As the Orioles approach the midway point of the regular season, it’s become clear that they’re a team that relies heavily on the home run while struggling to manufacture runs consistently.
It can lead to some frustrating stretches of stranded baserunners, and that was on display for most of the Orioles’ split day-night doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday.
And when they needed another longball in the nightcap, the Orioles received it from an unlikely source.
Orioles catcher Nick Hundley hit his first homer as an Oriole in the sixth inning that gave the Orioles the lead in a 4-1 win to salvage a split of the doubleheader.
Nelson Cruz then followed in the next inning with his 25th homer of the season, an opposite-field two-run shot that tied him for the major league league with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu.
Before Hundley – who entered the night hitting just .195 since joining the club in a trade with the San Diego Padres five weeks ago -- rescued a struggling Orioles offense with his homer, the Orioles stranded nine baserunners and were just 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position despite hitting several deep fly balls to the warning track. Hundley’s second-inning RBI single in the second was the team’s only other hit with runners in scoring position.
“I thought we had some good at-bats, hit a lot of balls good, a lot of balls deep in the second game that were caught,” said Hundley, who recorded his first multiple-RBI game as an Oriole. “We could have scored more than four, but that's the way the game is played. … To open it up a little bit and get the win and split the doubleheader is huge.
“We’ve crowded the bases,” Hundley added. “We’ve had traffic out there pretty consistently. …We continue to get traffic out there, we’ll be in good shape.”
With the split, the Orioles (42-37) gained a half game on first-place Toronto and are now 1 ½ games back of the Blue Jays.
With their three homers in the doubleheader – Manny Machado capped a two-hit game in the first game with a solo homer -- the Orioles have hit 38 in June, most in the major leagues. They are 36-19 in games in which they hit at least one homer.
Despite losing the first game of the day, the Orioles have won eight of their 10 meetings this season with a struggling Tampa Bay team that owns the worst record in baseball.
Right-hander Chris Tillman recorded his fourth straight quality start in Game 2, holding Tampa Bay to one run on four hits over eight innings, overcoming a disappointing start from Gausman in a 5-2 loss in the first game of the doubleheader.
Tillman (7-4) owns a 1.61 ERA over his past four outings, all against division opponents. He has allowed one run or fewer in four of last six starts. Over his past four outings, Tillman, the Orioles’ Opening Day starter, has lowered his season ERA from 5.20 to 4.18.
“I was able to throw the fastball for strikes,” Tillman said. “Any time you are able to throw to both sides of the plate and mix in your off-speed, it’s kind of a recipe for success. I was able to get some early outs in the count. They squared up a lot of balls but we have eight great guys behind us so I have all the confidence in the world in them. Keep executing.”
Tillman’s deep outing put the Orioles bullpen in good position after the doubleheader. Closer Zach Britton’s scoreless ninth – he converted his 10th save in 12 opportunities – was the only pen inning in Game 2. And Evan Meek – called up before the game when Bud Norris was placed on the DL – and Brad Brach threw two scoreless innings each in Game 1.
“I would have signed up for that in blood,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Are you kidding?”
The club utilized a rule that allows it to add a 26th man to for day-night doubleheaders to call up Gausman and start him in Game 1 before he served his mandatory 10-day option window.
The club drew criticism for optioning Gausman to the minors after Friday’s game, a move made necessary by its need for an extra bullpen arm and complicated by the fact there are few optionable arms.
Gausman’s week was by no means routine – he went eight days between big-league starts, made a one-inning 23-pitch start for Triple-A Norfolk before throwing a side session in Bowie on Wednesday – but he wasn’t going to use that as an excuse.
“I’ve been up and down,” Gausman said. “I’ve done relief, start. I’ve done everything you can imagine. I don’t think that really had anything to do with it. Obviously, I would have liked to have stayed in my routine and all of that, but we had a doubleheader so it was just the way the cards were dealt.”
The Orioles had 10 baserunners – six hits and four walks -- against Rays starter Jake Odorizzi in the night game, but plated just one run against him.
Odorizzi loaded the bases with one out in the fifth with a pair of walks and a single, but J.J. Hardy popped out in foul ground to Rays first baseman James Loney and David Lough struck out to end the inning.
But Tillman recovered nicely after a allowing a solo homer to Loney in the top of the second inning. After Loney’s blast, Tillman allowed just three additional hits on the night, all singles.
He kept the game close until the Orioles bats could come alive. With the game tied at 1-1, Hundley opened the sixth by taking a 1-0 pitch just inside the left-field line to give the Orioles the lead.
After opening his Orioles career with just five hits in his first 34 at-bats, Hundley has just as many (5 for 11) over last three games.
“It was great,” Hundley said of the homer. “I was awful my first 20-25 bats offensively. Probably trying to do too much, new team, but it’s nice to get that first one out of the way and contribute and help us win in a big situation.”
Cruz then gave the Orioles a three-run cushion when he took a 2-1 pitch on the outside half of the plate the opposite way and into the right-field flag court.
“You see Nellie opened it up a little bit, gave us a little more breathing room with his two-run homer,” Hundley said. “We have a lot of power on this team, a lot of guys who can hit it out anywhere on the field. That's why it's so dangerous. Guys who go the other way, can pull homers, can go to the middle of the field. when you have a team, a lineup, with this much depth and this much power to all fields, it makes it tough to pitch to.”