Hunter knew the stakes. A quality start would likely allow him a longer stay in the starting rotation. Above all, a strong start would give the Orioles' overworked bullpen a much-needed break.
It was just the Orioles' second quality start in seven games and the longest outing by an O's pitcher since Chris Tillman went 81/3 innings July 4 in Seattle.
“I needed it too. Personally,” Hunter said. “It's been one of those times throughout the year, hopefully we just got over the top of the hill and we are going to be on that downward slope. It's got to get better at some point, and tonight we put it together.”
The win ended the Orioles' three-game losing streak. They had come into the night having lost six of their previous seven — and their grasp on the second American League wild-card spot.
It was also the just the Orioles' eighth win in their past 25 games, but it put them back into second place in the AL East after falling to third with Tuesday's loss.
“We needed this win badly, just for the psyche,” said center fielder Adam Jones, whose two-run homer in the first gave Hunter all the support he needed. “I'm not saying if we don't get this win, we're not going to be here later. We just needed this win, because we know we can play good baseball and we haven't been. It's a testament to always grinding. That's what you have to do. You get into some funks but you have to swing the bat to get out of them.”
Hunter also worked out of a funk. The pitcer, who was optioned to Norfolk for the second time June 30, had allowed fewer than five earned runs in just one of his previous five major league starts.
But on Wednesday, his only blemish was a fourth-inning homer hit by Twins left-fielder Josh Willingham, who took a 1-1 cutter into the bullpen area beyond left-center.
Hunter allowed just one earned run only one other time this season, when he held the Toronto Blue Jays to a single run on three hits over six innings in a 2-1 win on April 24. This outing also marked Hunter's first quality start in the majors since June 9, when he allowed three earned runs on eight hits over seven innings in a no-decision against the Philadelphia Phillies.
In four career outings (three starts) against the Twins, Hunter is 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA.
“Tommy's pitched some very good games for us this year,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He had command of his fastball. That's still the best pitch in baseball, fastball down and away. And he had a lot of counts in his favor. He established his fastball early and started mixing things up as he went through the second and time through the lineup.”
The Orioles (47-44) didn't get much offense Wednesday. They scored both of their runs on Jones' two-run homer in the first off Francisco Liriano. It was Jones' second homer in as many games — he hit a three-run shot in Tuesday's 6-4 loss. Eleven of Jones' 22 homers this season have given the Orioles the lead.
Jones laced a one-out triple over Denard Span's head in the left-center-field gap in the eighth, but the Orioles couldn't score.
The O's were outhit by Minnesota 8-5 and had just two hits after the third inning — Steve Pearce's two-out single in the fifth and Jones' triple. Liriano settled in after Jones' homer, allowing just four hits and striking out 10 in six innings.
But just two Twins runners reached second base against Hunter. He dodged trouble in the third, when the allowed back-to-back singles to open the inning but induced a flyout from leadoff hitter Span and then fielded a sharp comebacker from Ben Revere and turned a 1-6-3 double play.
Hunter battled out of trouble again in the seventh. The Twins had runners on first and second after Willingham hit a leadoff single and Trevor Plouffe was hit by a pitch on his right arm with one out. He got Brian Dozier to fly out to center and pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit to pop out to second to end the inning.
Reliever Troy Patton loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but he got left-handed-hitting Justin Morneau to ground out to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who fielded the ball on the right side of second base with the infield shifted for Morneau to pull.
Jim Johnson converted his 27th save in the ninth, with the help of a diving play from Mark Reynolds on Dozier's popped-up bunt with no outs and the leadoff man on first base.
“The last couple games we've been on a little bit of a spiral,” Johnson said. “But hopefully that kind of righted us in the right direction to kind of finish out this series. We talk about momentum a lot in this game, and that's key in this game. We have a short turnaround and hopefully we can carry it through.”