After hitting his first Orioles home run and first in his hometown Monday, Steve Clevenger stood by his locker following the club's 4-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics wearing a huge smile on his face and an incredibly appropriate T-shirt on his chest.
“Just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub,” read the words on his shirt, clichés from the quintessential minor league baseball movie, “Bull Durham.”
It's an old T-shirt, Clevenger admitted, but “it's perfect for today, right?”
Clevenger, a Baltimore native who spent part of his childhood in the Pigtown neighborhood near Camden Yards and graduated from Mount Saint Joseph, said he didn't initially think about the significance of his three-run homer in the fourth against Oakland ace Sonny Gray until he got into the home dugout. And then it sunk in.
“I think it's awesome. Playing here in Baltimore is a dream come true for me,” said Clevenger, who was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk on Friday. “To be part of this team right now, help the team get a ‘W' here in Baltimore and get it rolling, it's great. It's an awesome experience.”
It gets even better.
Clevenger is the first Oriole born in Baltimore to homer at Camden Yards, according to STATS Inc. The only other Baltimore-born Oriole to homer here was pitcher Tom Phoebus in 1968 (Damon Buford homered as an Oriole, but never in Baltimore).
This is Clevenger's 10th professional season — something Bull Durham's lead character and cliché-teacher Crash Davis would appreciate — and just his second big league homer. His first came in 2012 while with the Chicago Cubs. He hit it against his former Orioles teammate, Bud Norris, who was with the Houston Astros at the time.
The 29-year-old Clevenger has been with the Orioles for parts of three seasons now — he was part of the trade that sent Jake Arrieta to the Cubs in 2013 — but the reserve catcher hasn't played much for a club that stresses defense. The Orioles always have believed Clevenger's bat was ahead of his glove, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter told him that during spring training.
“I went down to Norfolk this year and I was on a mission down there to get better at catching and get better at every aspect I can get better at,” Clevenger said. “We sat down and talked. They talked to me about what I needed to do down there. And I went down there and I did it.”
Clevenger's .305 batting average at Triple-A was tough to ignore, especially for an Orioles club that was no-hit Wednesday. So, he received the call-up Friday, had a career-best four hits on Sunday and then was the offensive spark the Orioles needed to complete a four-game sweep of the Oakland A's on Monday.
It's the Orioles first four-game sweep since June 30 to July 3, 2014 against the Texas Rangers. The Orioles had not swept Oakland in four games in Baltimore before Monday and had accomplished it just one prior time in the teams' histories, May 22-25, 1987.
“I can't tell you how hard it is to win four games from the same team, home or away,” Showalter said. “It's hard.”
While Clevenger provided the big blast, Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman did his part on the mound. Coming off a rough start in Seattle in his last outing, in which he was chased in the third inning after yielding five runs, Tillman bounced back against the A's, the American League's worst team.
Tillman (9-7) allowed solo home runs to former Oriole Danny Valencia in the second and rookie Mark Canha in the sixth — and just one other hit, a single to Canha in the third. Otherwise, Tillman kept the A's guessing, and the defense behind him busy. He struck out just three batters, but lasted seven innings, picking up his fifth quality start in six attempts.
“It was a grind early on, threw a lot of pitches, kind of dug myself in a hole,” Tillman said. Catcher Caleb Joseph “did an absolutely fantastic job getting me through that. Just the right mix with pitches, and we were able to grind our way through.”
Tillman had pitched just once since July 29 due to a sprained ankle, but said he felt discomfort on only one play Monday.
"There was just one pitch where I felt it. The foot let me know it was there,” Tillman said. “Other than that, for the most part, it was good physically."
Darren O'Day and Zach Britton (29th save) threw scoreless innings to finish the game.
Gray, who was scratched from Thursday's start in Toronto due to back stiffness, might have been rusty after a nine-day layoff.
He didn't look that way early, though. Entering the night with the best ERA in the American League (2.06), Gray retired 11 of the first 12 batters he faced, allowing only a one-out single to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning. He struck the other three batters in the inning.
But a miscue by Oakland with two outs in the fifth, gave the Orioles a chance to reach the 25-year-old right-hander.
Chris Davis hit a ground ball into the shift, but second baseman Eric Sogard, positioned in shallow right field, let the ball squirt through his legs for an error. Schoop singled, making it runners at the corners. Clevenger made the A's pay for the mistake.
Oakland cut the lead to one run on Canha's ninth homer of the season, but the Orioles responded in the bottom of the sixth when J.J. Hardy scored on an RBI double by Joseph.
Gray didn't make it out of the inning, and finished having allowed four runs (one earned) on seven hits and two walks in 52/3 innings. He had lasted six innings in each of his past 13 starts.
It was the first loss for Gray (12-5) since July 17. The A's (51-69) have lost seven straight and finish their season series with the Orioles at 1-6.
The hero of the night was Clevenger, the Baltimore kid who kept working in the minors and who hopes he's making the big league club notice him now.
“I hope so. I hope Buck is paying attention a little bit,” Clevenger said with a laugh.
For what it's worth, Showalter said he is.
“Talking to him very bluntly this spring, I said ‘Go down there and lead the league in hitting. You are going to be holding all the marbles at the end of this year. Present yourself attractively, with everything,'” Showalter said. “And he's done everything at every turn. That's why I'm glad he's getting a return for it. Glad we are, too.”