By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
1:03 AM EDT, September 23, 2011
DETROIT -- Orioles left-hander Zach Britton has one outing remaining in his mercurial rookie season, and he hopes it will go a little more smoothly than Thursday's 6-5 victory against the Detroit Tigers, when he was staked to a five-run lead and couldn't hold it.
The streaking Orioles, though, are content snagging any and all victories these days as they attempt to finish a woeful season with a surprising upswing.
"You want to win as many games as you can. At this point, you try not to look at our record," said Kevin Gregg, who picked up just his second save of September with a perfect ninth inning. "You're just going to play for pride, you're going to play showing you can still compete at this level."
Backed by two home runs and a shutdown bullpen, the Orioles (66-90) won for the eighth time in 10 games -- all against contenders. The Tigers (90-66) have clinched the American League Central but are jockeying with the Texas Rangers for home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"It shows how well we're playing, the attitude that we have when we go and put up a five-spot, and I give it back in the next inning, guys aren't like, 'Oh crap, here we go again,'" said Britton, who allowed five runs in five innings in his team-leading 11th win. "They are going out there, scoring another run and battling. And then our bullpen goes out there and shuts the door."
Britton didn't have his usually solid command even before he was struck in the right biceps by a line drive hit by Magglio Ordonez in the third. He bounced breaking balls and launched one fastball to the backstop behind home plate. Yet he allowed just one run through four innings -- on a double-play grounder -- partially because of the impressive defense behind him.
Center fielder Adam Jones threw out Miguel Cabrera attempting to score from second on a single in the second inning and shortstop J.J. Hardy turned two highlight-worthy double plays, including fielding the ricochet off Britton's arm, stepping on second and throwing quickly to Mark Reynolds, who made a nice scoop at first base.
"Mark made two or three nice picks tonight at first base. Really good defensive game tonight with one exception," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "J.J. -- just, Jiminy Christmas, I just hope everybody else around the league understands how good of a shortstop [he is]; I can't imagine a shortstop playing at a higher level than he's playing at."
Things fell apart for Britton in a four-run fifth. He walked the leadoff hitter -- his career-high-tying fourth free pass -- and allowed a single, and then, after a sacrifice bunt, Ordonez laced an RBI base hit. Delmon Young followed with a 403-foot, three-run homer to left to tie the game.
The Orioles reclaimed the lead in the sixth when Jones singled, stole second and scored on Nolan Reimold's check-swing infield single. Reimold hustled to first to beat the throw in what proved to be the pivotal play.
The Orioles' resurgent bullpen took over from there. Jason Berken threw two scoreless innings before Pedro Strop entered in the eighth and again did not yield a run. Acquired in August from Texas for Michael Gonzalez, Strop has made nine appearances for the Orioles spanning 8 2/3 innings and has not been scored upon.
"I feel comfortable because they are giving me the confidence," Strop said. "They are trusting me, and so that's why I feel comfortable. If they are trusting in me, I have to trust in myself."
The 26-year-old right-hander had a 7.24 ERA in 33 games over three seasons with the Rangers and was in Triple-A when the Orioles acquired him. Now he is starting to lock down the eighth for his new team.
"I feel good about it, but I'm not impressed because I know what I can do," he said. "I just haven't [gotten] the opportunity, and I'm getting it right now and I'm doing my thing."
Gregg, the beleaguered closer, entered in the ninth because Jim Johnson was unavailable after pitching three straight days. Gregg hasn't had a save opportunity since his seventh blown effort Sept. 10 in Toronto. He closed out one previous game this month, on Sept. 2 against the Rays. But on Thursday he pitched a perfect inning for his 21st save in the Orioles' 11th win in 16 games.
"I want every save op that I can. I think that's our job, and that's what I do," Gregg said. "But I haven't been consistent at it, going through a little rough patch. And it's nice to reward [Johnson] for the year he has had. He deserves it. He has done an outstanding job. But I think I showed tonight I could still do it and I still believe in myself. I always have and always will."
Britton, 23, outlasted Thursday's other promising young starter, Detroit's Jacob Turner. The 20-year-old right-hander was searching for his first big league win in his third start for Detroit.
The Orioles considered Turner with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft but instead selected another high school right-hander, Matt Hobgood, and signed him to a $2.4million contract. Turner went ninth overall and agreed to a $5.5 million major league deal with the Tigers.
On Thursday, the Orioles' offense treated Turner like a wide-eyed kid. He was pulled in the fourth after facing four batters and retiring none. Overall, Turner (0-2) was charged with five runs (four earned) on seven hits and a walk in three-plus innings.
He served up two homers, a solo shot to Hardy in the third and a two-run home run by Jones in the three-run fourth that enveloped an all-around team win.
"We are due for a few things to come our way. We earned most of our things tonight," Showalter said. "A lot of times, not necessarily with our club but with most clubs, you get a five-run lead all of a sudden it's 5-5 against a team that's going to win 90-95 games, there's a lot of opportunity there to go, 'Here we go again.' But our guys didn't."
NOTES: The Orioles have not named a starter for Sunday's road finale in Detroit. Showalter said the candidates are left-handers Brian Matusz and Jo-Jo Reyes or right-hander Rick VandenHurk. One of those three might also pitch Monday at home against the Boston Red Sox because Showalter said Tommy Hunter's right groin strain puts his outing "in jeopardy." Hunter said he still expects to start. Infielder Ryan Adams (sports hernia) will be examined by surgeon William Meyers in Philadelphia on Oct. 3. If Meyers confirms the sports hernia diagnosis, he'll operate on Adams on Oct.4. The recovery period for such an injury is three to six weeks. Hardy's 29th homer puts him one shy of joining teammate Mark Reynolds in the 30-homer club. The Orioles haven't had a duo reach 30 or more in the same season since Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro in 1996. Two other duos have done it: Frank Robinson and Boog Powell in 1966 and 1969 and Larry Sheets and Eddie Murray in 1987.
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