11:54 PM EDT, July 23, 2012
CLEVELAND – Orioles manager Buck Showalter, a master of detail, watches baseball games in pieces, individual snapshots, and not in one stream. So, to him, a play that might not have been made in the third or a blown call in the sixth is equally important as a late-inning gaffe that everyone notices.
In fact, one of Showalter's biggest pet peeves is dwelling on one moment in a baseball game that is filled with various wrinkles and nuances.
Case in point: The Orioles' 3-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Monday that snapped their five-game winning streak and prohibited them from their first four-game sweep in Cleveland since 1971.
The play, the Tuesday-morning, water-cooler discussion will center on a Nick Markakis' base-running blunder in the eighth with the Orioles trailing by a run. Markakis, whose one-out single had chased a masterful Justin Masterson from the game, took off from first when Endy Chavez laced a double into the left-field corner against Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano.
Markakis was thinking about scoring the whole time, and he didn't see third base coach DeMarlo Hale's right hand raised as a stop sign, which, to be fair, came a tad later than usual from the reliable Hale.
“I should have been picking up my third base coach, and by the time I saw him, I didn't see him do anything, I was kind of using my own judgment. I thought I was going to get there,” Markakis said. “I heard him as I was going past the bag and I just stopped. I froze. I should have kept going.
“Regardless, I should have made them make two good throws to get me out. But I froze and it didn't end up good. Bad base running on my part.”
Markakis halted about 20 feet down the third base line. He was stuck; eventually tagged out in a rundown. Instead of having runners on second and third and one out with the heart of the order coming up, they had a man on third with two outs.
Pestano then struck out Jim Thome, the Indians added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth and Chris Perez pitched a perfect ninth for his 27th save.
Just like that, a tremendous start by Tommy Hunter (4-5) was wasted and the potential for the longest winning streak of the season evaporated for the Orioles (51-45).
But don't tell Showalter that this one is on Markakis and Hale and one bad decision in an otherwise fairly crisp game that lasted just two hours and 26 minutes.
“There's about 20 things there to make stuff like that not matter. I know how people dwell on things like that. Nicky plays hard, DeMarlo is one of the best third-base coaches around and it's one of those things I am not going to sit there and throw anybody under the bus,” Showalter said. “We made a lot of really good decisions over there and that had nothing to do with winning or losing the baseball game. We could do 20 things to make that not matter.”
Two happened in the bottom of the third. With one out, Hunter got Casey Kotchman to hit a one-hopper to the right side. But first baseman Chris Davis couldn't glove the ball on a play that should be made. It was ruled a hit.
Hunter induced a fly out — which should have been an inning-ender — before serving up a 384-foot homer to Shin-Soo Choo. Those were the only two runs Hunter would allow until the eighth, when he gave up two hits, including a come-backer he couldn't handle, and was taken from the game. One of the inherited runners scored on a seeing-eye single to the left side by Michael Brantley against Troy Patton.
“I left the ball over the plate that led to two runs and then the ball up the middle (in the eighth) that I wish I would have fielded. But it is what it is,” said Hunter, who allowed three runs on eight hits and no walks in seven-plus innings. “It's just frustrating being on the losing end and still trying to say that you played hard, that you played well.”
Hunter has now turned in two impressive starts since returning from Triple-A on July 18, allowing just four runs in 14 1/3 innings (2.51 ERA) to lower his season ERA to 5.57.
“Tommy was really good, He deserved a better fate,” Showalter said. “We did some things good in this series, but we had a shot. But the few opportunities we had we didn't take advantage of. Masterson was pretty good.”
Masterson (7-8) used excellent command and movement to limit the Orioles to seven hits and one walk while fanning six in 7 1/3 innings. The lone run he allowed came in the fifth on a RBI double by shortstop Omar Quintanilla, who was making his first start as an Oriole after being acquired from the New York Mets for cash on Friday.
Masterson was cruising in the eighth with just 92 pitches when Indians manager Manny Acta decided to go to Pestano, who owns a 1.54 ERA in 43 outings this year.
“I was a little surprised (Masterson was removed) with as well as he was throwing the ball, especially with the stuff he has and the groundballs he is capable of getting,” Markakis said. “But that was their decision and we got in the situation we wanted to and things didn't work out.”
Incredibly, it was the 49th time in 96 tries that the Orioles have been involved in a game decided by one or two runs. They dropped to 34-15 in those, and 15-9 in two-run contests.
Still, they had a chance to pull off a four-game sweep of the Indians in Cleveland for the first time since September 1971. In that series, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Jim Palmer each picked up his 20th victory to join teammate Dave McNally as 20-game winners — something that hasn't happened since.
The Orioles did manage a noteworthy accomplishment on Monday, however. It was the club's sixth straight quality start, the first time the rotation has done that since May 10-15, 2011. And, after losing the first two games of this road trip in Minnesota, the Orioles finished with a flourish, ending the trek 5-3 as they head back to Baltimore still in second place in the AL East and still in the middle of the Wild Card hunt.
Although the lasting memory of this one — to the chagrin of Showalter — will be Markakis frozen on the third base line. So close to tying the game.
“It's 99.9 percent my fault. It happens. You're not perfect. Nobody's perfect. Mistakes happen and it just happened to be in a big part of the game,” Markakis said. “I'll put it past me. We had a good road trip. We take three here and we split in Minnesota, so you can't be too disappointed.”
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