By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
12:19 AM EDT, August 24, 2013
Given the rallies and momentum swings in the Orioles' series opener against the Oakland Athletics on Friday night, it became a game the Orioles needed to win to not only gain ground in the playoff chase but also boost the team's psyche.
The biggest boost, might have come from struggling closer Jim Johnson, who turned in his most dominant outing in weeks to record a perfect ninth inning and seal a 9-7 victory before an announced 36,761 at Camden Yards.
The Orioles offense did its job, highlighted by second baseman Brian Roberts' sixth career grand slam, but seeing Johnson dominate the final inning — needing just nine pitches, eight strikes, to retire the A's in order — to record his 40th save of the season was a sight Baltimore was glad to see.
“I think it was a relief for a lot of people, but there's always work to be done,” Johnson said. “Tonight was a crazy game with the way it went, four runs, six runs, three runs, all that. We know what we have to do. We know what's in front of us. We're going to take it from game to game.”
After watching an early three-run lead disappear, the Orioles rallied in the bottom of the seventh for a comeback victory that drew them within two games of the A's for the second Americanl League wild-card spot with 35 games remaining in the regular season. The win also clinched a season series win over Oakland for the first time since 1998. (That would give the Orioles home-field advantage if the teams end up tied for the final wild-card spot or tied for both wild-card spots.)
Johnson, who had blown his previous three save opportunities, converted his first save since Aug. 6 and became the first Orioles reliever to record multiple 40-save seasons.
“You could see the look in his eye,” Roberts said of Johnson. “Sometimes we need that as players. We need to have a little kick in the rear end. He's been great for us. He's been incredible. He's had his ups and downs, but who doesn't over the course of 162 games? I thought tonight he came out really aggressive. He threw the ball incredible. We all looked at each other and were like, ‘Whoa. This is almost a different guy.' Sometimes we need to play with a chip on our shoulder, and I think he did that tonight.”
Johnson struck out the first batter he faced — Oakland cleanup hitter Brandon Moss — on three pitches. He got help on the next batter from third baseman Manny Machado — who made a diving play on Yoenis Cespedes' grounder — and then got Seth Smith to ground to second to end the game.
“I was able to command both sides of the plate … and [was] getting later action,” Johnson said. “There were a couple of games where it kind of looked like the ball was reacting too soon, so hitters had just a little [notice]. These guys are really good, so if they see it early, they can make that adjustment. Just trying to get like another foot on the ball or so like that and pound the zone.”
Roberts drove in a season-high four runs after hitting his first grand slam in nearly three years in the fourth inning. But the Orioles (69-58) would need more to clinch the victory.
Trailing 7-6 at the seventh-inning stretch, the Orioles scored three runs in the bottom half of the inning, taking advantage of an Oakland error and two infield hits.
Nate McLouth started the inning drawing a leadoff walk, then he swiped second for 29th stolen base of the season. Machado's single put runners at the corners.
After Chris Davis reached on an error by second baseman Eric Sogard that scored McLouth and tied the game, Adam Jones swung at the first pitch from Oakland reliever Ryan Cook (5-3), sending a slow roller to third. Jones beat out Josh Donaldson's throw, scoring Machado from third.
Matt Wieters followed with another infield single, and Nick Markakis took the first pitch of his at-bat up the middle to score Davis and give the Orioles a 9-7 lead.
“A swinging bunt and a ball that deflected there off the glove,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I've said many times, the baseball gods, if you keep grinding, they'll shine on you, and our guys have. They've never given in. When these guys backs are to the wall, I have a lot of faith in what they'll bring.”
Given a three-run lead after four innings , Orioles right-hander Bud Norris was unable to hold it and suffered his worst outing since being acquired just before the non-waiver trade deadline.
Norris allowed seven runs — tying a season-high — over 4 2/3 innings, including four in the top of the fifth right after the Orioles took a 6-3 lead on Roberts' grand slam.
In his first three starts after being acquired from the Houston Astros on July 31, Norris was 2-0 with a 2.65 ERA. But in his past two starts, Norris has pitched to a 9.90 ERA. In four starts against the A's this season, has a 9.35 ERA.
“There's a couple teams out there that have done that to me,” Norris said. “There are other teams I have done very well against. I think that's part of baseball and anything can happen. I don't know if they see the ball better off me or what it may be. But I'm going to learn from this one and keep trucking along.”
Roberts' slam capped a six-run fourth inning and chased Oakland starter Dan Straily from the game. Roberts drove a 1-1, 89-mph fastball down the right-field line and onto the flag court on Straily's 30th pitch of the inning.
Roberts, whose previous grand slam came Sept. 12, 2009 at Yankee Stadium, is 13-for-29 (.448) with 22 RBIs with runners in scoring position this year. Earlier in the inning, Jones hit his 27th homer of the season, an opposite-field two-run shot that just cleared the scoreboard in right.
Straily held the Orioles hitless over the first three innings, but he tied a season-high with four walks. Two of the walks he issued in the fourth inning came around to score.
The Orioles' lead was short-lived, as the A's sent 10 men to the plate in the top of the fifth and took a 7-6 lead.
But after the Orioles regained the lead — and got scoreless relief innings from Francisco Rodriguez (2-0) and Tommy Hunter in the seventh and eighth — Johnson came out for the ninth to cheers from the home crowd. The cheers grew louder throughout his short, effective inning.
“I'd like to say it does,” Johnson said when asked it the outing helped his confidence. “But confidence is short-lived until the next day. Like I said before, you've got to trust what your work ethic is and what you put into it, and hopefully results will follow.”
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