On a homestand that has been defined by gritty comebacks and tight late-game situations, it just wouldn't have seemed right if the Orioles protected their four-run, eighth-inning lead and coasted to an easy victory over the Washington Nationals.
And so it was that the Orioles' advantage was whittled to a run in the eighth and the Nationals still had the bases loaded. That Austin Kearns worked reliever Jim Johnson to a full count only added to the drama.
Johnson steadied himself to strike out Kearns, and then closer George Sherrill pitched a perfect ninth to help the Orioles secure a 6-5 victory over the Nationals in front of an announced 32,662 at Camden Yards.
"It was an interesting eighth inning, as everybody saw, to say the least," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "But we hung in there. I thought our poise was very good."
Nick Markakis and Jay Payton each hit a two-run home run, Alex Cintron was 4-for-4 in his first start, and Brian Burres pitched 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball in the Orioles' fourth straight win, the first on this homestand in which they didn't need to come from behind. Sherrill picked up his 17th save, tying him for the major league lead, and has saved six straight victories for the Orioles.
"That's baseball, exciting games like that," said Markakis, who was 2-for-4 with three RBIs. "You're not going to always win by three or four runs. We've been doing a good job under pressure. [Johnson] threw a great pitch. That's what it's come down to, timely pitching and timely hitting."
The Orioles, who have won seven of their past eight games to improve to 23-19, will have an opportunity to sweep their regional rivals and complete a perfect five-game homestand this afternoon behind Jeremy Guthrie. They are 11-5 in one-run games after going 13-31 last season.
"That's a part of maturity," said Payton, whose fifth-inning shot off an ineffective Odalis Perez gave the Orioles a 6-2 advantage. "A lot of guys were here last year when we lost those games. You get better or you get lost, basically. Right now, everybody is getting better and we're doing a better job winning these one-run or two-run games that we would have lost last year."
When Burres left the game with two outs in the seventh after allowing just two runs and four hits, the Orioles still had a seemingly comfortable four-run lead. Chad Bradford got the final out of the seventh and then was removed with two outs and two men on in the eighth and Dmitri Young coming to the plate.
Trembley said he believed it was a perfect spot to bring in Dennis Sarfate, largely because Young is a low-ball hitter and was playing in just his second game since a long stint on the disabled list. However, Sarfate walked Young to load the bases and then allowed a two-run single to Aaron Boone that cut the Orioles' lead to 6-4.
"I thought that was the right situation for Sarfate to just come in there and throw fastballs, try to beat [Young] with one pitch," Trembley said. "He was pitching away. I'd really prefer to just go ahead and pitch him hard inside, but that's baseball."
Trembley then brought in Johnson for the fifth time in the past seven games. Johnson, who has been dominant on this homestand, walked Wil Nieves to load the bases and then hit Lastings Milledge on an 0-2 pitch to force in a run and make the score 6-5. However, he made a pitch when he needed to, a 96 mph fastball that the slumping Kearns swung through.
"You're going to run into jams sometimes," Johnson said. "Nobody's perfect. You take the good with the bad, and we got the win."