By Peter Schmuck, The Baltimore Sun
11:28 PM EDT, September 13, 2011
The only thing left to play for at the end of another season in the American League East cellar is a moment like this:
Catcher Matt Wieters slammed a two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning Tuesday night to give the Orioles a 4-2 victory at Camden Yards and deliver a damaging blow to the playoff hopes of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Orioles (59-88) stared down Rays ace David Price and finally broke through against reliever J.P. Howell (2-3) -- Wieters' 19th homer of the year having a sudden impact on the AL wild-card race. The Rays (82-65) had climbed to within three games of the slumping Red Sox, but their five-game winning streak ended at Camden Yards and the Boston broke its five-game losing streak at Fenway Park to move four games up with 15 games left for each team.
"We're playing some teams at the end of the year that are playing for places in the playoffs, so they're going to bring their 'A' game, and anytime you can go out there and get a win, it's going to help your confidence going into next year," Wieters said.
If the home run was more satisfying because it had an impact on the postseason prospects of one of the remaining contenders in the AL, he wasn't letting on.
"I don't think we're really trying to spoil," Wieters said. "We're just trying to play as well as we can against teams that are going to the playoffs. They can fight it out and go for the playoffs. We're just trying to get better and keep working."
What an unlikely outcome, considering how well the Rays have been playing and how imposing Price can be, but Orioles starter Alfredo Simon delivered a solid seven-inning performance that included a career-high nine strikeouts. The bullpen did the rest, with Troy Patton (1-1) pitching a perfect inning to get his first major league victory and Jim Johnson getting the final out to record his fifth save.
Price also worked into the seventh inning and gave up two runs on four hits and three walks but again failed to get much help from his hitters.
It was the pitching duel nobody in the announced crowd of 13,262 could really have expected. Price is one of the most dominant left-handers in the league -- the 12-12 record he carried into the game more reflective of that inconsistent run support than a .500-caliber performance on the mound. Simon has the physical tools to be overpowering, too, but has yet to prove he is consistent enough to warrant being projected as a member of next year's Orioles rotation.
"I said before the game, in order to have a chance at Price, you've got to match a similar outing because you know runs are going to be at a premium," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I thought that's what Alfredo did. I really liked the inning he pitched after he gave up the home run to Longoria. That was good to see. Still, you're looking for that consistency out of him."
Obviously, there are going to be some 2012 jobs to be won, and Simon -- at age 30 -- should already be past the point of auditioning alongside the club's young pitching prospects, but his on-again, off-again performance has remained one of the organization's unsolved mysteries.
"Next year is a big year for me," Simon said. "I'm just trying to show them what I got, and do it 100 percent so they can think about me next year."
He looked like he meant it Tuesday night, matching Price pitch for pitch through the first five innings and hanging tenaciously to the one-run lead that the Rays gift-wrapped for him in the first inning. J.J. Hardy doubled off the out-of-town scoreboard with one out and scored when shortstop Sean Rodriguez fielded a bouncer by Nick Markakis and skipped his throw into the camera well behind first base.
Price shook off that moment of misfortune and settled down to hold the Orioles scoreless until Jake Fox's pinch-hit double in the seventh inning, seemingly gaining strength as the game progressed. He retired 14 of the next 16 batters after the error and struck out the side in the fourth. Robert Andino put a big swing on him in the fifth, but left fielder Desmond Jennings made a sensational leaping catch at the fence to end the inning.
Simon also got off to a rocky start and had to dodge scoring threats in the first two innings, the second requiring him to work out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam by striking out catcher John Jaso and getting Rodriguez to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Rodriguez's grounder provided the first two in a string of 13 consecutive outs before Simon walked B.J. Upton and gave up a two-run homer to third baseman Evan Longoria with one down in the sixth inning.
Simon was coming off a pair of rough starts. He had given up six runs in a loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field on Sept. 3, and walked six batters in his previous appearance Thursday against the New York Yankees. He was much sharper this time and did not wilt after Longoria's second extra-base hit of the game.
He got a couple of ground balls to escape the sixth and wrapped three more strikeouts around a couple of singles in the seventh to set a career high with nine K's.
It was a convincing performance, but the Orioles can be forgiven if they are still not convinced. It was Simon's sixth quality start in 13 attempts, but it was only his third since reeling off three impressive starts in July. If he remains on turn the rest of the way, he'll get three more chances to prove he should be on the short list to start in 2012.
"I think he's kind of figured that out a little bit," Showalter said. "I think he understands the situation. We're looking for consistency, people we can trust to do something when we put them in a situation that they're equipped to handle. He went through this last year in August and September."
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