CHICAGO -- Watching Nick Markakis patrol right field for the past nine seasons, Orioles fans have grown accustomed to watching him make tough defensive plays look routine.
But there was no questioning the difficulty factor of the potentially game-saving catch that he made Monday night against the Chicago White Sox.
Markakis took away a go-ahead homer from Conor Gillaspie in the seventh inning, making a leaping grab while crashing into the right-field fence. The Orioles offense responded to the momentum-grabbing play by opening up a close game for an 8-2 win over the White Sox in front of an announced 16,686 at U.S. Cellular Field.
“I didn't see a whole lot of it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I saw the tail end of it, and I said to myself, 'He caught that?' That was big.”
Having just completed 35 straight games against teams with records of .500 or better, this week’s trip to Chicago -- where the Orioles will face the White Sox and the Cubs -- offers a brief reprieve from contending clubs. Still, American League Cy Young Award candidate Chris Sale was no pushover.
But Orioles right-hander Bud Norris outpitched Sale, retiring 17 of the first 18 batters to open the game.
Norris still needed one of the best plays the defensive-minded Orioles have made this season when Markakis robbed Gillaspie with the club clinging to a 3-2 lead.
“It helps us out tremendously in the context of taking the wind out of their sails a little bit,” Markakis said. “A big situation in the game, [and] I’m sure anybody on this team would have done the same thing, go hard after the ball and catch it.”
Markakis also had two hits off Sale, and he added his 11th homer of the season -- a two-run shot -- in the Orioles’ five-run eighth. It was just the fourth time a left-handed hitter has had a multihit game against Sale this season (left-handed hitters had a .122 batting average against the dominant left-hander heading into the night).
"He's the rock,” Showalter said of Markakis. “He's as consistent a guy as you ever want to have. We've got a lot of guys who you know what you're getting when they walk through the door every day. Nick's one of those.
"I can't tell you how hard it is for a left-handed hitter to go up there and get two knocks off Chris Sale. You're going to get some things tested in your gut to hang in there.”
An Orioles team that now has 37 road wins, the second-most in baseball, is 22-11 away from Camden Yards since May 31, tied for the best record in the majors in that span. They’ve won 10 of their last 15 road games.
Rebounding from their first series loss since dropping two of three games in Oakland in the first series after the All-Star break, the Orioles (71-52) took a 7 1/2-game lead over the New York Yankees in the AL East. They are eight games in front of the Toronto Blue Jays. Both teams were off Monday.
Sale (10-3) only gave up three runs in six innings, two coming on solo homers by J.J. Hardy and Nelson Cruz. With Markakis' home run, the Orioles now have a major league-leading 157 this season.
The Orioles worked Sale’s pitch count up in the opening innings, extending at-bats by being selective and fouling off pitches. With his unconventional three-quarters delivery, Sale struck out eight hitters, but he allowed 10 base runners (eight hits, two walks). He was forced from the game after throwing 121 pitches in six innings.
It also marked the first time this season that Sale allowed multiple homers in one game.
“I think we have good at-bats against him,” said Markakis, who also extended his hitting streak to 10 games with his three-hit effort Monday. “We got his pitch count up early. That’s what you’ve got to do against those guys, go up there and have good at-bats, and when he leaves one over the plate, when he makes a mistake, you’ve got to do your best to put wood on it. I think we did that against a great pitcher.”
Hardy, who is hitting .404 in August, gave the Orioles the lead when he blasted a 1-0 pitch from Sale into the second row of the left-field stands to lead off the second inning for his seventh homer of the season.
It was Hardy’s third homer in 12 games this month. He hit four in the season’s first four months.
Steve Pearce gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead in the fifth with a two-out, run-scoring double into the right-center field gap, scoring Markakis from first base.
Adam Jones followed with an infield single up the middle, but Pearce was thrown out at the plate after Gordon Beckman made a nice diving play behind second base and threw to catcher Tyler Flowers in time to get a sliding Pearce.
But the Orioles would add another run in the sixth on Cruz’s 32nd homer of the season, when Sale left a 1-2 slider over the plate and Cruz sent it over the White Sox bullpen beyond the left-field fence.
Norris faced the minimum number of batters through six innings. He allowed a one-out single in the third to Jordan Danks but catcher Caleb Joseph threw out Danks attempting to steal second.
“It wasn’t a bunch of strikeouts,” Norris said. “They were definitely hitting the ball and hitting it right at guys. It definitely helps when you’re getting out right at guys. … You’re trying to get guys out as quick as you can with the least amount of pitches you can, and it was just a good day.”
But Norris opened the seventh inning by hitting White Sox leadoff hitter Alejandro De Aza on the right arm. Alexei Ramirez followed with a double down the right-field line to put two runners in scoring position.
Norris almost got out of the inning unscathed, but Avisail Garcia’s two-out single scored two runs to cut the lead to 3-2.
Gillaspie then took a 1-1 pitch deep to right field, where Markakis made a leaping catch on the run against the wall, extending his glove over the top of the fence and taking away a home run.
“I thought I had a shot at it the whole way,” Markakis said. “Just positioned myself where I thought the ball was going to land. I was going after it, doing everything I can to catch it, especially with the situation in the game. The way Bud was pitching, you have to do everything to catch the ball.”
Said Norris: “That changes the game right there. They would have taken the lead, changed completely the game.”
The Orioles responded in the top of the eighth, scoring all five runs with two outs in the inning. With the bases loaded, second baseman Jonathan Schoop hit a bases-clearing double that one-hopped off the left-center field fence.
Markakis then followed with a line-drive, two-run shot into the right-field seats to give the Orioles an 8-2 lead.
Norris (11-7) picked up his career-high 11th win. He held the White Sox to (59-66) to two runs and three hits, while striking out five batters and walking none. It marked the 11th time in 20 starts this season that he has allowed two runs or fewer. In their past 15 road games, the Orioles rotation is 8-3 with a 2.91 ERA.
Showalter said he considered bringing Norris back out for the eighth inning -- he had thrown just 82 pitches through seven innings -- but instead went to right-hander Brad Brach, who closed out the win with two scoreless innings.
“It definitely crept in there, which is fine, but I’m just really trying to attack the strike zone and get one pitch at a time and get outs,” Norris said. “My mentality this year and last year, too, is really one pitch at a time. It’s really all you can control. … I know the pitch count means a lot to you guys, but it’s more about how I feel, and Buck made the decision and I’m OK with it.”
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