The Orioles packed their bags last night knowing that their challenge will be exponentially greater when they are at Fenway Park today to begin a three-game series with the first-place Boston Red Sox.
Still, no matter what lies ahead - and the pitching matchups suggest it could be a long weekend in Boston - the Orioles left town for the start of a nine-game road stretch with renewed confidence. They drew some satisfaction from a successful homestand in which their offense finally show signs of breaking out.
Kevin Millar hit a three-run homer to highlight a five-run first inning and the Orioles handled the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 11-6, last night, completing a three-game sweep in front of 15,915 at Camden Yards.
Daniel Cabrera pitched six uneven innings for the victory, which completed a 5-2 homestand and moved the Orioles (17-18) back to one game under .500 and a percentage point ahead of the New York Yankees for second place in the American League East.
The Orioles are 5-1 against the Devil Rays this year and 10-4 against division foes. It was the third series sweep this season for the Orioles, one more than they had all of last year.
"It's a big sweep against a team like that," said Millar, who had four RBIs. "We're playing good baseball right now. We're starting to swing the bats better as a group. [Wednesday] night, we got shut out until the 10th. Tonight, we come out and score 11. Baseball is a crazy game like that."
The 11 runs were two more than the team's previous season high and every Orioles starter got at least one hit except left fielder Jay Payton, though his fourth-inning ground ball that was booted by Devil Rays third baseman Ty Wigginton drove in two unearned runs. Wigginton was ejected an inning later for arguing a close play at third base. He threw his hat in the crowd on his way to the dugout and a fan threw it back.
On the seven-game homestand, the Orioles averaged just under 5 1/2 runs and 11 hits per game. Trying to thrust Millar, Jay Gibbons and Aubrey Huff out of early-season slumps, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo continued to rotate his lineup with positive results, giving Nick Markakis his first day off a night after he sat Corey Patterson.
Patterson returned to the lineup last night and was 3-for-5 with three RBIs. Millar, Huff and Ramon Hernandez each had two hits and Gibbons had one, though he reached base three times.
"We always said we wanted to see everyone swinging the bat a little bit, and then you can divide [at-bats] up in different places," Perlozzo said. "We've got some guys that are swinging the bat a little better. Gibby's swinging the bat, Millar's starting to swing the bat, and now it [doesn't] have to be one or two guys. Now we can get everyone in and get production from everyone."
Millar, who deposited Casey Fossum's sinker into the left-field seats for his third home run of the season, nearly had a two-homer night, but center fielder Rocco Baldelli jumped the wall and pulled back a two-run homer in the fifth.
"I didn't know if that ball was going to go or not," said Millar, who took extra batting practice and credited hitting coach Terry Crowley with detecting some flaws in his swing while the two studied video before the game. "It's been carrying a little weird here. But I got it out of the yard and that was big. I thought I hit the second one better than the first, but Baldelli took that one away. That's the way it goes sometimes.
"The more consistent we start swinging the bats, the tougher it becomes to come out of the lineup. Things are going to work out. It always does. Right now, it's a little weird. As a player, you want to play every day. So to play every day, you've got to hit."
Cabrera, who has been a victim of hard luck at times this season, improved to 3-3, though it was hardly an impressive performance. The good news was that he didn't walk any batters. But on a night when the right-hander was twice given five-run leads, he let the Devil Rays (14-20) back into the game on both occasions.
Pitching with a hangnail on his right index finger that he said kept him from throwing a good curveball, he allowed six earned runs, including two long homers in the fifth inning. Elijah Dukes' three-run shot and B.J Upton's bases-empty homer cut a one-time 5-0 and 7-2 lead to 7-6. The Orioles held a tenuous two-run lead through the sixth and seventh innings and then put the Devil Rays away with a three-run eighth.
"It's not an injury. That happens with anybody. The game before I threw a lot of breaking balls and that's when that happened. But I feel good," said Cabrera, who expects that his finger will be fine by his next start.
"Everything in this game is about winning. Sometimes, I have a good game. I throw seven innings and I got only one run and I get out with a tie game. But this is a different feeling. ... That's why we are here - to win."
The Orioles will try to take that same attitude to Fenway Park, where they will play a Red Sox team that has won seven of eight and is threatening to lap the field in the AL East. Boston has won 17 of 20 games against the Orioles since last season, including two meetings this year.
"We've got some good pitchers throwing against us again, but we can beat them," Perlozzo said. "We just have to play good baseball, and then minimize our mistakes and I think we'll be in those things."