ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Orioles had an idea of what to expect from Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen in his first major league season. But the 27-year-old rookie set a high standard for himself.
After striking out a career-high 12 batters on Sunday in Baltimore, he expressed his frustration in being unable to go six innings. After starts, he’s regularly said through his interpreter that he measures his success by how deep he’s able to go into games.
In Saturday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, Chen wasted few pitches, working ahead in the count and challenging an aggressive Tampa Bay lineup, leading the Orioles to a 4-0 win over the Rays in front of an announced crowd of 20,612.
Chen threw seven shutout innings and allowed just five hits on Saturday, becoming the second Taiwanese pitcher to win 10 or more games in a season, joining Chien-Ming Wang, who did it in 2006 and 2007.
“He’s had five three-ball counts in two games,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “His pitch count was down too. He’s made a lot of quality pitches down. His change up has come so far. He’s not a guy who you can just go out there and sit on one pitch with.
“He’s so athletic that he seems to help himself defensively too. You pitch like that and you pound the zone and you’re going to get some good defensive plays like he had made behind him.”
The win boosted the Orioles (56-51) into a tie with the Rays for second place in the American League East standings. Both teams are now 6 ½ games back of the division-leading Yankees heading into Sunday’s series rubber match.
The Orioles entered the night 0-for-22 with runners in scoring position, void of a hit in those situations for 19 innings, but rallied in the clutch Saturday.
Chen, who won the third of his last four starts, is 3-1 with a 1.95 ERA in five starts since the all-star break. He has worked seven innings in five of his last six starts on the road, pitching to a 2.52 ERA in that span.
“That’s really important,” Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin. “I got too many strikeouts in my last outing so I lowered my pitch count to get out really quick today and that’s the most important thing to do.”
In three starts against the Rays, he’s held them to a .186 batting average. On Saturday, he retired 10 of the first 11 hitters he faced.
“He’s got some late life on his fastball, looks like it comes at you a little harder than the 91-92 it says up there,” Rays designated hitter Jeff Keppinger said. “He was doing a good job at spotting up at the bottom of the zone today and getting the calls. If a pitcher can consistently put their fastball right there at the knees on the corners, then they’re going to be effective.”
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said he’s seen a gradual improvement in the 27-year-old rookie in every start.
"He kept his fastball down real well, which was huge,” Wieters said. “He was able to get strike one down in the zone and mixed in his change up a little bit more than we have in the past few starts. His breaking stuff's been something that's really come along throughout the year. Put that on top of his fastball that he can locate, he had it all working tonight."
The Orioles offense, frustrated over the past two games by their inability to produce with runners in scoring position, broke out of their slump with some timely two-out singles.
“The two-out RBIs are always a momentum [builder] for you and a morale breaker on the other side because they’re so close to getting out of the inning,” Showalter said. “Guys are pressing so hard trying to get it done. It’s not like its ‘Que Sera, Sera.’ It will just happen sometime. They’re grinding every day. I've been asked about it every day and I’m probably giving the same answer, but if there was a different care in there going on, I’d feel a lot more negative about it.”
The Orioles jumped on Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who exited early after laboring through a 31-pitch first inning. Wieters’ two-out single with runners on first and second in the first snapped the Orioles’ 0-for-22 slump with runners in scoring position to give the Orioles an early 1-0 lead.
"It's nice to get a lead early any time, especially when you're going up against this staff and in this park,” said Wieters, who also stole a career-high two bases, becoming the first Orioles catcher to do so since Johnny Oates on June 10, 1972. “It's a good staff that you want to try to get on top of early, especially with Chen throwing the ball the way he was tonight. We thought, get a good lead and let him roll."
Even after that, the Orioles stranded runners at second and third – and against a Rays team that owns a major league-best 2.40 ERA since the all-star break – the Orioles would have to capitalize on their opportunities.
But right fielder Nick Markakis, who has flourished in the leadoff spot, added another key two-out run-scoring hit in the second, a single that scored Nate McLouth, who hit a leadoff double in his first Orioles at bat. The Orioles tacked on two more in the fourth on Chris Davis’ two-out bases-loaded single.
“If you don’t get those hits you don’t get those runs,” Davis said. “A staff like this, you got to get runs whenever you can. Two-out hits are crushing to the other team, especially when you can drive some runs in. so it does make a difference.”