Despite his obvious power and previous success, Orioles infielder Chris Davis has been struggling so much this season that it has become business as usual when pitchers challenge him.
So, in the Orioles' 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, it was somewhat surprising that Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon chose to have rookie right-hander Kirby Yates (0-2) intentionally walk Davis with two outs and a runner on second base in a tied game.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy made the move backfire, dumping a bloop single into right field to score Nelson Cruz from second base for the eventual game-winner in front of an announced 16,915 at Camden Yards.
“He was going to face Davis if there was a runner on first base right there,” Maddon said about Yates, who is much better versus right-handers this year (.228 average versus right-handed hitters; .269 against lefties). If the base is open, Hardy on Yates is a really good matchup as far as we’re concerned.”
Considered one of baseball’s best tacticians, Maddon went with the conventional call to walk the left-handed Davis and face the right-handed Hardy instead of playing the obvious trend.
Davis was hitless in three at-bats and had just two hits in the four-game series, dropping his season’s average to .188. He had been intentionally walked eight times this year -- but not once since June 25. Hardy was 1-for-3 in the game and was hitting .281 heading into that at-bat.
“I see the reasoning behind it: Right-handed pitcher on the mound, right-handed hitter behind me. Had some good swings on a couple of balls earlier in the game,” Davis said. “It doesn’t matter what your batting average is if they feel like you can hurt them at any point in the game, and they have a chance to walk you, they can do it.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he may have walked Davis as well, even with Hardy waiting.
“You look at the way Chris is swinging the bat. He’s on a lot of pitches, hit some balls hard, just missed a ball,” Showalter said. “He’s a threat every time he goes up there. I’d have considered it, too.”
With the win, the Orioles (76-56) moved back to seven games ahead of the New York Yankees in the American League East and 9 1/2 over the third-place Toronto Blue Jays. The fourth-place Rays (65-69) fell to 12 games back. The Orioles took three of four in the home series and are 11-5 versus Tampa Bay this year.
“Winning three out of four is huge. Obviously, that is a tough team,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Tampa always gives you their best, they are tough on us.”
Once again, the Orioles bullpen was the unheralded hero, throwing three more scoreless innings. In the four-game series, the relievers have tossed 14 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. Zach Britton threw a perfect ninth for his 29th save and Andrew Miller (4-5, 1-0) picked up his first win since joining the Orioles.
Acquired July 31 from the Boston Red Sox, Miller faced four batters and got five outs Thursday. He was assisted by an excellent double play from Hardy, who caught a difficult short hop and had the presence of mind to step on second base before throwing to first.
“That was a huge play. When I was watching that unfold, I was just hoping we'd get an out, and [for] him to come up with the ability to adjust on the fly like that is pretty impressive,” Miller said about Hardy. “He makes incredible plays. I saw it from the other side forever. You really appreciate it when you see it every day.”
Apparently the Orioles pitching strategy in the series was to lull the opposition to sleep early.
On Thursday, the role of hypnotist was played by right-hander Bud Norris, who threw 34 pitches in the first inning, allowing one single, one double, one homer, one walk, and he hit a batter. He gave up two runs and escaped a bases-loaded jam with an inning-ending groundout.
“You're just trying to get comfortable out there. The third pitch of the game, I got a leadoff double, so I'm trying to pitch around it,” Norris said. “They scored one there, and I definitely made a mistake to [Evan] Longoria [on the homer], so I was just kind of in a spot and things kind of got out of hand.”
It was the third consecutive night in which the Orioles starter ran into serious trouble in the first inning. On Wednesday, Kevin Gausman also threw a head-shaking 34 pitches in the first and gave up two runs. On Tuesday, Wei-Yin Chen threw a reasonable 15 pitches, but he gave up one run and three hits and needed an out at home plate to limit the damage.
Both Gausman and Chen were done in by their early woes, neither getting through five innings.
That’s where Norris separated himself. After hitting Yunel Escobar with a pitch to load the bases in the first, Norris retired 10 of his next 11 batters and rescued his outing.
In the fifth, though, Norris allowed two singles, a sacrifice fly by Longoria and a two-out RBI double to James Loney to fall behind, 4-2.
Norris, whose last start was cut to two innings because of a lengthy rain delay at Wrigley Field, lasted six innings Thursday, giving up four runs, six hits and two walks while striking out five batters. He threw 100 pitches -- but only 64 from the second through the sixth.
The Orioles scored twice in the first against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, who was making his eighth start since coming back from January elbow surgery. He, too, struggled early, allowing a homer to the Orioles’ second hitter, Steve Pearce.
The shot to left field was Pearce’s 16th of the season and extended his career-best hitting streak to 11 games. He has five homers and five doubles in that span.
Jones followed Pearce’s homer with a single and then moved to third base on a base hit by Cruz. Jones then scored on the first of two terrible defensive plays by Escobar, who was a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop last year before losing the vote to Hardy.
Cruz attempted to steal second base, and Rays catcher Jose Molina threw to Escobar.
Knowing he was caught, Cruz headed back toward first base to trigger a rundown as Jones dashed home. Escobar waited too long and rushed a high throw that bounced out of Molina’s glove, allowing Jones to tie the game at 2-2.
It was ruled a double steal, and it was the first time an Orioles player had stolen home since Robert Andino on June 14, 2009.
“I’m like Jackie Robinson,” Jones joked. “No, it was a good play, a good call. We don’t play a lot of baseball that kind of way. We usually just hit, but going into September, it can offer us some new athleticism as a team. Some new ways to score runs instead of just leaning on and counting on just one source.”
The Orioles scored twice more in the fifth to again tie the score and ultimately chase Hellickson, who loaded the bases with no outs.
Two batters later, Davis hit a grounder to first base that could have been an inning-ending double play. But Escobar caught the force at second base and then launched a throw well past first base, guaranteeing no double play and allowing a second run to score.
It took Norris off the hook for the loss and, again, the Orioles bullpen did the rest. The Orioles are now 26-19 in one-run games and 15-6 when those games are at Camden Yards.
“This year, we've won a lot of close ballgames,” Norris said. “These guys have put in the time every day, and the bullpen has been outstanding, and we just want it to keep going.”
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