Orioles manager Buck Showalter is a big picture kind of guy, taking pride in the fact he won’t jeopardize the health of his pitching staff just to try and win one game.
Basically, that was his thinking Sunday afternoon in a 5-3 loss to the New York Yankees, which snapped the Orioles’ season-high, six-game winning streak, pushed them back to .500 and cost them a chance to accomplish something they hadn’t done in 45 years.
Instead of sweeping the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in consecutive series for the first time since 1970, the Orioles (31-31) had to settle for winning two out of three against the Yankees (34-28), who are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the American League East.
“There are so many variables that go into everything,” Showalter said. “You're trying to survive the long haul and you're also trying to win that game. Things do change, too, when the score changes. Some things you'd like to stay away from, but if you have a chance to win a game you go for it.”
On a sticky, humid afternoon before an announced 36,343, the Orioles’ opportunity to win or lose seemingly came down to one half inning — the top of the fifth, with the Orioles clinging to a 3-2 lead.
Rookie right-hander Mike Wright, making his fifth big league start and first at any level in a week, had labored through four innings and thrown 86 pitches.
Showalter decided to send Wright to the mound in the fifth, and to stick with him as he walked Chase Headley, then walked Alex Rodriguez and then walked Mark Teixeira to load the bases with no outs.
At any point, Showalter could have gone with either lefty Brian Matusz, who had rejoined the team Sunday after being suspended eight games for having a foreign substance (sunscreen and rosin) on his right forearm during a game on May 23, or rookie Tyler Wilson, who was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk hours earlier.
Showalter said he was staying away from veterans Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter and Brad Brach because they had either pitched a lot recently or would be needed specifically to combat the Philadelphia Phillies lineup this week.
“We had three guys we weren't going to pitch today, so when you look at where your options are, you're trying to see if you can scare up a lead and get the ball to [closer Zach Britton],” Showalter said. “But I'm not going to pitch Zach multiple innings with only two days off. Each day it changes, managing a bullpen and keeping your people healthy.”
Showalter also figured Wright had pitched better up to that point than it had seemed. Infield hits and well-placed balls had led to a run each in the first and second innings.
“The baseball gods weren't too kind to Mike today. He'll tell you that the command was a little bit off after that, but they did a good job, like the Yankees always do, of grinding pitchers and [getting] a lot of foul balls. Then they put the ball in play and find the hole,” Showalter said. “It's not like they beat him around.”
So Showalter stuck with Wright for the fifth, until after he walked the bases loaded.
“It sucks whenever you walk three people,” said Wright, who hasn’t pitched beyond five innings since the first two superb starts of his major league career in mid-May. “I was throwing some good pitches and they kept fouling them off and kept battling. They ended up having the upper hand.”
Matusz was then summoned to pitch against left-hander Garrett Jones, the first big league hitter Matusz had faced since May 31. He walked Jones on six pitches to tie the game, 3-3.
“Walking the [first] guy, that was a killer,” Matusz said. “With Garrett Jones there, [it’s a] situation I feel like [if I] come out and attack the zone a little bit better with some strikes, it falls a little differently there.”
Matusz nearly kept the score tied, picking up two strikeouts, before Yankees reserve catcher John Ryan Murphy smashed a screamer down the third base line. Manny Machado nearly made a tremendous catch, diving and nicking it with his glove, but the ball rolled into foul territory in left, scoring two.
“I was surprised he got leather on it,” Showalter said of Machado. “If he doesn't get leather on it, they probably score all three of them.”
Two runs were plenty for the Yankees trio of Chasen Shreve (3-1), Justin Wilson and Dellin Betances (third save) who combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Adam Warren.
Tyler Wilson entered with two outs in the sixth, and threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings — the longest outing by an Orioles reliever this season. But an offense that had scored 20 runs in its past two games was limited to a two-run single by Nolan Reimold and a run-scoring double by Caleb Joseph in a game that was played in 92-degree heat and lasted 3 hours and 29 minutes.
The Orioles willnow face the worst team in baseball, the Phillies, for four straight — two at Camden Yards and then two in Philadelphia. Despite losing Sunday, the Orioles are riding a stretch in which they have won eight of 10 and captured three straight series.
“I think we’re definitely starting to hit our stride and that’s big for us, to get everybody healthy to get everybody on the field and start playing together,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “And I think that’s what we’ve done the last few games.”
The Orioles are back to .500 for the 10th time this season and are just one game behind last year’s pace (32-30), when they finished with 96 wins and won the division title. They now have exactly 100 games to play — and that’s the big picture they are focused on.
“I think we expect to be over .500. There’s so much emphasis put on the stats and standings and where you are,” Davis said. “But right now, the biggest thing is to go out there and try to keep doing what we’ve been doing. At the end of the year, that’s when you look back and say, ‘Where are we in the standings? When do we need to make a push?’ But, right now, we just gotta keep going out there and playing baseball.”