CHICAGO — Here at U.S. Cellular Field — where fireworks are launched past center field after every home run the White Sox hit — the Fourth of July celebration on Chicago's South Side occurred at the most inopportune time for the Orioles on Thursday afternoon.
After battling back from a two-run eighth-inning deficit to tie the game, the Orioles lost to Chicago, 3-2, in walk-off fashion on Adam Dunn's solo homer in the bottom of the ninth inning prompting a celebration at home plate in front of an announced 21,321 at U.S. Cellular Field.
After retiring the first four hitters he faced in relief of starter Zach Britton, Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter hung a 3-2 hanging curveball that Dunn deposited into the first row of the left-field stands.
“He hit a home run,” Hunter said. “Not a place you'd like to put that pitch. You'd like to bury it. Got a couple righties coming up after that, but got a little out front, left the ball up and he hit it. … He's a very strong individual. I got him out pretty good the night before. I think any hitter in the big leagues — if you make too many mistakes to him — you are going to pay for it.”
The Orioles (48-38) dropped two of three to a White Sox team that is 14 games under .500. Now the Orioles head to the Bronx for a pivotal three-game series at Yankee Stadium this weekend.
And while the usually dominant Hunter gave up the game-winning homer — suffering his first loss since the second game of the season, a game that also ended on a ninth-inning walk-off homer by Tampa Bay's Matt Joyce — it was the Orioles' vaunted offense that truly struggled.
The Orioles managed just three hits and were blanked by White Sox starter Jose Quintana for seven innings, his longest outing in his last five starts. Quintana held the Orioles to just two hits, struck out a career-high 11 and retired the final 13 batters he faced, including eight by strike out.
“We had what, two hits through seven innings?” said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. “We were out there grinding. It was tough to put runs on the board and tough to get people on base. It was a good feeling to come back in the eighth and a bad feeling to lose like that.”
Over the past three days, an Orioles offense that averages nearly five runs a game totaled just eight in the entire series against a White Sox team that allowed the most runs in the majors in June (135).
“They pitched real well,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Usually I'm the first to say we got to do a little bit better job, but that was solid. It had real late life. We knew coming in that, from a starting pitching standpoint, we were going to be challenged. They've got good starting pitching. It's not their problem.”
The Orioles wasted Britton's best big-league start of the season. In his fifth start for the Orioles this year, Britton held the White Sox scoreless through his first five innings before the White Sox broke through with two in the sixth.
“He gave us a real good chance to win today,” Showalter said of Britton. “I was real proud of Zach. He pitched aggressively. He kept firing. If we had been able to push a run across there, he would have been the difference-maker. … He had a lot of ground balls. Lot of balls beat into the dirt. He pitched well.”
Britton induced 11 ground-ball outs — including two inning-ending double-play balls — in his seven innings of work, striking out three and walking one, for his first quality start of the season.
“I think it was trying not to do too much, in a couple of situations making sure I take a deep breath and thinking through what I want to do and not let the game speed up on me,” Britton said. “I think that's the big key.”
After Brian Roberts drew a walk from Chicago reliever Nate Jones to open the eighth, Nate McLouth doubled to right to place two runners in scoring position.
Two batters later, pinch hitter Matt Wieters hit a sharp grounder to first that Dunn tried to backhand down the line, but it hit off the end of his mitt, scoring Roberts. Leadoff hitter Nick Markakis' sac fly to center plated McLouth to tie the game at 2-2.
The White Sox (34-48) snapped a scoreless tie with for two runs in the sixth off Britton. Alexei Ramirez's leadoff double was followed by Alex Rios' sharp comebacker that skipped off the front of the mound, between Britton's legs and into center field.
Rios went to second on Adam Jones' throw home and moved to third on a flyout before Dunn slapped a single past a drawn-in infield to score Rios and give the White Sox a 2-0 lead.
Ten of the 14 runs Britton has allowed this season have come in the sixth inning, but Britton was able to limit the damage in the sixth Thursday with an inning-ending double play ball. He then pitched a perfect seventh.
“You have a hurdle every season, whether it's a certain inning or a certain pitch, and that was kind of my hurdle and to get over it, you kind of feel a nice little sigh of relief,” Britton said. “Unfortunately, I gave up the two runs, but our offense did a great job of coming back. You'd like to right the ship a little bit earlier without giving up any runs, especially with the way their guy's throwing.”
With a runner on third and two outs in the fourth inning, Britton felt a cramp in his left leg when his spike stuck in the dirt coming off the mound, prompting head trainer Richie Bancells and pitching coach Rick Adair to jog out of the dugout to check on Britton. On the next pitch, Britton induced an inning-ending ground out from Jeff Keppinger to end the threat.
Britton definitely pitched well enough to win, but chalked the loss up to tough luck.
“You don't want to lose,” Britton said. “Tommy's been great and he'll continue to be great. One pitch doesn't sum up anything. They're playing well. I felt like one hit was going to determine that game and it did on their side, so either way we could have easily done the same. Tommy is going to do what he does normally and that's continue to shut the door.”