A night after designated hitter Chris Davis became the 19th Oriole in franchise history to hit three homers in a game, catcher Matt Wieters accomplished something a lot less explosive but even more rare on Saturday.
In the Orioles' 8-2 win against the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday, which guaranteed them another series victory, Wieters turned in an impressive defensive hat trick: He threw out three different Blue Jays trying to steal.
It's happened just 14 times in Orioles' history — with the last one coming on August 10, 1988 when Mickey Tettleton caught three Kansas City Royals. Current MASN broadcaster Rick Dempsey holds the franchise record for runners caught stealing in one game in 1977 with four.
“Saved me a ton of pitches, knowing that he has an arm like that back there for you,” said Orioles rookie Steve Johnson, who was aided by Wieters' display during a strong, six-inning outing. “If you give him time, if you're quick to the plate, he's going to do his job. Those three runners, it could have been a whole different ballgame if he doesn't do that. It's great having him back there.”
Just another ho-hum night at Camden Yards, where bits of club history are routinely made these days. And this year it's actually of the positive variety.
With Saturday's victory before an announced crowd of 25,082, the Orioles (69-57) have matched their win total for all of last season with 36 games to play. The 69 wins are the club's most since it totaled 70 in 2006.
So does that mean something special to a team that has suffered through so much losing?
“Not at this point. I think we are all playing for something a little bit more,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was the offensive hero with three of the club's 13 hits, including a two-run homer and a double. “Right now, I don't think (69 wins) means much to us at all, really. It's nice to win (that many), but we definitely have a bigger picture in mind.”
That playoff picture remains in focus. The Orioles are now just four games behind the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East and a half-game behind the Tampa Bay Rays for second place. The Orioles are tied with the Oakland A's for the crucial second Wild Card spot, just behind the wild-card-leading Rays.
“We're in a good position. We're still in the wild-card hunt,” said Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds. “It's going to be tight coming down the stretch. If we stay focused on the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.”
On Saturday, Wieters' provided the shutdown defense and Johnson (2-0) settled down for a quality start after serving up a two-run homer in the first inning to Edwin Encarnacion, who is tied for second in the AL with 34. The first inning could have been worse, but Wieters threw out the first of his three victims, Toronto center fielder Mike McCoy, for the second out.
Johnson,a St. Paul's graduate making just his second big-league start since Aug. 8, settled down after allowing the homer. Exhibiting excellent control of a high-80s fastball, Johnson retired 14 of the final 17 batters he faced.
“I think, in fairness to him, (he was) a little rusty from some inactivity early, but he settled in nicely,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “He was up in that first inning and he made a good adjustment and attacked the hitters. We're proud of him. He wasn't in a good place early and he made the adjustment.”
Johnson lasted six innings, giving up four hits and two walks while striking out seven. It's his second quality start in two opportunities; he's now struck out 23 batters in 17 innings.
“I couldn't get a feel for my delivery in the first inning. I was just able to lock in, and throw better pitches,” he said. “I still got away with a couple, but I was able to make pitches when I needed to.”
Two of the three baserunners who got on after the first against Johnson were then wiped out by Wieters. In the third it was Rajai Davis, who is second in the league with 39 stolen bases; in the fifth, veteran Omar Vizquel didn't even get halfway toward second on a botched hit-and-run before turning around and getting tagged out in a rundown.
“You'll take them all, but I think Davis, that might be the first time I've actually caught him stealing,” Wieters said. “So that one felt pretty good.”
Wieters has now thrown out 27 of 73 would-be basestealers – a 37percent caught stealing rate that matches his career high from last season when he won his first Gold Glove. Coming into Saturday, the league average was 26 percent.
“I would've thought it would've been more, I didn't know 37 [percent] was the number,” Hardy said. “It seems like when people run, he throws them out.”
Wieters also did some damage with his bat — with a sacrifice fly in the third and a RBI single in the sixth. Every Oriole starter but Nate McLouth had a hit. Nick Markakis, Mark Reynolds and Manny Machado each had two while Hardy tied a career high with three runs scored.
The Blue Jays' lineup got a little lighter before the bottom of the third, when slugger Jose Bautista left the game with left wrist discomfort. Bautista had returned Friday after missing more than a month with the wrist injury.
The Orioles' first break came in the third when Yunel Escobar made a key error on a grounder that might have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, it led to two unearned runs against Brandon Morrow, who was making his first start back from a June oblique strain.
Morrow (7-5) gave up two earned runs in the fifth on an Adam Jones bloop single. It was set up by a Hardy double that nearly cleared the right field wall. The umpires reviewed the shot to make sure it was a fair ball and that it did not hit the bottom of the right-field foul pole.
The Orioles then busted the game open against the Jays' bullpen, and will now go for the three-game sweep Sunday afternoon.
“We definitely go into every single ballgame thinking we are going to win. And that's the attitude we need to have,” Hardy said. “I think if it's questionable and we are going out there trying to win or maybe we are going to win I don't think that's the right mindset to have. Everybody in this clubhouse goes out there expecting to win.”