Orioles manager Buck Showalter often has the same reaction when he thinks a question is obvious, when he thinks something is astounding or when he is sidestepping a pointed inquiry — he tilts his head slightly, cocks an eyebrow and utters one word:
With their 5-3 victory over the tough Chicago White Sox on Thursday afternoon, these surprising, befuddling Orioles (72-58) have moved within three games of the American League East-leading New York Yankees, who were idle Thursday.
After the victory — which occurred in front of a season-low announced crowd of 10,141 — the Orioles boarded a train for a three-game series in New York. If they can orchestrate an improbable sweep, the Orioles, who haven’t sniffed the postseason in 15 years, would be in a dead heat with the mighty Yankees atop the toughest division in baseball in September.
Tilt your head, cock your eyebrow and do your best Showalter:
“It will be fun. Could be fun if we win,” Showalter said about going into Yankee Stadium. “Our guys aren’t going up there to experience the atmosphere. They're going to try to compete with the team we're trying to catch.”
So move over, 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles.
Here come the 2012 “Really?” Orioles.
They did it again Thursday against a White Sox club (72-58) that leads the AL Central and had won six straight before heading to Baltimore. The Orioles captured three of the four games this week against Chicago and went 6-2 in the season series between the clubs.
“That’s a tough team. The White Sox are good,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. “They pitch, they hit, they run the bases, they play great defense. We were just able to score more runs than them in this series.”
Statistically speaking, these Orioles don’t do much particularly well, at least not consistently, but they keep winning, oftentimes with a different hero nightly.
Zach Britton was the primary reason for Thursday’s win. The 24-year-old lefty, who has had a mercurial season that included missing the start of the year with a shoulder injury, delivered arguably his best performance of 2012. He lasted a season-long eight innings and struck out a career-high 10 batters. For the first time this year, he didn’t walk anyone.
After a shaky second inning in which he allowed four singles and one run — a two-out Gordon Beckham RBI base hit — Britton settled down. He retired 19 of the final 21 hitters he faced.
“I felt really good the whole game, even in the second inning. I felt like I made some pretty good pitches, but I was just a little up in the zone,” said Britton, who allowed seven hits and one run while throwing 77 of his 104 pitches for strikes. “I was able to get down in the zone later in the game. I was able to roll some balls over and get strikeouts when we needed them.”
Britton (4-1) has won all three of his starts and posted a 1.66 ERA since being recalled again from Triple-A Norfolk on Aug. 18.
“That was the most impressive I’ve seen him,” Jones said. “I’ve seen some uncomfortable swings off him [in the past]. But some of those guys over there, who have great numbers in general or are just great hitters over their careers, were taking some uncomfortable swings off him. That lets you know how his ball was moving.”
Here’s another crazy moment in this bizarre season: After pitching superbly Thursday, Britton immediately was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk. Although the move seems harsh, it’s just procedural, creating a 25-man roster spot for recently signed veteran lefty Randy Wolf, who will give the Orioles another left-hander in the bullpen.
Britton will be back after rosters expand and Norfolk’s season ends Monday, meaning he likely will take his regular turn in the rotation Sept. 4 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
All the offensive support Britton needed Thursday came in the third inning against White Sox lefty Jose Quintana (5-3).
Quintana, who hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his last four starts, retired the first eight batters he faced before backup catcher Taylor Teagarden homered.
Teagarden had just three hits this season before taking Quintana deep. He seems to come up big on the rare days he gets to start over Matt Wieters. Two of his first three hits were game-winners. This one was just a ho-hum, game-tying, no-hitter-snapping longball.
“I've just got to be ready,” said Teagarden, who now has five hits, four for extra bases, in 38 at-bats (.132 average). “If I can get a couple of hits when I'm in there, that's great.”
Teagarden ignited a string of four straight extra-base hits against a pitcher who had been perfect to that point. Call it another “Really?” rally.
Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy followed with doubles, then Jones smashed a two-run homer, his career-best 26th of the season.
Teagarden, who last played Aug. 22, added an RBI double in the fourth against Quintana, who hadn’t given up five runs in a game since July 13.
The White Sox attempted to come back in the ninth, scoring two runs before Jim Johnson picked up his major league-leading 41st save.
It set the stage for this weekend’s showdown in the Bronx between two of the best squads in the American League as August closes and September looms.
“This is a big series. The Yankees know it. We know it,” Jones said. “But the pressure is not on us. It is never on us. We are not supposed to be here. Let us play baseball and fly under the radar and then — BAM — we do something. That’s how we approach it.”
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