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Britton, O's bullpen come to the rescue

The Baltimore Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. -- When Chris Ray walked by him in the visiting dugout about two hours before last night's game, Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone called his name. Ray turned around and Mazzone said emphatically, "You are not pitching tonight."

No matter how great the temptation, the Orioles had to lay off Ray last night after the 24-year-old closer had pitched a total of 3 1/3 innings in the previous two days. It surely would have been Ray on the mound in the ninth inning last night with the Orioles trying to protect a one-run lead.

Instead with Ray watching from the bullpen, it was rookie Chris Britton who took the mound and proved a more than adequate substitute. Britton retired the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in order, securing the Orioles' 5-4 victory and his first major league save before 9,292 at Tropicana Field.

It was the Orioles' third straight victory and today they'll go for a three-game sweep of the Devil Rays, who have dropped nine in a row and have beaten the Orioles (66-85) just five times in 18 games.

"I talked to [Britton] before the game [and] I said, 'Do you think you can save this thing tonight?' He said, 'Believe it,'" said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who isn't sure if Ray will be available this afternoon either. "I was giving him the chance to live up to his word. The one thing is Britt is not afraid. If they are going to score off him, they are going to hit it because he's not going to walk anyone. He made some good pitches tonight."

Britton struck out Devil Rays' rookie B.J. Upton, got Ben Zobrist on an infield pop-up and retired Rocco Baldelli as shortstop Miguel Tejada made a fine play in the hole for the game's final out.

Britton, who hadn't pitched above Single-A before the season and is in his third stint with the Orioles this year, pumped his fist, hugged catcher Ramon Hernandez and then walked around the clubhouse after the game, clutching the game ball. He said he was planning to send the ball to his parents.

"Everything has happened in Tampa so far," said Britton, who hasn't given up a run in his past six outings. "I got called up here, I got my first strikeout here and now my first save. It's great.

"I like the fact that I am able to have the ball in a tight game. I was just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. ... Honestly, I put the save opportunity in the back of my mind. I just went out there trying to get another inning done."

Adam Loewen (6-5) got the win, steadying himself after a shaky second inning in which he allowed three runs, including a bases-empty homer to Jorge Cantu. Cantu's blast ended the pitcher's streak of 216 batters faced without allowing a home run, which had been the longest current streak in the majors.

"I had [Cantu] 1-2 and threw him a good changeup and he was all over it [and fouled it off]," said Loewen. "He was leaning over the plate and out in front. So I wanted to come in with a fastball. I didn't feel like I had to be too perfect but it was almost like he was sitting on it."

Leading 5-3 after the Orioles chased Tampa Bay rookie starter Jason Hammel (0-4) with a four-run fifth, Loewen, who again struggled with his fastball command, allowed a run in the sixth on a sacrifice fly, after walking two batters to begin the inning. That was his final inning as his line read four earned runs on six hits and two walks.

"He had a couple of good innings and I thought the last inning, he really struggled with the command of his fastball," said Perlozzo. "We just felt he was getting the ball up and it was a matter of time."

For the second straight start, Loewen left the game with a lead -- this time, a one-run Orioles advantage -- and clung tight to the hope that his team's much-maligned relief corps would hold it. It did.

"We throw the guys out there," said Perlozzo on his bullpen. "You have to go with them and hope they make the pitches. You just hope they come through for you and tonight they did."

Jim Hoey did his part by pitching a scoreless seventh. Todd Williams thought he was out of the eighth inning on a Cantu ground ball, but third baseman Melvin Mora bounced a throw that first baseman Chris Gomez couldn't corral and Cantu advanced to second.

Brian Burres was called on next, and he walked Greg Norton. Then came LaTroy Hawkins, who hadn't pitched since Sept. 2 because of a strained groin. Hawkins threw a wild pitch that advanced runners to second and third, but he rebounded to strike out catcher Shawn Riggans to end the inning.

"I knew Ray wasn't available today, so I said, [heck], I could go out there and give it what I got," said Hawkins, who was visibly hobbled on the mound. "I am baffled by it. I've never had an injury like this before. ... I am just glad I got a strikeout and he didn't hit it to first base."

Offensively, the Orioles didn't do much aside from their four-run fifth against Hammel, who is now 0-3 against the Orioles this season. Hammel acknowledged that a balk called on him in the inning, which resulted in the ejection of Devil Rays pitching coach Mike Butcher, may have affected his performance.

Jay Gibbons, who was 4-for-5, tied the game with his fifth-inning single and Hernandez gave the Orioles the 4-3 lead with an RBI double. It was his 86th RBI and 82nd as a catcher, tying Chris Hoiles' single-season club record (1993) for RBIs by a catcher.

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