The Orioles’ margin for error this season has been razor thin. They know it, and the statistics back it up.
One mistake or one break has often has been the difference in a season of close calls. Entering Saturday night’s game against the Seattle Mariners, seven straight games had been decided by one run.
That streak ended in a 6-3 Orioles loss before an announced 36,508 at Camden Yards.
It really came down to one swing.
Seattle’s lone offensive superstar and renowned Orioles killer, Robinson Cano, did the honors. The Orioles chose to pitch to him with two on and first base open in the fifth inning, and he made them pay with a three-run homer off Miguel Gonzalez.
“It cost us the game, you know. We have a base open there, and he’s a dangerous hitter and we’ve done the best we can to keep minimizing his damage,” catcher Caleb Joseph said. “He’s a great player. He took advantage of a mistake. We all want it back, but that’s baseball, you know. He’s paid a lot of money to hit mistakes. We’ll make a better quality pitch next time and come out on top.”
Kendrys Morales added a two-run single in the ninth to give Seattle an insurmountable four-run lead.
An assist goes to the Mariners’ unrelenting bullpen — led by 1 2/3 perfect innings from right-hander Dominic Leone — which pitched superbly to preserve the win.
The late innings weren't without drama, however. In the eighth, with two outs, Manny Machado on second and the Orioles trailing by two runs, Chris Davis pinch-hit on Chris Davis action figure night. It set up for a magical moment, but the struggling slugger hit a fly ball to right to end the threat.
In the ninth, Ryan Flaherty’s pinch-hit, two-out single scored Steve Pearce. Nick Markakis followed with a single to bring the tying run, Machado, to the plate. But Seattle closer Fernando Rodney got Machado to ground out.
The Orioles (61-48) lost for just the fourth time in 12 games, while the Mariners (57-53) won for the fourth time in 11 contests. The Orioles still hold a 4-2 record this season against Seattle with four of the six games decided by one run, including three at Safeco Field last week.
“Really made one mistake. Obviously, [Gonzalez has] pitched real well to Cano over his career and hung a split,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He had made a lot of really good pitches to him, and he made him pay. But there were a lot of other things, obviously, that went on. Morales tack-on runs. Had a shot at the end, though. Got the tying run up there. Just didn’t do much against their guys. We know how good their bullpen is and tonight was another good indication."
The only other time the Orioles had played seven straight one-run games was in 1956, the modern-day franchise’s third season. The first three games of the current streak came last week against the Mariners in Seattle.
So, like many games this season, the Orioles knew this one wasn’t going to be easy.
Their initial challenge came against impressive rookie left-hander James Paxton, who had missed most of the season because of a strained back muscle. Considered by Baseball America as the No. 3 prospect in the Mariners' system, Paxton hadn't faced major league hitters since April 8.
The Orioles jumped on him early. Markakis walked, Machado doubled to left and Adam Jones hit a RBI groundout to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead in the first. Paxton then struck out Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young, each on nasty curveballs. He combined that pitch with a mid-to-high-90s fastball to limit the Orioles to one run until Caleb Joseph homered in the fifth.
Joseph, who hadn't hit a long ball since July 1, smacked a 95-mph fastball just inside the left-field foul pole for his fourth homer as a big leaguer. The solo shot cut the Mariners' lead to two runs. Two batters later, Paxton walked Markakis on five pitches and was removed from the game, two outs short of qualifying for the win. He still hasn't lost in seven big league starts — he's 5-0 with two no decisions. He was charged with two runs on four hits and three walks while striking out five in 41/3 innings.
“There’s an ebb and flow to all parts of the season. It’s not a flatline. Some people who are not doing well now will do so as the season goes on, and some who are might cool off some,” Showalter said. “We’re obviously facing real good pitching and will continue to. It’s that time of the year. As the season goes on it gets a little harder to hit because guys are playing every day and pitchers are once every fifth or sixth day. Bullpen guys are getting rest between the times their out there. It’s pretty normal this time of year unfortunately that the season becomes more of a challenge, the length of it, for everyday players like we have.”
Gonzalez didn't get much deeper. He lasted five full innings, his shortest stint since June 29. The Orioles' right-hander allowed four runs on seven hits and walk. Only two of the swings made a difference.
Gonzalez allowed a run in the third when Seattle left fielder Dustin Ackley hammered a 91-mph fastball onto the flag court in right for his sixth home run of the season. The Mariners didn't score again until Cano's game-changing blast in the fifth.
Cano, who signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners this offseason after spending his career with the New York Yankees, was 2-for-26 against Gonzalez before Saturday's fifth. He had driven in just one run against Gonzalez previously.
So Orioles manager Buck Showalter decided to pitch to Cano with runners on second and third and one out instead of intentionally walking him to face Morales with the bases loaded. Morales was 0-for-8 lifetime against Gonzalez and just 3-for-28 (.107 average) in eight games with the Mariners since a July 24 trade from the Minnesota Twins.
The decision backfired.
Gonzalez left an 84-mph changeup over the middle of the plate, and Cano didn't miss it for his eighth homer of the season and his 29th against the Orioles — the most for Cano against any opponent.
“I had success with it throughout my career against him,” Gonzalez said. “So I decided to throw that pitch. But it just stayed up, middle. ... We’ve just got to go out there and try to do our best. We’ve been doing a pretty good job. Everyone’s been going deep in ballgames except for tonight’s game. But it is going to happen. We can’t be perfect all of the time.”
Morales grounded out after Cano's homer, but he had his chance with bases loaded in the ninth. And he came through with the base hit to put the game out of reach.