For three nights at Camden Yards, the Orioles and Texas Rangers played a glorified home run derby, pounding baseballs out of a park that has the reputation of a launching pad in the summer months.
On Thursday night, on a crisp, clear, pleasant July evening, the two teams instead traded zeros until the ninth inning, when the Rangers finally squeaked through with two RBI singles for a 2-0 victory. From slugfests to a pitcher's duel, the series had it all — except for multiple Orioles wins.
"That's baseball. You never know what's going to happen," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "That's why you suit up every day and flip a coin. You never know what's going to happen."
With the loss, the Orioles (42-37) have fallen into a first-place tie with the idle New York Yankees in the American League East and one game up on both the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. The Orioles had won 10 of 11 at home before this series, but dropped three out of four to the Rangers (41-39).
"It's unfortunate that we didn't get the win tonight and the series, but it's a short memory," left fielder David Lough said. "We keep pushing through and just try to win as many games as we can and get to the playoffs."
In their first three games at Camden Yards this series, the Orioles and Rangers combined for 15 homers and 29 runs. Then both teams were stymied by excellent starting pitching.
"It was the first one who was going to crack," Jones said. "Unfortunately, it was us, but overall, good game. Good game to watch. No matter if you're a player or a spectator, it was a good game."
Orioles reliever Chaz Roe, who has been excellent since he joined the club in May, escaped a jam in the eighth that was set up by lefty Brian Matusz allowing both of the runners he faced to reach base. Roe ended the threat by getting a flyout, but in the ninth, he walked the leadoff batter, Shin-Soo Choo, who came around to score on a one-out single up the middle by Leonys Martin.
"That leadoff walk got me," said Roe (2-1). "Leadoff walks always find a way to score. That was a big key for me tonight and it didn't work out."
Jones attempted to throw out Choo at home, but his throw was off-line. Martin later scored on a single by Rougned Odor. Roe has now allowed two runs in consecutive outings after giving up two runs in his first 15 games for the Orioles.
"I'm not going to question him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's been solid for us. I thought he was again tonight."
Showalter said he was going to stay away from closer Zach Britton, who had pitched on consecutive nights, so he had to use his bullpen a little differently. He didn't want to extend Darren O'Day beyond the four outs he picked up, but because Matusz couldn't retire either of the two lefties he faced in the eighth, Roe was needed for the eighth and ninth.
"If we had Zach to pitch the ninth inning, it might have been a little different," Showalter said. "Darren can defend himself there, but that's a job that Brian needs to be able to do for us, and has [in the past]."
The bullpen breakdown still may have been overshadowed by the outing from 24-year-old right-hander Kevin Gausman, who was making just his second start of the season after starting 20 for the Orioles last year. The former first-round draft pick appeared in eight games as a reliever in 2015 before hitting the disabled list in May because of shoulder tendinitis.
He allowed just two runs in five innings during a no-decision June 20 in Toronto and then was promptly sent back to the minors as part of the organization's ongoing roster shuffling. Showalter indicated earlier this week that Gausman most likely would go back to the minors after Thursday's start. But the manager softened his stance after Thursday's outstanding effort.
"He gave us a chance to win. We just obviously didn't put much together offensively," Showalter said. "He pitched well and he's going with us to Chicago. We'll see how it works out."
Gausman said he didn't view Thursday's game as needing to make a statement, but he's buoyed that he's making the final trip before the All-Star break.
"Definitely. I packed a bag just in case," Gausman said. "I didn't know. It's definitely nice to hear, but it's one of those things, it's all about keeping [the bullpen] fresh."
Gausman, who threw three innings in the minors Sunday and was pitching on three days' rest, certainly made his case for sticking around with the Orioles.
Featuring a nasty split-fingered fastball, a traditional four-seam fastball that consistently reached the mid-to-upper 90s and a changeup in the high 70s, Gausman kept the Rangers off balance throughout his outing.
"I felt good, tried to challenge. Basically challenge their hitters, tried to really shut down the middle of their lineup," Gausman said. "That's kind of what they did the games that they kind of beat us up a little bit the first two in the series. Those guys really kind of had a big impact. That was my focus."
When he couldn't fool the Rangers, the Orioles' vaunted defense took over.
"What a great game we had defensively," Showalter said.
Lough turned in the play of the night in the second inning, sprinting far to his right and then crashing into the wall near the foul pole to rob Elvis Andrus of extra bases. As Lough ran off the field toward the Orioles dugout, he received a standing ovation from the announced 31,915.
In the sixth, Odor smashed a leadoff double to center, but tried to turn it into a triple. The relay from Jones to J.J. Hardy to Manny Machado was perfect, with Machado swiping Odor's outstretched hand a split-second before the runner touched the bag.
Later in the inning, the Orioles won a challenge when Hardy went deep into the hole to snag a bouncer and threw to Chris Parmelee at first to get Prince Fielder by a step. Fielder was initially called safe, but after a 59-second review, the call was overturned and the Orioles kept their challenge.
In the seventh, Machado made another difficult backhanded stab and long throw to get Adrian Beltre at first — continuing a series in which the young third baseman has excelled defensively.
"We care about defense," Jones said. "That's one thing that's gotten us to where we're at and I think keeps us afloat on most days when our offense and pitching isn't in sync. But our defense is always there."
Gausman left with two on and one out in the seventh, and reliever O'Day recorded the next two outs to keep the game scoreless. Gausman gave up four hits and two walks while tying a career high — done five other times — with seven strikeouts. His 6 1/3 scoreless innings was his most since seven scoreless on Sept. 12, 2014 versus the New York Yankees.
As good as Gausman was, he was matched by Texas right-hander Yovani Gallardo, baseball's hottest pitcher. In June, Gallardo allowed just two earned runs in 33 1/3 innings. The 29-year-old righty entered Thursday with a streak of 23 1/3 straight scoreless innings — and he extended it with six more. The Orioles had a few chances early against Gallardo, but couldn't capitalize. He then strung together a streak of nine straight outs.
Overall, Gallardo allowed just two hits and three walks before turning it over to his bullpen. Sam Freeman, Keone Kela (5-5) and Shawn Tolleson (12th save) combined for three scoreless innings to help the Rangers claim the series. It was the Orioles' first series loss since June 1-4 in Houston.
"The most important thing is to win series. You obviously can't go in trying to say I'm gonna sweep everybody," Jones said. "But if you win two out of three — in this case they won three out of four against us — but if you win the series, I think you'll probably have a good shot come Sept. 1 to see where you're at in the standings."