There’s no secret formula, no sudden epiphany. If the Orioles are going to compete in the American League East all year, they need to get consistent, quality starting pitching.
If the last week is any indication, the Orioles’ rotation is showing signs it may do its part.
Counting Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 victory against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Orioles have registered six consecutive quality starts, a season high and a huge turnaround for a rotation that entered the week in the bottom five of the AL in starters’ ERA.
“[The starting pitching] has been at a level that, if we can stay there, will allow you to compete late in the season. Simple as that,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “That's what we're talking about. In order to accomplish what we want to get accomplished, this is the type of consistency we're going to have to have.”
On Saturday, it was right-hander Bud Norris, who delivered his second strong performance during this homestand, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings and walking off the mound in the seventh to a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 33,901.
“First-place Toronto over there, they have a good group of guys, but we like our guys. So it was a big win,” said Norris, who is 6-5 with a 3.73 ERA this season and 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA at home. “Bullpen picked me up from there, so I was a little shaky, wasn’t great particularly early, but started to find my stride.”
The Orioles (35-32) are back within 3 ½ games of the division-leading Blue Jays (40-30) with the finale of the four-game series Sunday at Camden Yards.
“It’s simple math,” Showalter said. “They’re ahead of you, but they’re also (just) ahead of some other teams in our division. They’ve been playing real well and you can see why.”
In their past six starts, the Orioles’ rotation has allowed just five earned runs in 39 2/3 innings. It has given up two runs or fewer in 13 of its last 16 outings.
Fresh off eight shutout innings against Boston on Monday, Norris encountered only two trouble spots. He allowed a bases-loaded walk in the second inning before getting a strikeout and comebacker to wiggle out of the jam. He retired 16 of 18 batters from that point until the seventh, when the Blue Jays chased him with two consecutive singles.
“You’re trying to carry everything over,” Norris said. “When you’ve got some momentum going your way, you just want to keep going out there every fifth day and give your team the best opportunity.”
Darren O’Day picked up a key ground out to end the seventh, but the Jays nearly tied it in the eighth against the Orioles’ bullpen. After O’Day hit Jose Bautista with a pitch, Edwin Encarnacion doubled into the left field corner and Bautista attempted to score from first.
J.J. Hardy made a perfect relay throw to catcher Nick Hundley to get Bautista at the plate, though play was halted for one minute and 41 seconds while umpires reviewed whether Hundley had violated the collision rule.
Ultimately it was ruled there was no violation – Hundley did not improperly block the plate before receiving the ball.
Two batters later, Brett Lawrie singled off Ryan Webb to score Encarnacion and make it a one-run game. But Webb induced a fly out to end the eighth and Zach Britton recorded his seventh save with a scoreless ninth to push the Orioles to 13-10 this season in one-run games.
The Orioles’ two-run fifth not only gave them the lead, but provided national sports shows with two highlights that can be shown repeatedly all year – maybe longer.
The first could end up in the baseball blooper Hall of Fame.
With one out, Adam Jones hit a grounder to third that Juan Francisco fielded, but his poor throw bounced past Encarnacion. Jones made the turn around first, where umpire Hunter Wendelstedt was positioned.
Jones appeared to step on the umpire’s foot and give him an accidental shove as he passed by, sending Wendelstedt flying to the infield dirt on his backside. Wendelstedt, a veteran umpire, seemed to take the fall in stride, though the fans – and some on the field – erupted with laughter.
“Oh my gosh,” Showalter said. “He’s behind the plate [Sunday]. I’m going to keep my mouth shut.”
Jones said very little about the incident – which was already causing his phone to blow up with text messages -- after the game.
“Parts of the game, man, I don’t know. He’s all right, so that’s all that matters,” Jones said. “I just asked if he was OK, and that’s all.”
Two pitches later, Chris Davis smashed an R.A. Dickey knuckleball into the Orioles bullpen for his 11th home run of the season. It was his fourth in his last 11 games.
“There’s no change in my approach or my work,” said Davis, who led the majors with 53 homers in 2013. “I’ve been doing everything I can to try to get back to feeling good in the box, and I feel like the last couple of days, I’ve started to click a little bit.”
His blast broke a 1-1 tie.
“That was a big blow, for Chris as well as us,” Showalter said.
As the home run ball soared over the outfield wall, reliever Tommy Hunter made his own highlight. Hunter, with a glove on his hand, jumped and caught the homer on the fly as it headed toward the Blue Jays’ bullpen.
The Orioles scored their only other run against Dickey thanks to a hustle play by designated hitter Delmon Young, who hit a one-out single in the fourth.
Young went from first to third on a bloop to right-center field, perfectly reading the ball and motoring to third just ahead of the throw. He scored on a Hundley sacrifice fly against Dickey (6-5), who allowed three runs (two earned) in 6 2/3 innings. He left in the seventh due to right groin tightness.
“Delmon, that was one of the big plays this year in terms of baserunning,” Jones said. “We haven’t exactly been the best on the bases of late. It’s good to see.”
Those little things matter when a starting pitcher keeps the game close. That’s what is happening right now for the Orioles – and that’s what likely will determine their fate this season.
“We understand that we need to keep working and keep getting better,” Norris said. “But, right now, we’re kinda cruising. And we’ve gotta keep going at it.”