By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun
12:09 AM EDT, April 4, 2013
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – One of the major reasons the Orioles were able to outlast the Tampa Bay Rays — a team built on a foundation of strong pitching — for a postseason berth last season was because of the strength of their bullpen.
The first two games of the season opening series between these two teams at Tropicana Field have had a playoff feel to them — with dramatic swings of momentum throughout every inning.
On Wednesday night, that was evident as the Orioles silently walked off the field as the Rays celebrated an 8-7 walk-off victory on Matt Joyce's solo homer off reliever Tommy Hunter.
“We just couldn't hold them down,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “They had a good game, too. But I like the way our guys kept fighting back.”
The Orioles bullpen, which ranked as the fifth best in all of baseball last season, allowed six runs in 3 1/3 innings — wasting a solid season opening start by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen — culminating with Joyce's homer on a 3-1 pitch off Hunter. Entering the game, the eight current members of the Orioles bullpen posted a 1.27 ERA against the Rays last season.
“It was a situation tonight where I fell behind in the count and they took advantage of it,” Hunter said. “It was a pitch you'd like to have back. Execute a little better, learn from it and move on.”
The Orioles (1-1) saw their leads come and go. They rallied from behind twice, including once in the ninth inning against Rays closer Fernando Rodney, who converted 48 of 50 save chances last year and entered the night with a 19-appearance scoring streak.
“Baltimore is playing at a very high level,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “They're absolutely zero fun right now. They're not playing good in the sandbox.”
Trailing 7-6 in the top of the ninth, Nolan Reimold drew a nine-pitch walk from Rodney to open the inning, and Brian Roberts laced a double down the left field line to score Reimold from first, but the Orioles stranded Roberts at third.
The Orioles also wasted a four-hit, four-RBI effort by first baseman Chris Davis, who hit his second homer of the season — a three-run shot — and has seven RBIs through the first two games.
Joyce also helped beat the Orioles with small ball to pace a three-run seventh inning.
With the Orioles leading 5-4 in the seventh, the left-handed hitting Joyce dropped a one-out bunt against an Orioles' defensive shift that left half of the left side of the infield uncovered. Reliever Pedro Strop rushed off the mound to the third base line but his off-balanced throw was late.
“I wasn't expecting that bunt because he's kind of a power hitter,” Strop said. “We were up by one run and a power hitter like that can just come in and tie the game. I was just focusing on putting the ball wherever I wanted. … It was a good bunt too. I don't know him as a good bunter. It surprised me.”
The Orioles, who had played the shift — which moved third baseman Manny Machado into shallow right field — against Joyce and Kelly Johnson, then moved shortstop J.J. Hardy over to defend the bunt on the third base grass, but Johnson hit a single right to the spot where Hardy had been stationed on the previous play to put runners at first and third.
Joyce scored on a Strop wild pitch to tie the game. Two batters later, pinch-hiter James Loney slapped an RBI double down the left field line and Ben Zobrist plated another run on a bloop single to make the score 7-5, all fueled by Joyce's bunt.
“We've seen a few of their hitters try to square around early,” Davis said. “It's something we've worked on as well. If you are going to shift a guy and give him a base hit, that's what you are willing to give up. But you got to give him credit, he got it down. But after that you got to go back to playing baseball. You got to get the next out and we weren't able to do that.”
Said Showalter: "I'll let the guy who hit the home run to end the game bunt whenever he wants to, especially with Strop on the mound, who's probably one of our best athletes. You see both sides of it. You see why you don't want him to swing."
Chen had held the Rays (1-1) scoreless through his first five innings of work and left the game with a 4-1 lead with one on and two outs in the sixth before Luis Ayala yielded a game-tying, three-run homer to Rays first baseman Shelley Duncan.
Chen was charged with two runs on seven hits through 5 innings, striking out four and walking none. Chen allowed leadoff singles in each of his first three innings of work, but was aided by a double-play in all three frames. After making a delivery adjustment with pitching coach Rick Adair, Chen began to settle, retiring four of the next six outs on strikeouts.
“To be honest with you, my control and my command wasn't there early in the game,” Chen said. “I just tried to throw strikes, and it's hard for me especially [because] they swing at everything. It was hard for me in the beginning.”
Davis hit his second homer in as many games, taking a full-count pitch from Jeremy Hellickson the opposite way in the first inning for a three-run homer to give the Orioles a quick 3-0 lead.
“Baseball is a game of ups and downs,” said Davis, who added two doubles and a single and is now 5-for-8 through two games. “Obviously we battled tonight. But so did they. We didn't hand anything to them, they went out there and took it. I saw flashbacks of last year, when [it looked like] we were going into extra innings. But what is this, Game 2? We've got a few left to play.”
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