By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
1:03 AM EDT, July 4, 2014
Life has been so charmed for the Orioles in the past few days that on Thursday, they chased one of baseball’s best pitchers with a weather report.
They followed that up with a 5-2 win over the Texas Rangers without hitting one long ball — the Orioles’ only homerless victory since April 26 — to secure a four-game sweep at Camden Yards for the first time since 2008.
The offense was paced by a career-best, four-hit effort from a guy they released in April, allowing the Orioles to improve to 4-0 while playing one hitter short during Manny Machado’s five-game suspension.
And now, heading into July 4, this enigmatic squad is, by one-thousandth of a percentage point, in first place in the American League East with a 46-39 record (.541 winning percentage). They are tied with the Toronto Blue Jays (47-40, .540), who lost to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday night.
“It’s definitely meaningful,” said left fielder Steve Pearce, who was released, then re-signed in May, and who has been on a tear at the plate recently. “Toronto is a good team; it’s a tough division. So we’re sitting at the top of it and, if we’re getting ready to play our best baseball, we’re sitting in a good spot.”
There’s no truth to the rumor that the entire Orioles team further tempted fate and ran with scissors on their way to the charter plane that took them to Boston early Friday morning. In fact, as of midnight, they weren’t even sure how they were getting to Boston.
“Right now, the earliest they even think they can get a plane here is 2 a.m.,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said in his postgame news conference. “Seeing if we can get permission to fly tomorrow. We are even looking into trains; buses are 8 1/2 hours to Boston. So we've got some issues.”
The Orioles swept away a lot of other lingering questions Thursday in a game that had seemed headed for postponement. Weather reports all day predicted constant rain all night, and the first pitch Thursday was delayed for 56 minutes.
Fearing that they would play only briefly before the rain came pouring again, the Rangers decided to scratch their ace, Yu Darvish, and save him for Friday night against the New York Mets. Texas didn’t want to waste Darvish for a game that lasted only a few innings.
“I think I made the right decision. I didn’t want to lose Yu,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said afterward. “There was a storm coming from D.C. It could hit us, it could miss us. But it was definitely on the radar. I saw it.”
Of course, it didn’t rain at all Thursday after the first pitch, and the bone-dry announced 24,535 enjoyed another Orioles win over the struggling Rangers (37-48).
The Orioles are now seven games over .500 for the first time this season as they head to Fenway Park for a three-game series that begins Friday afternoon. Despite losing three of four to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles finished their 11-game homestand against the Rangers, Rays and White Sox, three sub-.500 teams, 7-4 overall.
They won six of their seven games against the Rangers this year and swept Texas in a four-game series in Baltimore for the first time since August 2004. The Orioles had last completed a four-game sweep at home in 2008, against Seattle, and hadn't enjoyed a four-game sweep anywhere since 2011, in Minnesota.“It is so hard to win a four-game series,” Showalter said. “Guys kept a real intensity level through the rain delay, not knowing whether we were going to play or not."
Perhaps the outcome would have been different had Darvish (8-4, 2.42 ERA) started instead of long reliever Scott Baker, who had a 5.80 ERA in 11 previous games. Baker, a former Minnesota Twins starter who sat out most of last season after elbow surgery, was 6-0 with a 2.13 ERA in nine previous games against the Orioles. It was the longest active winning streak against the Orioles. (Joe Saunders had been 7-0 against the Orioles before losing Monday).
Baker (0-2) did his part for a while. He kept the Orioles off the board until the third, when Pearce singled home Nick Hundley to break a scoreless tie. It was Pearce’s second hit of the evening, giving him 12 multihit performances in his past 22 games.
Pearce kept it going in the fifth with a RBI double that gave the Orioles a 3-2 lead, then singled and scored in the seventh. The four hits were a career high for Pearce, who is 23-for-59 (.390) with six homers and eight doubles in his past 15 games.
“Stevie, running out of things to describe him,” Showalter said. “He's centering up a lot of balls right now. One of those things, don't over-coach. Just get out of the way and try not to talk to him.”
Pearce, who is now hitting .338 in 48 games, even stole two bases Thursday, doubling his season total. The 31-year-old said he’s having more fun than he’s ever had on a baseball diamond.
“It feels really good, especially with the win for a sweep,” Pearce said. “Some close games. Definitely means more when we win.”
Pearce almost didn’t get the chance for a RBI in the fifth. With Hundley on third, Baker threw a high fastball that traveled to the backstop and allowed Hundley to score. After initially ruling the play a wild pitch, the umpiring crew gathered and changed it to a foul ball. There was no official challenge, and replays clearly showed the ball ricocheting off Pearce’s bat.
So Hundley returned to third and Pearce got another opportunity. He doubled into the left-center gap. Pearce is having that kind of year.
The Orioles scored twice more in the seventh on Adam Jones’ sacrifice fly and Chris Davis’ RBI single. The club scored five runs, but ended its homer streak of 12 games and multiple-homer streak of six games. Since May 1, the Orioles had homered in all 33 of their victories before Thursday's.
The extra runs cemented the win for starter Wei-Yin Chen (8-3). He matched Baker initially, throwing three scoreless before yielding a RBI groundout in the fourth. The Rangers took the lead against Chen in the fifth on a solo homer by Shin-Soo Choo, who now has homered in each of the two games in which he has faced Chen in his career.
It continued a disturbing trend for Chen, who has allowed seven homers in his past four games and 13 in his past nine. He served up just three long balls in his first eight starts of the season.
But the Orioles left-hander didn’t make another mistake, allowing just six hits, two walks and two runs while striking out four batters in six innings. It was his first quality start since June 16 at Tampa Bay. The Orioles bullpen again didn’t give up a run, with closer Zach Britton picking up his 12th save in 14 chances with a scoreless ninth.
“I think I did OK out there,” Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. “Tonight, we got a win because our offense did a pretty good job, and our defense played really well behind me. So I have to think my catcher and my teammates. This win is teamwork.”
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