The Orioles won't finish the season with a sweep of their perennial bullies, but they still have a chance to make October intolerable for Red Sox Nation.
Paced by four homers, including the first two of rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway's career, Boston beat the Orioles, 8-7, on Tuesday, remaining tied in the American League wild-card race with the Tampa Bay Rays, who beat the visiting New York Yankees, 5-3.
With one game left in the 2011 season, Boston needs a win Wednesday and a Rays loss to avoid a one-game playoff Thursday afternoon in St. Petersburg, Fla. The reverse would send the big-money Red Sox home without the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
"They're meaningful for them, not for us," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who hit his 25th homer of the season but also grounded out to end the game. "It would be different if we were playing meaningful games. This place would be rocking; it would be a totally different atmosphere. But they need the games more than we do, so I think all the pressure's on them."
At least the Orioles made it incredibly interesting again for the announced crowd of 22,123, which traded "Let's go, O's" and "Let's go, Red Sox" chants and rose to its feet in the tense ninth.
"You already know we ain't going to quit," Jones said. "You've got the crowd behind you. We didn't quit."
Trailing 8-4 in the eighth, Chris Davis' RBI single and Nolan Reimold's run-scoring triple against reliever Daniel Bard cut the lead to two runs.
In the ninth, the Orioles mounted a brief rally against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon. J.J. Hardy led off with a single and moved to second on a groundout by Nick Markakis on the 11th pitch of his at-bat. Vladimir Guerrero followed with a two-hopper into left field to bring the winning run to the plate in Matt Wieters, who already had two hits, including a homer.
Wieters hit a tapper in front of the plate that scored Hardy but was thrown out at first. Pinch-runner Matt Angle, the tying run, reached second base. But he was stranded there when Papelbon won an epic, 10-pitch at-bat with Jones, who hit a soft grounder for the third out.
"I think everybody felt like we'd make a run at them," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "And we did over the course of the game."
It was Papelbon's 31st save of the season and kept the postseason hopes alive for the Red Sox, who have lost a nine-game lead on the Rays since Aug. 31.
To help eliminate the Red Sox (90-71) on Wednesday, the Orioles will have to solve Boston left-hander Jon Lester, who is 14-0 in 17 starts all time against Baltimore.
But in a month of the unexpected -- one in which the Orioles have won four of six against the Red Sox and 12 of their past 18 against playoff-caliber clubs while Boston has dropped 19 of 26 in September -- the suddenly struggling Lester is no longer a stone-cold lock at Camden Yards.
"That's not really a topic of discussion that our guys will have," Showalter said. "He's had some no-decisions where he didn't pitch particularly good here either. So that's why it's the big leagues. It's good. They're good. We've got the chance to compete tomorrow."
The last-place Orioles (68-93) no longer have a chance to win 70 games for the first time since 2006, partially because rookie Zach Britton on Tuesday turned in his worst start since his one-out nightmare in New York on July 30.
Perhaps fittingly, the Orioles' promising lefty finished 11-11 in a roller-coaster season that both demonstrated the top pitching prospect's talent and exposed his lack of experience.
"If you asked Zach would he have taken that coming out of camp, he would have said, 'No,' but that's the drive he has. He'll go home and take it all in and learn from it, and he'll figure it out," Showalter said. "There's no set time frame. There's not some chapter in a book, 'A Young Pitcher Develops 101,' that says this happens and it leads to that. But all things being considered, it's a good start for him, and I hope it's the start of a long, good career for a young Oriole pitcher for us."
Britton retired seven of the first eight batters he faced but allowed a two-run homer to Jacoby Ellsbury in the third and a three-run home run in the fourth to Lavarnway, his first as a big leaguer. He lasted 4 1/3 innings, giving up five runs on seven hits and two walks and pushing his final ERA to 4.61.
"I think I still would have been disappointed at the beginning of the season," Britton said about his overall numbers. "Obviously, I didn't know what the AL East is like, or major league baseball is like, but I still feel like I'm capable of better. I'm not going to be satisfied with those numbers. I think I can do a lot better. "
His line could have been worse, but reliever Jason Berken entered in the fifth and struck out Jed Lowrie, and, with the bases loaded, Nick Markakis made a great running, diving, backhand stab of a dying fly ball for the third out.
Berken couldn't hold it together in the sixth, though, serving up a triple to Carl Crawford and Marco Scutaro's seventh homer of the season. Lavarnway hit Boston's fourth homer to lead off the eighth against Zach Phillips.
The Orioles scored first on a double by Vladimir Guerrero that scored Markakis from first base. Guerrero scored in the fourth when Wieters launched a two-run home run into the Orioles' bullpen. Measured at 411 feet, it was Wieters' 22nd homer of the season.
The runs came against former Oriole Erik Bedard, who for the second time in a week did not pitch well against his old team. Bedard was charged with three runs in just 3 1/3 innings Tuesday after giving up four runs in 2 2/3 at Fenway Park on Sept. 20.
Reliever Alfredo Aceves (10-2) allowed one run -- Jones' 25th homer of the season -- in 3 2/3 innings for the win.
And now the teams will battle one more time -- with the Red Sox hoping they can celebrate in Camden Yards and continue their season into October.
Wednesday's "game is very important," Jones said. "Both them and Tampa need the 'W.' So, we're standing in their way, and New York is standing in Tampa's way."
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