NEW YORK — Shortstop J.J. Hardy's seventh-inning error allowed the winning run to score in the Orioles' 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees on Saturday afternoon, but a marked improvement in the field fielding during the second half of the season has been instrumental to the O's recent surge toward the top of the American League East.

At the All-Star break, the Orioles had committed a major league-worst 75 errors through 85 games, an average of 0.88 per game.

Since then, they've nearly cut that mark in half. In 48 games after the break, the Orioles have just 22 errors for an average of 0.46 per game.

Rookie Manny Machado has played well at third base, where the Orioles had committed 24 errors before his arrival. Machado has committed just one error in 21 games — a controversial throwing error that came after umpires reversed a call in Detroit.

Mark Reynolds made two key diving plays Friday night at first base, where he has a .993 fielding percentage. And former Gold Glove winner Nate McLouth is a huge upgrade in left field. McLouth made a nice defensive play on the Yankees' first at bat Saturday, diving to catch Derek Jeter's liner into Yankee Stadium's large left-center field gap.

"It's been huge," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of the defense. "I think Mark settling in at first base and Manny doing some things over there [at third] has been pretty solid. And [with] McLouth, we feel like [we have] three guys who have done well in [three places] we were struggling with a bit.

"It's one of those quiet things that nobody can really pinpoint, but pitching-wise, I think pitchers feed off of that too in their aggressiveness, like Miguel [Gonzalez on Friday night], really attacking the zone and trusting the defense."

Hardy, who has committed just six errors this season, entered Saturday leading all major league shortstops in fielding percentage (.992), assists (443), assists per nine innings (3.38) and total chances (634).

Tolleson feels lucky

Utility man Steve Tolleson joined the Orioles roster for the fourth times this season, one four players added before Saturday's game as rosters expanded. Outfielder Xavier Avery and catcher Luis Exposito were also recalled from Triple-A Norfolk, and infielder Wilson Betemit was activated off the disabled list.

Tolleson, who was signed as a minor league free agent this offseason, has played a key role with the Orioles, playing four positions — second base, third base, shortstop and left field — during a mid-season rash of injuries.

But Tolleson, who hit .278/.358/.346 in 50 games at Norfolk, never assumed he'd get a September call-up.

"I'm not the type of player who has the abilities to just assume and go through the motions," Tolleson said. "I was working as hard as I could down there every day and tried to put myself in the best position to come back up and help this team. I was hoping that I could find a way to come back up and help contribute."

After suffering a broken right index finger Aug. 4, he nearly thought that opportunity was lost. He was told he'd be out 4-6 weeks, but he returned after a dozen games.

"The first week after the injury, the pain just kind of really went away," he said. "I don't know how to explain it. It was a vertical break instead of a horizontal break, so whenever I'd push back to throw, there wasn't pain, which allowed me to play through it. Hitting the first couple days was sore, but three or four days into it, I fouled a ball off my shin and started thinking about my shin instead of my finger."

Around the horn

With his fourth-inning homer Saturday, catcher Matt Wieters has hit safely in all 13 games against the Yankees the season, the first Oriole to accomplish that feat since Cal Ripken Jr. opened the 1996 season with a 13-game hit streak against New York. Wieters' seven career homers at Yankee Stadium are his most in any visiting ballpark. … Second baseman Omar Quintanilla is hitless in his last 24 at-bats. … Hardy, who was 1-for-3 on Saturday, has hit safely in 10 of his last 11 games and is batting .295 (13-for-44) with five doubles, two homers, seven runs and seven RBIs over that stretch.

eencina@baltsun.com

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