ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At the beginning of this calendar year, Miguel Gonzalez didn’t know where he was going to pitch. Released by the Red Sox in December, he hoped another major league team would give him a chance.
The 28-year old – signed after he was scouted pitching in Mexico – allowed just two hits and struck out seven in 6 1/3 innings Tuesday night, guiding the Orioles to a 1-0 win before an announced 13,460 at Tropicana Field.
Despite the Yankees’ 4-3, 12-inning comeback win over Boston later in the night, the Orioles head into the final day of the regular season with a sliver of hope for their first division title since 1997. Trailing New York by one game, the Orioles need to win Wednesday and hope for a Yankees loss to force a one-game tiebreaker for the division title at Camden Yards on Thursday.
Gonzalez (9-4) seemed to be the perfect candidate keep the Orioles' chances of winning the division alive. He had already pulled out gutsy wins in Anaheim, New York and Boston, pitching with calmness unlike that of a rookie.
Gonzalez has always said that his long-winding minor league career, which included two years out of the game because of injury, taught him about pitching with resilience.
“I remember the first time in spring here and he was talking down in minor league camp about, 'Am I going to get noticed? There are so many guys down there,'" Orioles manager Buck Showaltersaid. "One of our guys, and I won't say who, said, 'Here, you'll get an opportunity. Just hold on.'”
The Orioles improved their record to 29-9 in one-run games -- their .763 winning percentage in such contests is the best in major league history with at least 20 games played -- and they are now 74-0 when leading after seven innings.
The Orioles had just two hits on the night – Chris Davis’ mammoth solo homer to center in the fourth was the game’s only run – as Rays right-hander James Shields threw a complete game and struck out a franchise record 15 batters.
Shields became the first pitcher in the live ball era (since 1918) to take a loss after striking out 15 or more with no walks and allowing two or fewer hits.
“You don't like going up against these guys at home,” Davis said of the Rays' pitching. “It seems like they're always throwing somebody that throws 97 or 98 mph. [Shields] was outstanding tonight. Strike out 15, go nine and get the loss. You don't see that very often."
Davis’ homer was the difference. He took a 1-1 changeup from Shields an estimated 440 feet onto the restaurant roof beyond center field for his career-high 33rd homer of the season.
“I think that was probably the farthest home run I’ve ever given up in my career,” Shields said. “I sent the bat boy over and told him to tell him, ‘Can you hit it any farther?’ Just joking around a little bit. He said something like, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll go and try to hit it 480 feet next time.’ I thought that was pretty funny.”
Davis is on a Herculean power tear. He’s homered in six straight games, tying Reggie Jackson’s 36-year-old club record set on July 18-23, 1976. He became the first major leaguer to homer in six consecutive games since Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena did it from June 6-10, 2010 -- and he has seven home runs in that span.
"It kind of blows my mind to even be mentioned in the same breath as Reggie," said Davis, who is hitting .436 with seven homers and 13 RBIs in his last 11 games. "It's more about the win than anything else. I'm glad to be a part of it. I'm glad to be the guy in the situation that's coming through, but as long as we're winning, I don't care."
Shields' 15 strikeouts were the most by a starter against the Orioles since Boston’s Pedro Martinez whiffed 15 on May 12, 2000. Shields did not allow a hit after Nate McLouth’s two-out single in the sixth, retiring the final 10 Orioles he faced, seven of them on strikeouts.
"That's probably the best-pitched game that we've had pitched against us all year,” Showalter said. “To have only that many pitches and strike out that many guys, I can only think of one mistake he made all night, and fortunately Chris was on it.”
Meanwhile, Gonzalez – who is 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA in his last six starts – became the second Orioles rookie to earn wins over each team in the AL East (Willis Roberts did it in 2001).
In two starts at Tropicana Field, Gonzalez has thrown 13 1/3 scoreless innings and allowed just four hits.
“It’s been a long journey,” Gonzalez said. “Just thinking about it in January, not knowing where to go, whether I was going to go to Mexico or play in the states. And having the opportunity to be with the Orioles this year, it’s been great. They’ve redone history. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job.”
The Orioles' bullpen delivered again. Left-hander Brian Matusz got two key outs in the seventh – and now owns a 1.35 ERA since becoming a reliever – and Darren O’Day recorded his 15th hold with a perfect eighth.
Jim Johnson extended his team-record save mark to 51 with a scoreless ninth, giving the Orioles a chance to win a division title on the final day of the regular season.
“When you have a plane scare I think you bond really close,” Johnson deadpanned, referring to the flight here Sunday night that needed to take an emergency landing. “It’s just been fun. The guys, for the people who have been with us the whole year, they see how we act inside the clubhouse. In years past it hasn’t been like that so, we have fun. We are not supposed to be here. So why not have fun and see what happens and let it all hang out?”