By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
12:29 AM EDT, May 11, 2014
Following a 55-minute rain delay that they probably shouldn't have had to endure Saturday night, the Orioles had new life against the Houston Astros.
Closer Tommy Hunter had just blown a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning before a downpour descended on Camden Yards. But when the clouds moved out, the Orioles rallied with two outs in the ninth to force the game into extra innings.
Down to their last out, the Orioles loaded the bases before pinch hitter Delmon Young beat out a bouncer to shortstop to drive in the tying run.
One inning later, catcher Steve Clevenger (Mount St. Joseph) — starting while starter Matt Wieters rests his sore elbow — delivered a game-winning, one-out double down the right-field line off Paul Clemens to give the Orioles a walk-off, 5-4 win in 10 innings.
“It's big, just for the team,” said Clevenger, who recieved a celebratory pie to the face from teammate Adam Jones after the game. “We are on a four-game win streak, now five. We are never going to give up until the last out. We proved that tonight.”
The Orioles' season-high five-game winning streak is the longest current streak in the majors.
With the win, the surging Orioles (20-14) are now a season-high six games above .500 and lead the American League East by 1 1/2 games over the New York Yankees.
J.J. Hardy, who had reached on a one-out infield single to short, scored from first on Clevenger's hit, sliding into home — and a celebration at the plate.
“I still haven't caught my breath,” Hardy said.
Ryan Webb (2-0) stranded the go-ahead run on second in a scoreless top of the 10th.
Hunter, who entered the night having converted 11 of 12 save opportunities, couldn't hold a one-run, ninth-inning lead. Had he been able to preserve the lead in the top of the ninth, before it started to rain, the Orioles might already have been in their beds by the time the game went into extra innings.
Hunter's second blown save of the season came after he was one out away from victory, but he ultimately allowed a two-out, two-run single to Astros second baseman Jose Altuve with runners at second and third.
While Hunter's first year as a closer has been a success so far, it hasn't been as smooth as he'd like. Hunter has allowed 24 base runners in 14 1/3 innings and has yet to record a clean full-inning outing.
Hunter's fellow relievers have picked him up. Over the past 15 games, the Orioles bullpen has allowed four runs over 15 innings, including three innings Saturday, with Hunter responsible for all four runs.
"They are hitting fastballs, they are hitting curveballs, they are hitting everything I throw right now," Hunter said. "So it’s not just one pitch or spot up. Just keep battling. It’s going to break through."
In the bottom of the eighth, Nelson Cruz gave the Orioles a 3-2 lead by crushing his team-high 10th homer of the year against Houston reliever Josh Zeid. Cruz took the first pitch of the inning into the Orioles bullpen in left-center field, his fifth this season that has given the Orioles the lead.
Chris Carter started the rally against Hunter an inning later with a one-out single on an 0-2 pitch. Marc Krauss followed with a double to put runners at second and third.
But Jonathan Villar hit a grounder to second against a drawn-in infield, and the Orioles caught pinch runner Marwin Gonzalez in a rundown between third and home. Afterward, the Astros still had runners at second and third.
Altuve followed with a looping single into center field to plate two runs. Villar beat Jones' throw home for the go-ahead run, and Hunter was replaced by left-hander Troy Patton.
“What we've got to do is try to do a better job of not creating so many save situations,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It happened last year and it's something we'd like to get better at. But you're one pitch away from closing out a good game.”
Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez grinded out his longest outing of the season in a no-decision.
By keeping his pitch count down, Gonzalez was able to toss a season-high seven innings, allowing two runs on six hits with six strikeouts and two walks.
“We battled,” he said. “We got the win. That's the most important thing. We played as a team. We made some good plays when we needed to.”
As the Orioles went into the late innings, unable to do much against Astros starter Collin McHugh, they had to like their chances against a Houston bullpen that came into the night with the worst ERA in baseball (6.14).
The Orioles had just two hits against McHugh until Jones took an 0-1 pitch to straightaway center for his fourth homer of the season with two outs in the sixth inning.
Hardy opened the seventh inning with a single before Clevenger lid down a bunt. McHugh couldn't take care of it, slipping and falling as he fielded the bunt, and both runners were safe.
Steve Pearce's single up the middle loaded the bases, and McHugh uncorked a wild pitch to Jonathan Schoop, allowing Hardy to score the tying run.
But the Orioles couldn't take advantage with a big inning as the next three batters were retired.
The Astros were a menace on the base paths early, stealing four bases — the most against the Orioles this season — in the first five innings against the Gonzalez-Clevenger battery.
Heralded Astros rookie right fielder George Springer had two hits, including his second major league home run, a solo shot in the second inning off Gonzalez that scored the game's first run. Springer sent a 90-mph, first-pitch delivery from Gonzalez into the left-field seats.
No. 9 hitter Jonathan Villar hit a one-out single in the third inning and landed on second on a fielding error on Jones. Villar quickly stole third and scored two batters later on Dexter Fowler's RBI single to give Houston a 2-0 lead.
After a double steal put runners at second and third, Gonzalez stranded two in scoring position, striking out catcher Jason Castro and inducing a popup from Matt Dominguez to leave runners on second and third.
With the game tied, Zach Britton pitched a scoreless eighth in relief of Gonzalez, his seventh consecutive scoreless outing, before Hunter came on in the ninth.
“You can't ever really give up on these guys,” Hunter said. “And tonight's another, ‘Hey, thanks, you picked me up' [game]. I'll return the favor someday. And hopefully, I return it quite a few times.”
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