By Dan Connolly
The Baltimore Sun
7:13 PM EDT, September 21, 2013
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was perhaps an unfair test, especially with outstanding right-hander Alex Cobb on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, but the bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived Orioles had a chance Saturday afternoon to make a statement in a once-promising season that is spiraling away.
Instead, the offense came out flat, starter Miguel Gonzalez had one rough inning and the Orioles lost 5-1 at Tropicana Field, essentially cranking up the incline on the club’s already treacherously steep climb toward a postseason berth.
“It’s crunch time for the team, for the organization. We all know that. That’s added pressure in its own right,” said center fielder Adam Jones. “We’re not playing teams that are out if it. We are playing teams that are in the same exact predicament as we are in.”
The Rays (85-79) are now firmly in control their own destiny – leading the American League Wild Card race.
After losing their first two here in a critical, four-game series, the Orioles (81-73) are four games behind the Rays and, with eight games to play in 2013, must jump over at least three other clubs to make the postseason for the second consecutive year.
“Coming into this series, we felt like our backs were against the wall. Really, nothing’s changed,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy. “Our backs are still up against the wall and we’ve still got a shot. Keep grinding and who knows what’s going to happen?”
On Friday into early Saturday morning, the Rays and Orioles grinded through an 18-inning marathon that lasted six hours and 54 minutes – the longest game, time-wise, in either franchise’s history – before the Rays won it on a RBI single at 2:05 a.m.
Eleven hours and four minutes later, the teams met again Saturday afternoon. The Orioles’ offense apparently slept through its wake-up call.
Featuring six starters who played all 18 innings Friday, the Orioles didn’t get a hit against Cobb until Steve Clevenger singled with two outs in the fifth. The Orioles didn’t score until the ninth on an RBI single by Jones. It broke the Orioles’ string of 19 consecutive innings without a run.
“They played just as much as us last night, a lot of those guys,” Hardy said about five Rays players that also logged all 18 innings Friday. “But Cobb was really good. I don’t think what happened (Friday) night had really any impact on how good Cobb was.”
The 25-year-old right-hander, who is now 7-0 at home this season, cruised through 8 1/3 innings. Using a sharp split-fingered fastball, Cobb (10-3) allowed five hits, two walks and one earned run while striking out 12.
The Orioles’ only run was set up by Rays left fielder David DeJesus misplaying Chris Davis’ fly ball into a triple. It was another historic moment for Davis, who on the play set the club’s single-season, extra-base hit record with 93, passing Brady Anderson’s 92 in 1996.
Jones knocked in Davis and knocked out Cobb, who left to a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 23,835.
“He was pretty much unhittable,” left fielder Nate McLouth said about Cobb. “With that split-finger, he can get so much weak contact and he's got pitches to put you away with. So you go up there wanting to get him early, but the ball moves so much, it's hard to make good contact with it.”
The Orioles – who didn’t arrive at their Florida hotel from Boston until 3 a.m. on Friday and then played nearly 10 hours of baseball in a 21-hour period – didn’t use their difficult odyssey over the past two days as an excuse for their offensive woes.
“There was nobody on that field who wasn't feeling that game last night, but it didn’t have an effect on the outcome is the main thing,” McLouth said. “But certainly, everybody on that field was a little tired.”
It seemed obvious early on that both clubs were feeling hungover from Friday’s near all-nighter – and both starting pitchers took advantage of it.
In six innings pitched, Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez (10-8) walked five, tying a season and career high. But he allowed just two hits and three runs, all on a homer by Desmond Jennings in the fifth. Gonzalez walked the first two batters he faced in the inning.
“Cobb was really good. I thought Miggy was good, too. Miggy presented himself real well,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Just lost his command there that one inning and couldn't get back on track, and that was a big difference-maker. You knew it was going to be not a whole lot of run-scoring opportunities the way that Cobb's been pitching.”
In the seventh, Orioles reliever Francisco Rodriguez put the game out of reach by allowing two runs on four hits, including a pair of triples to the left-center gap by Jennings and Yunel Escobar. In both instances, Jones chased after the balls, threw into the infield and then grimaced and bent over in obvious discomfort.
Afterward, both he and Showalter downplayed a potential injury to the Gold Glove center fielder, who hasn’t skipped a game since 2011.
“The body is sore a little bit, but I’m playing (Sunday) so it doesn’t really matter,” Jones said. “It’s my whole body, head to toe. I need to sit in a whole ice tub, head to toe. But I’m good. Normal body soreness for game 150-whatever-it-is.”
The time is obviously running out on the season. That, says Hardy, is why he and his teammates didn’t consider taking Saturday off after the quick turnaround.
“That’s why we were all in there today,” Hardy said. “Give it all you’ve got. We’ve got eight games left.”
The Rays have won 11 of 17 against the Orioles this year – and if they could pull of the four-game sweep, would almost certainly bury their division rival.
If the Orioles can win both of the remaining games against the Rays, they’ll be back to where they started at the beginning of this week: Two games behind Tampa Bay in the Wild Card race. Not ideal, but that’s really the only thing the Orioles can salvage right now.
“You can look at it both ways (positively and negatively),” McLouth said. “But I choose, and probably everybody in here would choose, to look at it on the positive side.”
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