By Dan Connolly
The Baltimore Sun
12:07 AM EDT, May 16, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The drama of Thursday's night game had little to do with the Kansas City Royals' impressive hard-throwing rookie Yordano Ventura or another short but solid performance from the Orioles' Wei-Yin Chen.
No, this one was mostly about who the Orioles would use to close out their 2-1 victory over the Royals.
The answer was lefty Zach Britton, who had never had a save in his professional career — not in the minors nor the majors.
And he handled it flawlessly, the way he has pitched this season.
Britton entered to face dangerous lefty Alex Gordon, who grounded out. Then, with lefty killer Danny Valencia at the plate, Orioles manager Buck Showalter stayed with Britton while previous closer Tommy Hunter remained on the bench in the bullpen.
On a full count, the sinkerballing Britton got Valencia to ground out to J.J. Hardy at shortstop.
Johnny Giavotella then grounded out to Hardy to preserve the win.
In his first chance, Britton posted a perfect inning, something Hunter hasn't accomplished yet this year. Hunter, who had blown two consecutive saves after converting 10 of 11, briefly warmed up in the bullpen in the eighth but never got the call.
Instead, four other relievers — Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, Ryan Webb and Britton — combined to throw 3 2/3 scoreless innings.
The Orioles (21-18) avoided a season-worst five-game losing streak and evened their season series with the Royals at 2.
“It was definitely exciting,” Britton said. “I think we are all prepared. No one knew who was going in. We're just all prepared to do it and we have multiple guys that are capable of throwing that inning. It's a matter of, I think, the matchups and whoever Buck wants to go with. We are all prepared for that inning, if called upon, whenever Tommy needs a break.”
Kansas City (20-20) had won three straight and six of its past eight before Thursday.
The Orioles' offense again struggled, scoring three runs or fewer for the 11th time in 18 games and fourth in their last five games.
But at least they scored this time against Kansas City's 22-year-old phenom, Ventura, who threw eight scoreless innings against the Orioles in Baltimore on April 25.
He didn't last as long but was even a little sharper Thursday, allowing seven hits, walking one and striking out nine — including six Orioles in a row — in 6 1/3 innings.
But the Orioles took a fourth-inning lead when Chris Davis drew the club's only walk against Ventura and Nelson Cruz hammered a 95-mph first-pitch fastball over the right-center-field wall. The 406-foot blast was Cruz's 12th homer of the season; he trails only Chicago rookie sensation Jose Abreu for the major league lead.
“You could have made some money tonight if you would have bet with me that somebody's going to hit a ball out of here with it cold and windy and that kind of arm” Ventura has, Showalter said. “That's a big-old-boy home run, as they say. He's been pretty solid.”
Ventura retired 10 straight batters before Hardy and Ryan Flaherty hit consecutive one-out singles in the seventh to chase the flame-throwing right-hander.
Reliever Tim Collins entered and struck out David Lough before Nick Markakis singled to left. Third base coach Bobby Dickerson decided to send Hardy to the plate, and he was thrown out by Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon, who was in shallow left.
It was Gordon's fourth outfield assist this season and 58th since 2011, 19 more than any other active outfielder during that period.
The Orioles were just happy that Ventura (2-3) was done for the night. He struck out every player in the starting lineup besides Hardy and Flaherty. Of his nine strikeouts, six of his third strikes were fastballs, two curveballs and one an 87-mph changeup to Adam Jones. Ventura struck out Davis on a 98-mph fastball in the first inning and a 99-mph one in the sixth.
Before the game, Showalter predicted it would be another difficult night for his lineup if Ventura was as good as he was in April.
“If he has command of his off-speed pitches tonight, he'll present another challenge,” Showalter said before the game. “It's not just sheer velocity, guys can turn around a bullet up here. … It's the other part of it that really presents a challenge.”
Ventura was impressive, but he left trailing Chen by a run.
Chen (5-2) could get through only 5 1/3 innings, but for the sixth consecutive start allowed three runs or fewer. He hasn't given up more than two runs since April 21 in Boston, when he allowed three. Conversely, Chen has completed six innings just three times in eight starts.
“Overall, it was good,” Chen said of his performance. “It wasn't the best, but the result was pretty good, so I'm happy about it.”
Chen scattered seven hits and a walk while striking out just one batter, his fewest this season. He needed help in the sixth, when he allowed a walk and a single with one out. His relief was sidearmer O'Day, who hadn't pitched the sixth or earlier since June 18, 2013.
O'Day retired all five batters he faced to get the Orioles into the eighth with the lead.
Eventually it became Britton's game to save. And he did it in 12 pitches.
“We're going to use whatever gives us the best chance to win,” Showalter said. “The best chance to put guys in the best spot to be successful and to be healthy. That's the way we are looking at it.”
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