Winning a series against the division rival Boston Red Sox, especially at home and when the defending World Series champions are struggling, has to be considered somewhat significant for the Orioles -- even in June.
What adds to the accomplishment, though, is how these searching-for-an-identity Orioles did it: With excellent starting pitching.
It’s nutty, but true.
In the Orioles’ 6-0 victory Wednesday night, Wei-Yin Chen became the third consecutive Orioles starter to go at least six innings and allow one run or fewer. The reigning champs scored just one run total in three games this week at Camden Yards -- with the Orioles winning two and losing the other, 1-0.
“I'd be the first to say I think we kind of caught Boston not swinging the bats as well as they're capable of. But I'm impressed with the way our guys pitched the last three days,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I was real pleased and proud of the way our guys pitched. All of them, the bullpen, too.”
It’s the first time the Orioles have allowed one total run or fewer over a three-game span since Aug. 4-6, 2012, and the first time they’ve done it at home in a three-game series since Kevin Brown, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina recorded shutouts of the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 1995.
The Orioles hadn’t limited the Red Sox offense in such a manner in a three-game series since Sept. 2-4, 1974, when Ross Grimsley, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer threw three consecutive shutouts -- 1-0, 1-0 and 6-0.
Throw Bud Norris (eight shutout innings), Chris Tillman (one run in six innings) and Wei-Yin Chen (seven scoreless innings) into that vaunted company for a moment. Not bad for a starting rotation that began Wednesday 11th in the American League in ERA with a combined 4.46 mark. And certainly surprising considering that, in the last game before the Boston series, Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez gave up six earned runs in just 2 1/3 innings in an 11-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
"It's been awesome. In spring training, this is what we were hopeful for,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said about the club’s starters versus Boston. “We knew that we had the guys, that we wanted them in, knew what they were capable of, but, that being said, when the season starts and the lights come on, you still have got to go out there and compete ... I've been proud of the way they've carried themselves, the way they've hung in there and given us a chance to win on any given night.”
Wednesday’s win marked the first time this season that the Orioles (33-31) have captured a rubber match at home in five tries; they’re just 3-7 total in those situations this season. It also put the second-place Orioles 4 1/2 games behind the AL East-leading Toronto Blue Jays, who come to Camden Yards on Thursday to start a four-game series.
The fourth-place Red Sox (29-36) have lost seven of their last nine games.
By the time Wednesday’s 1-hour, 38-minute rain delay had ended and play resumed in the bottom of the seventh, just before 11 p.m., only a fraction of the announced 25,886 remained. Most congregated in the first five rows between the foul poles, and their reactions resonated throughout the near empty stadium -- giving the last two innings the feel of a high school game.
“You can hear everything,” said Showalter, who poured himself a cup of coffee at 11 p.m. “There are certain things that are making [the remaining fans] talk louder than you usually do.”
Although he wasn’t around at the end, Chen (7-2) was the primary reason for Wednesday’s victory, the club’s fifth in 10 games against the Red Sox this season.
He was in control from the beginning, retiring the first 11 batters he faced before Dustin Pedroia ended the Taiwanese left-hander’s bid for a perfect game with two outs in the fourth.
Pedroia, who entered the night batting .500 (12-for-24) against Chen in his career, hit a liner that bounced just before the warning track in right. Nick Markakis grabbed the carom off the wall and threw perfectly to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who tagged a sliding Pedroia at second.
That was the Orioles’ 12th outfield assist this season and a team-leading fourth by Markakis.
Chen kept rolling after that.
“Yeah, I did feel great out there pitching, and I was happy to have the team get a win,” Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. “And, also, in the two [past] outings, I couldn’t go deep in the games, but today I was able to do that. So I am happy to do that -- especially that it was against the Red Sox. I gained a little confidence in this outing.”
He faced the minimum number of hitters -- 15 -- through five, and didn’t allow two base runners in the same inning until the sixth. He quickly wiped out that threat with one of his three inning-ending double plays.
How good was Chen, who has won four straight decisions and hasn’t lost since May 3?
He didn’t walk a batter, hit one and allowed three balls in an at-bat just three times. Chen had mastery of all his pitches, and was precisely locating his fastball -- which reached 93 and 94 mph -- while getting a lot of movement on his slider and curveball. It helped him collect a season-high seven strikeouts while yielding four hits.
“I hate talking about it, but ... his last two or three outings, he's hit a couple velocities [Chen] hasn't touched before,” Showalter said. “I asked why, and I don't know if that's because he's been out there a little more consistently.”
Chen threw 56 of his 87 pitches for strikes and tied his season-high for innings with seven -- and would have pitched the eighth if it hadn’t been for the steady rainstorm that stopped action in the middle of the seventh.
He said afterward that he was disappointed -- then he joked about it.
“Of course, I wanted to pitch one more inning if I had a chance. But, I don’t know, maybe the God of weather doesn’t really like me,” he said, laughing. “The rain kept me from doing that, but it’s OK.”
About the time John Denver’s “Thank God, I’m A Country Boy” ended in the seven-inning stretch, the umpire crew signaled for a delay.
The Red Sox attempted a rally in the eighth when Hardy made his seventh error of the season -- and sixth in seven games -- on a throw that got past Davis. Boston thought Jonny Gomes should be awarded second base because of fan interference, but replays showed the throw would not have gone into the stands even if it hadn’t been touched by Orioles fan in the first row.
Darren O’Day picked up the final two outs on a comebacker and a drag bunt in the eighth and Zach Britton preserved the shutout with a perfect ninth.
The Orioles’ offense did enough against Boston right-hander Rubby De La Rosa (1-2) to get Chen the win.
After scoring just five runs total in their past three games, the Orioles had three in the first inning Wednesday.
Steve Pearce drew a one-out walk, and Adam Jones followed with a double into the left-field corner to score a hustling Pearce from first.
Two batters later, Davis slammed an 86-mph changeup into the right-field seats to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. Davis, who led the majors with 53 homers in 2013, now has 10 this season, including three in his last eight games.
“I feel like I've been seeing the ball well -- with the exception of [Tuesday] night -- for awhile,” Davis said. “Just I haven't been able to put everything together; my swing just hasn't felt right. Came out here early today and worked on a few things that had really been helpful for me in the past and was able to swing the bat the way I wanted to tonight. So it was definitely a good night for me.”
The Orioles scored again in the fourth on an RBI single by Nick Hundley that scored Hardy. They nearly went up 5-0 in the fourth when Markakis hit a sharp, two-out grounder that Xander Bogaerts grabbed on a dive and then flipped to second.
Initially, Hundley was ruled safe -- allowing Jonathan Schoop to score. But Boston manager John Farrell challenged the ruling on the field. After a 1-minute and 58-second review, the call was overturned and the inning ended.
The score remained 4-0, and Markakis remained in eighth place on the franchise’s all-time hits list. He is one behind former teammate Brian Roberts for seventh.
The Orioles padded their lead in the eighth on bases-loaded walks to Schoop and Markakis by Boston reliever Chris Capuano.
Now the Orioles will face the Blue Jays (39-28) in what -- surprisingly -- will be a matchup of two teams that were supposed to be in the bottom of the AL East.
The Orioles have a chance to make the divisional race much closer this weekend. But much will depend on whether their rotation -- the one that had struggled mightily before shutting down the Red Sox -- can keep the recent roll going.
“We're going to have to do the same thing to compete with Toronto, one of the better-hitting teams in baseball,” Showalter said.