Although they’d never say it publicly, the Orioles knew heading into last week just how important it was to flex their muscles in an 11-game homestand against three clubs with losing records.
With Thursday’s 9-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds before an announced 21,114 at Camden Yards, the Orioles posted their fourth sweep of three or more games this season. More impressive, the Orioles finished off their longest homestand of the year with a 9-2 record, outscoring the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins and Reds by a combined 67-38.
“That was huge for us,” said Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose two-run single in the seventh was ultimately the game winner. “I think we had a chance to sweep every series. To take this one tonight was big.”
The Orioles hit 22 homers in those 11 contests including one each Thursday by Nelson Cruz, Nick Hundley and the suddenly-unstoppable rookie Jonathan Schoop, who has gone deep in three consecutive games. Cruz and Hundley homered in the Orioles’ six-run first against shell-shocked right-hander Mike Leake, who allowed a season-high seven runs in a season-low four innings.
Yeah, that qualifies as flexing their muscles.
Still, a brief implosion by the Orioles bullpen allowed the Reds to tie it in the seventh before Hardy, who is hitting .289 with 17 RBIs in the seventh inning or later this year, delivered his clutch, two-out, bases-loaded single.
“Seems like J.J. is always at the plate when we need him,” said Chris Tillman, Thursday's starting pitcher. “Defensively it kind of speaks for itself. To me, he’s the best in the game at what he does and as pitchers we really appreciate it.
It wasn’t a particularly smooth victory, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter said afterward that he didn’t really care how his team reached the end result.
“A 'W' for Baltimore? That's the way I draw them up,” Showalter said. “They don't have to be aesthetically pleasing. At this stage, I'm not looking for pretty, I'm looking for a ‘W.’ I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was real pretty."
With Thursday’s victory, the Orioles (82-57) have secured their third consecutive winning season after failing to post one from 1998 to 2011. They haven’t had three straight winning records since 1992-1994. The Orioles also maintained their 9 ½ game lead in the American League East over the second-place New York Yankees, who won with two homers in the bottom of the ninth against the Boston Red Sox and former Oriole Koji Uehara.
The Orioles, whose magic number is now 15, were attempting to take a lead of 10 games or more in September for the first time since Sept. 22, 1979. That’ll have to wait for another day.
“We've got 20-something games left and every one of them we'll grind them and accelerate on them,” Showalter said. “There's a challenge around every corner.”
The Reds (66-74) scratched back from deficits of 6-0 and 7-2 to tie it, 7-7, on the strength of a four-run seventh against reliever Brad Brach, who has had two rough outings in five days after stringing together 12 scoreless outings.
Brach gave up three hits, a walk and four runs -- Tommy Hunter allowed an inherited runner to score -- while recording just two outs. The big blow against Brach was a two-run double by Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, who had four hits and four RBIs, including a solo homer and a sacrifice fly against Tillman.
Hunter (3-2) picked up the final out in the seventh and threw a scoreless eighth for the win and closer Zach Britton notched his 33rd save by not allowing a run in the ninth. The Orioles made three strong defensive plays in the final frame, including a diving stop and throw by third baseman Ryan Flaherty.
The Reds’ rally against the Orioles’ bullpen cost Tillman his 12th win of the season, but he continued his streak of 17 consecutive outings of three runs or fewer, the fifth-longest such streak in modern franchise history. It was far from one of Tillman’s better outings, though, especially considering the Reds featured a lineup with just two regular starters.
“It was a grind but we made it through, made some pitches when we had to,” he said. “Didn't make it easy on ourselves, but I think I was just glad it came to me as the game went. My last inning I thought was the best inning.”
Tillman gave up three runs on five hits and two walks in six innings. One of the runs scored on a bases-loaded, four pitch walk to Todd Frazier. Tillman didn’t need to be at his best, however, with the way the Orioles were going deep early.
Cruz started the barrage with a two-run shot to deep center – his major-league-leading 37th home run of the year. He’s now tied with Albert Belle and Mark Reynolds for the second-most homers by a player in his first year as an Oriole (Frank Robinson holds the record with 49 in 1966).
After Cruz’s two-out homer, Chris Davis doubled, Hardy walked and third baseman Kelly Johnson picked up his first hit and RBI as an Oriole with a double down the right field line. Hundley followed with a three-run homer, his fifth as an Oriole, for the club’s highest scoring output in a first inning this year.
Schoop made it 7-2 in the fourth with the 15th home run of his rookie year and his third in three games against the Reds. Unlike the first two, tape-measure shots into the visiting bullpen, Thursday’s blast landed in the left field seats.
“It’s really good, especially we win, too,” Schoop said. “If you go 0-for-4 and we win you’ve got to be happy. It’s all about winning.”
The Orioles are now 22-0 in games in which they have hit at least three home runs. They’ll take their power show on the road to Tampa Bay and Boston before returning to Camden Yards on Sept. 12 for their final homestand of the season.
If they duplicate their most recent home stretch, they’ll be in a position at some point that week to clinch their first division title since 1997.
As soon as Showalter reached the podium late Thursday night, however, he said the successful homestand had become a memory.
“All that's in our rearview mirror now,” Showalter said. “Got to keep looking forward.”