With three more longballs in a 10-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Sunday afternoon, the Orioles continued to pad their major league-leading home run mark.
But in its attempt to make a second consecutive postseason, this Orioles’ offense has often proven to be one dimensional: When the homers disappear, in many cases, so do the runs.
That’s why Sunday’s victory against the A’s (72-57), who hold a two-game lead over the Orioles (70-59) for the final American League Wild Card spot, held such significance.
It’s not just whom the Orioles beat Sunday, but how.
For the first time since April 26, 2011, the Orioles scored runs on three sacrifice flies – only the third time since 2000 that they have accomplished that feat. Only four times this season have the Orioles had at least two sacrifice flies. And they’ve won all four games.
“I think maybe if there is something you can criticize about us, we’ve maybe struggled at times with runners at third base and less than two outs getting that guy in,” said left fielder Nate McLouth, who had a homer and a double. “To have three sac flies, they may not look pretty but they are effective and they are very important.”
Playing before an announced crowd of 33,820 on a sun-soaked, cloudless afternoon, the Orioles built on three productive outs – one from Matt Wieters and two from Manny Machado – to take a 6-1 lead by the fourth inning while chasing highly touted rookie Sonny Gray (1-2).
Two of the sac flies were set up by good, aggressive baserunning. Chris Davis went from first to third on a single to right in the first inning and Ryan Flaherty went from second to third on a fly out to center in the second.
The Orioles picked up 13 hits and two walks and left just four runners on base – something that hasn’t been the case for a chunk of the year.
“Our guys, there are so many things today I was so proud of,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “The energy, a lot of blood flow working there. Those guys really got after it early. A lot of aggressive baserunning. I think we picked up like 270 feet just running the bases well. We ran the bases real well [Sunday] and took advantage of what might be there for us. That was key.”
Showalter normally downplays the significance of one win or one series, but he admitted that it was imperative for his club to win Sunday and to take two of three from the dangerous A’s.
“Yeah, it was,” he said. “I’ll admit – coming in today, there’s not many days when I go, ‘We need to play well today and see if we can get a W.’ This was one of those days. Plus, we got such great support the last three days, well, the whole season. But the energy in the ballpark, our fans have been so supportive.”
The Orioles combined the heady, small-ball play with their usual brute force. They hit three home runs – J.J. Hardy’s 23rd of the season, McLouth’s ninth and Nick Markakis’ ninth.
Markakis’ eighth-inning blast was particularly inspiring. It was his first home run since June 24. In the fourth inning, Markakis doubled, which snapped his career-worst skid of 31 games without an extra-base hit.
“I’m just glad I hit the ball hard,” Markakis said. “Wherever it goes, sometimes you have no control over it.”
The club’s big offensive day made life easier on starter Scott Feldman (4-3), who lasted just five innings, allowing only one run despite having to pitch out of trouble three times. Pitching on six days’ rest, Feldman was shaky early.
He walked the game’s first hitter, Coco Crisp, on four pitches, balked him to second and then allowed a two-out RBI single to Alberto Callaspo. Feldman didn’t break again after that.
“It wasn’t the prettiest outing. It was a battle from the get-go. You never feel good only going five, but in a case like today we were able to get the win,” Feldman said. “Any time you get a win and keep the damage off the board, you have to feel good about it.”
T.J. McFarland, Darren O’Day and Miguel Gonzalez – who made his first relief outing since last July as a way to get some work before his next start Friday – combined to allow just two runs in four innings.
The Orioles now head on the road for nine games in Boston, New York and Cleveland – three teams also fighting for the playoffs.
“The reason those games are so important is because each game is essentially a two-game swing in the standings,” McLouth said. “So with teams ahead of you, and even teams close by or right behind you, those are huge because if you win the game, they lose a game.”
When asked what the Orioles needed to do to be victorious consistently on the upcoming road trip – they haven’t had a winning streak last more than five games this season – McLouth answered simply: “What you saw today.
“That’ll be a good start. To be  games or whatever over .500 and not have a winning streak longer than [five] games, that’s kind of odd,” McLouth said. “We’ve had losing streaks longer than our longest winning streak. Hopefully, [Sunday] will be a start of that.”
With five games left in August, the Orioles understand what is at stake. Record-wise, they are just one game behind where they were last year, yet this season has taken on a different feel.
More has been made of their flaws – the inability to manufacture runs, the cracks in their bullpen – than the superlatives: a majors-best defense and power output.
Soon, though, none of it matters. What’s left is roughly five weeks of games that will determine whether they end up in the playoffs again or go home before October rolls around.
“If we're going to do this, it's right there, staring you in the face every night,” Showalter said. “Going into the season, it's about September. You grind like hell for February, April, May, June, July and August to have a chance to roll the dice the last five weeks.
“And that's where we are.”
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