After the Orioles’ 4-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night in a lackluster game that lasted three hours and 37 minutes and featured 319 pitches, manager Buck Showalter played an impromptu word game with reporters.
“That was a grind-out win,” Showalter said. “That was such a, I wouldn’t say lethargic.”
“Nope wasn’t sluggish, that’s a bad word,” Showalter said.
“That’s close,” Showalter said. “It was slow-paced. Got to really maintain your concentration.”
A few minutes passed and then a reporter triggered Showalter’s memory with another question.
“That’s the word I was looking for,” Showalter exclaimed, “Eternity.”
Call it whatever you want. The point is that starter Wei-Yin Chen didn’t pitch well, the Orioles didn’t take true advantage of a rare clunker from Tampa Bay’s Alex Cobb, and the Rays ran into three outs at the plate.
Somehow, the Orioles won -- and those are the kind of games that playoff contenders need to win in August and September.
“Yeah, you’ve got to win all kinds of games. You’ve got to win when you’re up by 10, you’ve got to keep the pedal to the metal,” catcher Caleb Joseph said. “But these are the kind of ones that slip away, it seems like, toward the end. If you don’t make it, you kind of knock your head against the wall. But we did a good job tonight.”
At this point, the Orioles (75-55) don’t need style points. They just have to keep winning. And with a couple key hits and a bullpen that didn’t allow a run in 4 1/3 innings, they have now beaten the Rays (64-68) in 10 of their 14 meetings this season.
With the New York Yankees’ loss to the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, the Orioles are back to a seven-game lead in the division.
For half of the night Tuesday, it appeared that neither team would push ahead before another small weekday crowd at Camden Yards, this one announced at 16,406.
The Orioles eventually took the lead in the bottom of the sixth against a pitcher who was supposed to be their closer in 2014: Rays reliever Grant Balfour, who had agreed to a deal with the Orioles in December before the club backed out because of concerns after his physical.
Balfour’s tough season continued Tuesday. He allowed three singles in the bottom of the sixth, including rookie Jonathan Schoop’s that scored Chris Davis from second base.
Balfour then walked Steve Pearce to start the seventh, and Adam Jones followed with a single before the Australian right-hander was pulled. Nelson Cruz doubled against Joel Peralta to score Pearce, a run that was charged to Balfour (1-6). He has now allowed 31 earned runs in 50 1/3 innings (5.54 ERA).
The Orioles were fortunate to have a chance to rally Tuesday, given the shaky performance by the normally steady Chen. The Orioles left-hander tied a season-high with three walks and failed to get through five innings for just the second time in 24 starts this season.
“Wei-Yin, stuff-wise he was fine, but he'd just go through some sequences where he was really good and then he couldn't get the ball where he wanted to again,” Showalter said. “The way they matched up tonight, I knew it was going to be a little bit of a challenge for him.”
Chen’s trouble started early. He allowed six of his seven hits in the first two innings. Yet he only gave up one run in that span -- on an RBI single by Evan Longoria -- because the Rays had two runners thrown out at the plate.
With runners at second and third bases and no outs in the first inning, Logan Forsythe grounded to Davis, who made sure Desmond Jennings didn’t break from third base before throwing to first for an out.
As soon as Davis threw, Jennings dashed down the line. Pearce threw home to Joseph, who tagged Jennings for the double play. Umpires reviewed the play to make sure Joseph wasn’t obstructing the plate and, after three minutes and 16 seconds, the call was upheld.
In the second inning, Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan attempted to score from second on a single up the middle, but center fielder Adam Jones threw him out at the plate.
It was Jones’ seventh outfield assist of the season and second in two days. The Orioles’ have 30 outfield assists this season; they were tied for fifth-most in the majors heading into Tuesday night.
"There are quite a few times that I face this type of situation at the beginning of the game, but somehow I can make the adjustment and work my way back,” Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. “But today I tried a lot of things, tried to work my way back, but I couldn't. But, thankfully my teammates -- [Davis] and Pearce and Jones -- they all made great plays, so they really helped me out there.”
In the third inning, the umpires halted play again for another review when they incorrectly awarded Nick Markakis a walk on ball three; that one, obviously, was overturned after nearly two minutes of review. Markakis struck out on the next pitch.
It was that kind of game for all involved: sloppy and painstakingly deliberate. The two starting pitchers combined to throw 183 pitches and neither completed five full innings.
The Orioles took the lead in the bottom of the fourth against Cobb, who had won seven straight decisions and hadn’t lost since June 23. With two outs and runners on second and third, Joseph hit a sinking liner to center that a sliding Jennings couldn’t quite snag.
The ball nicked off his glove, and Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young both scored. It was Joseph’s second hit in 21 at-bats this season with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Three of the Orioles' four runs were driven in by the bottom two members of their order, Joseph and Schoop.
“It’s really important, every time the bottom of the lineup can contribute and help the big guys in the front,” Schoop said. “Me and Caleb come up big today. That’s the thing about it. Everybody [can] step up each day.”
Cobb didn’t come back after the fourth, his shortest start of the season. He allowed three hits and three walks while striking out six batters. Despite the brief outing, Cobb extended his franchise record to nine straight starts of allowing two runs or fewer.
The Rays made sure Cobb wouldn’t be the losing pitcher when they tied it in the fifth on an RBI double by Longoria. His liner went over the head and glove of a scrambling, leaping Young. It was Chen’s last batter; he lasted just 4 2/3 innings, his second shortest outing of the season.
Relievers Brad Brach (5-0), Tommy Hunter, Andrew Miller and Zach Britton (28th save) combined to keep the Rays off the board and let the Orioles move closer to their goal of the postseason.
“We won, and these are the type of games we have to have late in the season,” Joseph said. “You don’t really know at the beginning of the game, but kind of toward the middle of the game, you feel like you’ve got to step on it.”
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