After their gritty, 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, the Orioles will have to wait until August for the opportunity to claim true "Beltway Series" bragging rights. They took two of three against the Nationals this week, but Tuesday’s game in Washington was rained out and will be made up Aug. 4.
Still, with both teams atop their divisions as the All-Star break approaches, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said afterward that these teams could meet again in the postseason, when something greater will be at stake.
“I think it’s good for the DMV area that both teams are playing quite well, especially this late into the season,” Jones said. “We’re both first place in our respective divisions. … That’s a very good team. You raise the competition. We love it. We love the competition, and we love the fact that you never know what could happen in October. You could have a 'Battle of the Beltways' when it’s a little colder and bring the fans back out.”
The Orioles (50-41) have done their part so far, reaching the 50-win mark Thursday in their 91st game this year, the earliest since their wire-to-wire division-winning season of 1997. The club reached 50 wins in 92 games last season and in 94 in their 2012 playoff season.
The Orioles, again a season-high nine games over .500, also extended their American League East lead to three games over the Toronto Blue Jays, who were off Thursday. With the New York Yankees' loss in Cleveland on Thursday, the Orioles are guaranteed to go into the All-Star break with at least a share of first place in the AL East.
Despite facing the minimum number of hitters his first time through the batting order, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen — who had allowed three or fewer runs in six of his past seven starts — fell one out shy of a quality start, allowing three runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. Still, he won his team-high ninth game.
The Orioles' bullpen protected the one-run lead it inherited, but not without its tense moments.
Right-hander Darren O’Day, whose 1.13 ERA entering the game was the lowest among AL relievers, had to work his way out of his own two-out, bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning.
With the Orioles clinging to a 4-3 lead, Adam LaRoche hit a one-out double off O’Day, and after a strikeout of Ryan Zimmerman, he intentionally walked Bryce Harper with first base open.
But a passed ball put both base runners in scoring position, and O’Day’s 2-2 pitch to Ian Desmond hit his right hand, loading the bases.
O’Day recovered, recording his ninth straight scoreless outing by inducing a inning-ending flyout to center from Wilson Ramos.
“Up by one, bases loaded, if we don't get out of it, we might still be playing or [have] lost,” O’Day said. “That's a high-quality lineup. You can stack that up with anybody in the NL or AL. Lot of good hitters, a lot of talent. It's tough sledding to get through there. You've kind of got to pick your guys to pitch to.”
It ended up paying off, but the Orioles' decision to intentionally walk Harper, who entered the plate appearance with one hit in his [ast 20 at-bats, didn’t work as quickly as the Orioles hoped.
"There's a lot variables that go into it,'' manager Buck Showalter said after the Orioles' 4-3 win. "Guys like him, and a lot of guys, we know what they can do, and it's just a matter of time, so you create the best matchup you can. ... I think our chances diminish in extra innings because of the way things go, so you kind of go for certain things at certain times. And sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't."
In the ninth inning, closer Zach Britton converted his 15th save in 17 opportunities, stranding the tying run on first base after Anthony Rendon’s infield single.
The bullpen "did a great job,” said left fielder Steve Pearce, who put the Orioles up 1-0 with his first-inning solo homer. “If we can find some way to scratch and claw to get the ball in Britton’s hands at the end of the game, I think we’re sitting in a good place.”
The Orioles took a quick 4-0 lead on Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez, scoring three runs in the third inning, all with two outs.
Pearce put the Orioles up only two batters into the bottom of the first inning with his 11th homer of the season, taking a 2-0 fastball into the left-field seats.
After Gonzalez retired the first two batters in the third, leadoff hitter Nick Markakis drew a walk, Pearce singled and Adam Jones flared an RBI double down the right-field line to place runners at second and third.
Nelson Cruz then hit a grounder up the middle that shortstop Ian Desmond gloved at the edge of the grass. But instead of getting the out at first, Desmond spun around and threw to third.
His throw sailed wide, allowing Pearce and Jones to score and giving the Orioles a 4-0 lead.
Gonzalez (6-5) limited the damage after that, going 6 2/3 innings and yielding four runs, three of them earned, on six hits over 6 2/3 innings. He struck out seven batters and walked three.
The Nationals (49-41) scored their first run on Ryan Zimmerman’s two-out RBI single in the fourth, a hit that came only after Washington had extended the inning on a replay challenge.
With one on and two outs, Chen (9-3) delivered an 0-1 pitch that sailed in on Adam LaRoche and initially was called a ball. But Nationals manager Matt Williams challenged the call, and replays showed the pitch had grazed the front of LaRoche’s jersey.
After a 58-second review, LaRoche was awarded first base, placing runners at first and second. Zimmerman singled to center to score one run, and both base runners moved into scoring position on Jones’ throw home.
Chen, who struck out six batters and walked none on the night, then won possibly the most important at-bat of the night, striking out Bryce Harper on a called strike three after falling behind Harper 2-0, ending the inning.
Washington's Jayson Werth hit his 10th homer of the season on a 77-mph hanging curveball to open the sixth, the eighth homer Chen has allowed over his past five starts.
Chen wouldn’t last the inning, allowing a one-out double to Zimmerman. Desmond followed with an RBI double off the right-field scoreboard that scored Zimmerman and chased Chen from the game.
“I thought he was real crisp,” Showalter said of Chen. “He was carrying a pretty good finish on his fastball. I know he'd like to have the pitch back to Werth and bounce it instead of throwing it for a strike. But that's a good club. I'm glad their somebody else's problem. Of course, it doesn't get any easier with the Yankees coming in and our schedule the rest of the way."
After the game, O’Day said he wouldn’t mind seeing the Nationals again after their makeup game in August, only with more on the line.
“I personally enjoyed that series a lot, just [be]cause of the proximity and the atmosphere down in D.C.,” O’Day said. “And they're top of the NL [East]. Hopefully we get to play them a few more times this year, later in the year in October. That would be nice.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun