By Dan Connolly
The Baltimore Sun
11:29 PM EDT, September 26, 2013
It was the kind of game the Orioles needed desperately earlier this month.
Paced by a tremendous outing from starter Miguel Gonzalez, a bullpen that preserved the lead and some timely hitting, the Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 3-2, on Thursday night to win the season series against the American League East's last-place club.
“It's always the recipe. If you get good starting pitching and turn it over to the bullpen late in the game, it leaves us a lot of chances to win the ballgame,” Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. “And our starters, they have it in them, and they are going to keep working and keep getting better.”
It might have come too late for a club now out of playoff contention, but Thursday's win before an announced crowd of 27,498 at Camden Yards showed the Orioles (83-76) are, indeed, capable of winning without outslugging their opponents.
Although execution eluded them so often in 2013, the Orioles can win close ones, too. After going 29-9 in one-run games last season, this club is just 18-31 in those situations this year. On Thursday, the Orioles won a one-run game for just the fourth time in their past 19 tries.
It's a big reason why, with just three games remaining this season, the Orioles will finish well below last year's mark of 93 victories.
“I think, for us, if you're not getting better, you're falling behind, so we've got a lot of things we can work on. You can improve, even here at the end of the year,” Wieters said. “You always want to go in strong in the offseason and then get some momentum going to the offseason workouts.”
Gonzalez, who had to deal this year with a thumb blister that landed him on the disabled list and a right groin strain that bothered him this month, couldn't have performed much better in his final outing of the season.
Ending the year 11-8 with a 3.78 ERA in 30 games (28 starts), Gonzalez threw seven superb innings Thursday, allowing just two hits, one walk and one unearned run while striking out five. His gem allowed the Orioles to capture the season series, 10-9, over the Blue Jays (72-87).
“He was really good,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Gonzalez. “You like to leave a good taste in your mouth, and it's a reminder to everybody of how good he's been for us, and hopefully will be again.”
In the first, Gonzalez walked the second batter he faced, Munenori Kawasaki, before retiring the next hitter. With two outs, Moises Sierra hit a routine fly to left field that Jason Pridie dropped, and Kawasaki, running on contact, dashed around the base path. Pridie, in his second start with the Orioles and first in left, attempted to make a throw home, but the ball hit the pitcher's mound and never made it to the plate. Kawasaki scored easily.
The Blue Jays didn't score again against Gonzalez, who used a table-dropping split-fingered fastball to keep a stretch of 14 batters from the third to the seventh hitless.
“That was vintage Miggy. When he's on, he's able to mix in his off-speed stuff and locate his fastball,” Wieters said. “He was able to do that tonight and he actually had a good curveball and good slider to go with his [split-fingered fastball].”
It might have been the 29-year-old right-hander's best performance of the season, perhaps behind only a one-run, eight-inning outing against the Los Angeles Angels in June.
“I don't know [if it was the best],” Gonzalez said. “Every game's a battle, but we did a good job tonight of keeping guys off the bases and we played well overall. We did a pretty good job.”
Gonzalez's lead looked precarious in the eighth, when reliever Tommy Hunter allowed three hits and a run, but Hunter minimized the damage with two strikeouts and a nice running catch by center fielder Adam Jones. Closer Jim Johnson pitched a scoreless ninth for his AL-leading 48th save.
The Orioles tied the game in the second when Wieters hit a hanging curveball from Toronto starter Mark Buehrle into the left-field seats for his 22nd homer of the season. He's now one shy of tying his career high of 23, set last year.
The Orioles scored twice more against Buehrle in the third. Brian Roberts started the inning by bunting for a hit and scored from first when Nick Markakis sliced a double to left that skipped past left fielder Kevin Pillar. Markakis scored three batters later on Wieters' major league-leading 12th sacrifice fly.
“It's a cool stat to lead the league in, I guess,” Wieters said. “Any time you get a man on third with less than two outs, you feel like it's your job to get them in.”
Buehrle (12-10) had to leave with one out in the fourth after taking a liner from Steve Pearce off his right calf. One of Toronto's big pickups this winter, the veteran left-hander finished his season with a 4.15 ERA after giving up three runs on eight hits to the Orioles.
The story, though, was Gonzalez, who has delivered quality starts in four of past five outings and in 29 of his 43 career starts as an Oriole.
Like the Orioles' season, Gonzalez's year has been one of ups and downs. Ultimately, he said he'll focus on his successes and failures — and build on them next year.
“You learn when you have some struggles,” Gonzalez said. “You work on things you need to work on in between starts. I thought [I] did a pretty good job of that and on finishing strong. It made me happy.”
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