For the second time in three games against the Washington Nationals, Orioles manager Buck Showalter chose to intentionally walk slumping outfielder Bryce Harper and take his chances against the rest of Washington’s lineup.
And again, Showalter’s gamble paid off.
With right-hander Darren O'Day on the mound, a runner on second base and the Orioles clinging to a 4-3 lead, Showalter issued a two-out free pass to Harper — mired in a 1-for-20 slump — placing the go-ahead run on base to face shortstop Ian Desmond.
A 2-2 pitch from O'Day hit Desmond in the right hand, loading the bases, but O’Day escaped the inning by inducing a flyout from catcher Wilson Ramos.
In Monday’s game at Nationals Park, Showalter did the same thing. With the score tied at 2 in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman doubled with one out, putting the winning run in scoring position.
With first base open, Showalter walked Harper in order to face Desmond and Ramos. O’Day struck out both.
There’s no secret that Showalter relies on matchups, but there wasn't enough of a track record to make a difference against the Nationals. Entering Monday, Desmond, who has hit 16 homers this season, was 0-for-2 against O’Day; Harper was 0-for-1; and Ramos never had faced him.
“That stuff about the tying run and the winning run, I don't pay that much attention to it,” Showalter said. “Are you trying to win the game or keep from losing it? That's the way I look at it. I know what the weather says, I know what our bullpen is after Zach [Britton] and I know that there's about three variables there. ... 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."
The key has been the reliability of O’Day, who bent but did not break in either game. O’Day has not allowed a run in his past 10 outings, a span of 11 innings, striking out 15 batters while walking two. His 1.11 ERA is the lowest among AL relievers, and he has struck out a batter in each of his past eight appearances.
O’Day has been able to keep left-handed hitters honest. They are hitting just .234 against him this season, compared with .309 last year. Right-handers are .204 against O’Day — he held them to a .154 clip last season — but the club won’t mind O’Day’s more even splits.
O’Day already has four holds this month and 14 this season, and he's entrenched in the eighth-inning setup-man role.
“We know we have in our lineup, and what I would call, the best defense in the league,” O’Day said. “So the unknowns are the rotation and the bullpen. We like to be depended on. I think a lot of guys have worked hard. The staff they brought in here have made a lot of good changes on a personal level and a staff level, so it's kind of starting to come to fruition. I think you'll see a lot more of that over the next three months.”
Meanwhile, right-hander Tommy Hunter’s 1 1/3 scoreless innings marked his 10th straight such appearance. He hasn’t allowed a run over his last 12 1/3 innings, a stretch dating to June 18.
Britton, who has converted six straight save opportunities and 15 of 17 overall, now has not allowed a run at home over his past 22 appearances, a streak spanning 30 1/3 innings.
If they can continue to pitch with similar success without getting overworked, the Orioles will remain a playoff contender heading into and coming out of the All-Star break.