom, one of the best lineups in the league. It was a matter of time before we came back and do what we're supposed to do. Today was a great example. We had a chance to tie the game and go on top again. We got walked a few times. ... As a team, we like to swing. We need to walk; that's the way we should do it.”
The Orioles had drawn one walk over a span of 28 innings before Keuchel issued three free passes in the fifth, the last two with the bases loaded.
“I'll say it again: You can't take until you hit. There's a fine line between it. You know the guy's going to be around the plate. He makes a living out of having a pitch appear in the middle of the plate and take you off the sweet part of the bat,” Showalter said. “We've had a lot of weak contact off their pitchers and not a whole lot of strikeouts, but that's [why] quality pitching is what it is.”
Keuchel (6-3) entered the day having won his past four starts, including two complete games in which he allowed no earned runs, but he quickly ran into trouble in the fifth.
Manny Machado, who had just one hit in his past 19 at-bats, beat out an infield single to third base with one out in the inning, and two batters later, catcher Caleb Joseph looped a single to right field that dropped just in front of right fielder George Springer, sending Machado to third.
After Nick Markakis drew a walk to load the bases, the first run of the inning scored on a five-pitch walk to Steve Pearce. Cruz then drew a eight-pitch, full-count walk that scored another run.
Markakis opened the game with a leadoff double to left field, moved to third on a groundout by Steve Pearce, then scored on Cruz's sacrifice fly to center.
Cruz led off the fourth inning with a ground-rule double that one-hopped over the right-center-field fence but later was thrown out trying to steal third.
Still, he provided a valuable insurance run in the eighth, opening the inning by taking a 92-mph sinker from right-hander Jerome Williams into the porch above the 404-foot sign in left-center field.
Tillman, despite walking two, hitting two and throwing two wild pitches, allowed just one hit after Dexter Fowler's one-out single in the third.
“I thought, after the first inning, he reached back and got a little more fastball. ... I can see he gets that little look in his eye, like, ‘Enough of this. Let's go,'” Showalter said. “Very few sequences did he have real good command of the curveball.”
The Astros (24-33) tied the game in the second when Tillman labored through a 24-pitch frame.
He immediately put two base runners on, allowing a leadoff double to Jason Castro and hitting Matt Dominguez with a pitch.
Two batters later, after Chris Davis made a nice diving play on Marc Krauss' grounder for the first out of the inning, a breaking ball slipped out of Tillman's hand and hit Alex Presley to load the bases.
No. 8 hitter Robbie Grossman rolled a breaking ball down the first base line that Tillman chased, waiting for it to roll foul. But it didn't, allowing the Astros to score their first run.
Tillman escaped further damage, getting help from his defense when Markakis — who nearly didn't play Saturday because of a stiff neck — made a tremendous running catch on a ball hit toward the right-field corner by Jose Altuve.
“I wouldn't say it's a relief. It's my job,” Tillman said. “As a starting pitcher, you want to get deep into the ballgame and give your team a chance to win. We were able to do that tonight.”
Orioles right-hander Ryan Webb helped preserve the lead by retiring all four batters he faced before left-hander Zach Britton entered in the ninth and converted his fourth save in five opportunities.
Britton allowed a leadoff single to Dominguez but struck out pinch hitter Jesus Guzman and induced a 6-4-3 double-play ball from pinch hitter Chris Carter to end the game.