By Eduardo A. Encina
12:37 AM EDT, April 25, 2012
Orioles right-hander Tommy Hunter just might be his toughest critic, and over his past two starts, he’s seen plenty of flaws.
His fastball command hasn’t been where it needs to be. He hasn’t thrown enough first-pitch strikes. He’s walking too many hitters and has yielded too many home runs. All assessments from Hunter himself, but Tuesday’s end result was distinctly different than that seven-run loss a week ago in Chicago.
On Tuesday, Hunter battled to give the Orioles six innings of one-run ball, giving way to a bullpen that sparkled despite being without closer Jim Johnson in a 2-1 win over the Blue Jays in front of an announced crowd of 11,058, the lowest home crowd since last August 30 against Toronto.
The Orioles’ win, combined with a Yankees loss and Rays win, put Baltimore (10-7) in a four-way tie for first-place in the American League East.
“It was better for a couple pitches,” said Hunter, who allowed three hits, striking out three and walking three. “The line score read a lot differently than how I’d put my outing, but whenever you can say that and look back and see a ‘W’ standing next to your name you’ve got to be happy with it. Just go to work and get better.”
Hunter entered Tuesday night’s game – the Orioles’ first since returning from a three-city, 10-game road trip with a 6-4 record –frustrated with his previous two outings. He allowed eight runs in 5 2/3 innings a week ago in an 8-1 loss at Chicago and allowed four homers in a 7-5 win at Toronto on April 13.
But Hunter was able to give the Orioles their ninth outing of six or more innings. The Orioles are 8-1 in those games.
“It’s good to see him battle because I still think Tommy’s got a lot better stuff than what he had [Tuesday],” said catcher Matt Wieters, who hit his team-leading sixth homer of the season. “His location wasn’t quite what we wanted it to be. You’re going to have 30-plus starts, it’s nice to get a win when you don’t have your best stuff, because you’re not going to have your best stuff every time out.”
After allowing a third-inning homer to Thames – a ball that was the 58th ball in Camden Yards’ 21-year history to hit Eutaw Street – Hunter allowed a baserunner in each of the next three innings but none reached second.
“We know Tommy's capable of better,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Tommy's not worried about where he's going to be, either. There's better there. A lot of fly ball outs [Tuesday].
"He's going to keep firing bullets,” Showalter added. “Here it is. It's not ever going to be lack of aggressive or getting in the fight or getting in the competition. He's not one of those guys who's going to go back to the hotel room or his apartment and say, 'Geez, I wish I had been a little more aggressive, a little more competitive.' He's always, 'Here's what I've got. What have you got?’ You look for people with that type of makeup."
Thames’ homer was the seventh Hunter has allowed this season, tied for second most in the majors, and seven of the past 12 home runs allowed by the Orioles have come off Hunter, who wasn’t pleased with his outing Tuesday.
“Got a couple key outs, that was basically it,” Hunter said. “I still got myself into a few more jams than I would have, letting guys get on base for free. That’s not good; it’s not fun. It’s not me, but we’re going to move on. We got a win. I’m happy about that, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve got some things to do. I’ll get better. “
Johnson, who is a major-league best 7-for-7 in save opportunities this season and has converted 15 straight dating back to last season, was unavailable Tuesday, still in a local hospital since an early-morning visit for flu-like symptoms.
But the Orioles’ bullpen still did the job with three scoreless innings, capped by right-hander Pedro Strop’s first major-league save in Johnson’s absence.
“When I first got to the ballpark, I heard that J.J. was in the hospital,” Strop said. “In my mind, I'm saying, 'You might be the guy,' because I wasn't sure. We have a lot of guys in the bullpen that can do the job, but I was just preparing if I got an opportunity. I got an opportunity, and I got it done."
Right-handed sidearmer Darren O’Day struck out Jeff Mathis to end the seventh, coming in for left-hander Troy Patton, who induced a pair of groundouts, then allowed a single to Thames.
Luis Ayala threw a scoreless eighth, rebounding from a one-out single by Kelly Johnson to get fly-ball outs from Blue Jays big bats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
And the hard-throwing Strop dominated in the ninth with high-90s heat. He issued a one-out walk to Brett Lawrie after striking out Adam Lind on back-to-back fastballs. But Strop, who entered the game with no career saves in 52 previous major league appearances, got his first – inducing a fly-ball out from Colby Rasmus and striking out Thames swinging to end the game.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see 98 with movement when he can throw a slider and a split," Wieters said. "He’s not the one guy you say, ‘This is the guy I want to face right now.’ It’s nice to have arms like that in the bullpen.”
Blue Jays starter Henderson Alvarez made easy work of the Orioles offense for the most part, scattering five hits over seven innings.
The big blow was Wieters’ solo homer in the fourth. He took Alvarez’s 3-1 fastball the opposite way to leftfield, putting the Orioles up 2-1. Wieters’ ball hit off the heel of Thames and into the stands.
“If you try to pull (Alvarez) with his sinker it’s going to be a tough night for you,” Wieters said. “So I just had that mindset going in that I’d have to try to hit the ball the other way. I didn’t do it in my other two ABs but I was fortunate to get one that I stayed inside the ball.”
The Blue Jays evened the score in the third, when Thames launched a shot 410 yards onto Eutaw Street that hit the warehouse awning on a bounce off Hunter. Thames’ homer was the first ball hit onto Eutaw Street since last Aug. 26, when Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher hit one off Hunter.
The Orioles loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the first inning, courtesy of a Endy Chavez single, J.J. Hardy double and a walk to Nick Markakis, but managed just one run out of the inning. Chavez scored on a 6-4-3 double play ball by Adam Jones and Wieters grounded out to first.
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