From a logistical standpoint, Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez hasn't had a particularly stable season. He has dealt with one stint on the disabled list, pitched out of the bullpen once and twice was demoted to the minor leagues as part of the club's continual roster tweaks.
If Gonzalez keeps pitching like he did Wednesday in a 6-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, though, he'll ultimately end up with just one destination next month: The postseason. That's his ultimate goal after an elevator of a season.
“It's got to be tough for a lot of guys [to be moved around]. A lot of guys can tell you that,” said Gonzalez, who was sent to the minors in July and August to get extra work while allowing the Orioles to add some depth. “You've just got to be mentally strong, and when they call you back up, be ready.”
The 30-year-old right-hander wasn't just prepared Wednesday, he was utterly dominant. He pounded the strike zone with low-90s fastballs in what was the best outing of his career.
“Sure, we'll call it the best,” the soft-spoken Gonzalez said with a smile.
He didn't give up a hit until the fifth inning — a one-out single to left field by Cincinnati's Ryan Ludwick — on his way to the first complete game and first shutout in the major leagues. The only other complete game of his professional career was in 2007 in the Double-A Texas League.
“It's an awesome feeling. Overall, we played a great game,” Gonzalez said. “Put some runs [up] early. That helps.”
Gonzalez threw a career-high 117 pitches, including an impressive 83 strikes, and he had a season-high eight strikeouts. He had 96 pitches going into the ninth, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Dave Wallace never considered using a reliever to start the inning.
“That was pretty easy,” Showalter said. “He was fine. Dave talks to him every inning. He's one of our best conditioned guys. He's got plenty of innings and pitches available. He's in a spot where he's got a lot of bullets left.”
It was the 10th time the Orioles held their opponent scoreless this season, and the second time a starting pitcher went the distance in a shutout -- Chris Tillman did it May 16 at the Kansas City Royals. Buoyed by an offense that hit three home runs, Gonzalez was in control from the beginning. He ended up allowing just four hits and one walk.
“Miggy is such a team guy, he's such a professional, and that was a professional outing,” Showalter said. “A lot of late life to the fastball, pitched up when he needed to, split was there, breaking ball. He had a lot of things working.”
When Gonzalez took the mound in the ninth, a portion of the announced 20,246 at Camden Yards recognized the situation and rose to its feet. The crowd remained standing as he recorded the final out on a groundout. Gonzalez also received the traditional pie-in-the-face from outfielder Adam Jones after his superb performance.
With 24 games to play in 2014, the first-place Orioles (81-57) now have guaranteed that they won't have a losing record for the third consecutive year after finishing under .500 for 14 straight seasons. A win Thursday not only would give them a sweep of the Reds (66-73), but it also would secure the Orioles' third straight winning campaign. On Wednesday, they moved to a season-high 24 games over .500 and maintained their 9 1/2-game lead over the second-place New York Yankees. Their magic number for clinching the American League East — the combination of wins needed and losses by their closest rival — dropped to 16.
Gonzalez (8-7, 3.38 ERA) is certainly doing his part. He has allowed just four runs in his past four outings, all quality starts, over a span of 28 1/3 innings (1.27 ERA). He has a 2.15 ERA in seven games since the All-Star break, when he was first demoted to the minors so the Orioles could temporarily add a hitter to their bench.
“We all understand it wasn't his idea. If it was up to him, he wouldn't [have chosen to leave],” Showalter said. “But it was what's best for our club at that point. And where we were in different parts of the season, things we had to do … we felt like [to] make him better in September, and hopefully October.”
Despite his transient year, Gonzalez is making a major push to be in the postseason rotation, even if it is truncated to three starters. Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen likely will be the top two, but Gonzalez and Bud Norris (12-8, 3.83 ERA) give Showalter two solid options from whom to choose if he decides not to go with four starters.
Showalter, of course, won't entertain playoff notions in early September. And Gonzalez shrugged off the thought of jockeying for a spot in the postseason.
Although the night was Gonzalez's, he received plenty of run support from baseball's most homer-happy team. The Orioles smashed three home runs against Cincinnati starter Dylan Axelrod and now have hit 182 in 138 games.
For the second time in two games, Orioles rookie Jonathan Schoop absolutely crushed a pitch 400-plus feet that landed in the Reds bullpen. On Wednesday night, it was a solo shot in the third inning to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead. According to ESPN Stats, that one was estimated at 446 feet, the longest hit at Camden Yards this year. In the dugout, though, slugger Nelson Cruz playfully needled the rookie that one of his homers to center field this season was hit farther.
“Nelson told me his was longer,” said Schoop, who now has 14 homers this season and six since Aug. 1. “I don't know. We'll see which is the longest one.”
David Lough led off the fourth with his third homer of the season and his first since June 7. Three batters later, Chris Davis followed with a two-run homer against Axelrod. It was Davis' 25th home run of the season, but, perhaps more important, it landed in the left-field seats. The opposite-field shot was reminiscent of so many of Davis' homers last year, when he set the franchise record with 53.
“I remember watching the replay,” Showalter said, “And saw where the pitch was and the swing he put on it. I remember saying to myself, ‘That reminds me of some swings we saw on tape, not just last year, but this year, too.'”
The Orioles had faced Axelrod (1-1) just once before, back in 2012 when the now-29-year-old right-hander pitched for the Chicago White Sox. The Reds purchased his contract from the White Sox this July, and he pitched well in his first two starts for Cincinnati — allowing just two earned runs in his first 11 innings. On Wednesday, Axelrod threw six solid innings, giving up just five hits and no walks. But three of the hits were homers — accounting for all the runs against Axelrod.
The Orioles added to their lead in the seventh against right-handed reliever Carlos Contreras, with a two-run double by Schoop. The rookie is hitting .300 (9-for-30) with two homers, three doubles and six RBIs in the first 10 games of this homestand.
“It feels really good,” Schoop said. “This team is together, everybody is together, and everybody tries to help everybody, and keep winning until Sept. 28. And then there's more to go, October.”
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