By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
8:58 PM EDT, June 1, 2014
HOUSTON -- When Nelson Cruz hopped out of the batter’s box and dropped to the ground, clutching his left hand in pain, Orioles manager Buck Showalter feared the worst.
The Orioles have been wildly inconsistent over the first two months of the season, but Cruz has been the one constant. The slugging outfielder has carried the club’s offense on his shoulders, so it was concerning when he left the game Sunday, shortly after being hit on his hand by a pitch from Astros right-hander Scott Feldman.
While their best hitter was at a local hospital getting X-rays, the Orioles responded Sunday with their finest offensive effort in nearly two weeks as the team’s sleeping bats awoke in a 9-4 victory over the Astros in front of an announced 17,022 at Minute Maid Park.
Even better news for the Orioles was that X-rays on Cruz’s hand were negative. He was diagnosed with a bone bruise on the bottom part of his hand, and is considered day-to-day.
“I was pretty concerned there,” Showalter said. “A lot of time, [when] you get those type of symptoms, you don't like the results. But I'm hoping, even though he didn't dodge a bullet, that we did.”
After Cruz left the game, third baseman Manny Machado hit his first career grand slam, a mammoth blast to left field that capped a six-run sixth inning against Feldman.
And David Lough, who has seen his playing time diminish as he has slumped at the plate, drove in three runs, matching his season total coming into Sunday.
The Orioles’ nine runs Sunday were three more than they scored in the first three games of the series combined, and they salvaged a split of their four-game series against the Astros.
Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen (6-2) fell two outs short of giving the Orioles their fourth straight quality start, allowing one run and four hits in 5 1/3 innings.
In the four-game series, Orioles starters allowed just five runs over 24 2/3 innings, pitching to a 1.82 ERA.
“It was, overall, a good day,” Machado said. “The pitching staff threw well. We’re finally getting some hits when we need to. Things are coming into place.”
Machado, 21, entered the day with just three extra-base hits in 109 at-bats, but he took a 2-2 delivery from Feldman well over the left-field fence to give the Orioles a 9-1 lead. Machado, who led the American League in doubles last year with 51, also doubled in the third inning and scored.
Machado, who also had two hits Saturday, said he hoped his first back-to-back multihit games of the year could help him emerge from an early season funk after missing all of spring training and the first month of the season while recovering from offseason left knee surgery.
“I hope so,” Machado said. “I really hope so. Today was a good day at the plate. Felt good, and my legs are finally under me. Feel like I can continue that.”
After Machado's third-inning double, Feldman threw an 87-mph pitch that sailed up and in to Cruz.
Cruz, who leads the major leagues with 20 homers and 52 RBIs, tried to back away from the pitch, but it hit him in the lower part of the left hand. He went down to the ground, holding his hand in obvious pain as Showalter and head trainer Richie Bancells inspected the injury.
Cruz remained in the game, taking first base and then stealing second on the back half of a double steal, but he was removed in the bottom part of the inning when he was unable to grip a bat.
“It's swollen, so hopefully just day by day stuff,” said Cruz, who had his left hand wrapped in a bandage. “Any time you get hit in the hand, you get concerned. … I have to until [Monday] to see how I feel.”
Both Cruz and Showalter were optimistic that Cruz would be able to return to the lineup following Monday’s day off. Cruz, who spent eight seasons playing for the Rangers, will return to Texas for the first time Tuesday.
“He's going to be sore,” Showalter said. “If I know Nelson, he's going to want to play on Tuesday. It's got nothing to do with who we're playing. He just likes to be there. But he seemed to be in pretty good spirits inside afterward. You never know when you're going to get those reports back. … If he continues to have some issues with it, then I guess there's three different levels of X-rays that you go off the symptoms, but so far, so good.”
Throughout baseball, there has been a wave of pitchers hitting batters, sparking tension in many dugouts. But Cruz said he didn’t believe Feldman hit him intentionally. Cruz and Feldman were longtime teammates with the Rangers, and their playing time together dates back to Triple-A in 2007.
“I don't think so,” Cruz said. “Maybe he tried to go in. I know the catcher went and talked to him before I got hit, so I was maybe thinking they tried to pitch me around something. So I couldn't tell. I don't think so.”
Feldman, who is known to work batters inside and leads the AL with eight hit batters, said he checked on his former teammate after the game.
“I didn't want to hit him,” Feldman said.”They said it was just a bruise, so that was a little relieving. It happens. It's part of the game, trying to pitch inside. He's been swinging the bat well. Obviously, I didn't want to give him a free base, but I didn't want to let him go up there and hit one off the wall either.”
Lough, who was hitless in his previous 11 at-bats before Sunday, put the Orioles up, 2-0, with his first homer of the season in the second inning, a two-run shot over the right-field fence that came with two outs.
“It was good for the team, and for me,” Lough said. “I’ve been struggling at the plate, obviously, and when I hit it, I knew it had a good chance of getting out of here and putting us up, 2-0, and getting us going for our offense today. It was good and we got the W.”
With a 3-1 lead, the Orioles (28-27) opened the sixth inning with four straight singles, the last one by Lough to drive in a run.
After catcher Nick Hundley’s sacrifice fly knocked in another run, the Astros (24-34) intentionally walked Nick Markakis to load the bases and bring Machado up to the plate.
Machado hit the grand slam against Feldman (3-3), the former Orioles right-hander who signed a three-year, $30 million deal with Houston in the offseason. It was the Orioles’ second grand slam this season. Cruz hit one April 23 in Toronto.
Given the way the series started, with the Orioles frustrated that they couldn’t score more runs and capitalize on strong pitching performances, they were able to reverse their fortunes over the final two games.
“They came out and got us the first two days,” Machado said. “We just tried to take it day-by-day and bounce back from it, and obviously, we did. We came back the next day and hit the ball well. Pitching staff did well, and we continued that. That’s something that we needed. We needed some momentum going into Texas.”
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