Orioles manager Buck Showalter likened the feel of Sunday night's nationally-televised game to that of playing in the postseason.
Sure, there were plenty of empty seats at Camden Yards, but the chill in the air was definitely reminiscent of mid-October. And the Orioles were playing a Kansas City Royals team with the best record in the American League, the same foe that ended the Orioles' season last October in the American League Championship Series.
With 20 games left in the season, calling the Orioles a postseason contender might be too kind. Still muddling below .500 and six games back of the second AL wild-card spot, they are indeed a long shot, but on Sunday night, they battered Royals right-hander Johnny Cueto – Kansas City's prized trade-deadline acquisition -- for four homers on their way to an 8-2 victory over the Royals.
Second baseman Jonathan Schoop recorded the second multi-homer game of his career with a pair of tape-measure solo blasts, Chris Davis hit his majors-leading 42nd homer of the season, and center fielder Adam Jones gave the Orioles a lead with a three-run homer four batters into the game.
It marked the first time the Orioles (69-73) recorded consecutive series wins since winning back-to-back series against the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves in late July, a statistic that might say more about their recent swoon in the standings than the accomplishment it is.
"It doesn't feel like [that] long," Schoop said. "Every time we go out there we want to win, but we went through a tough stretch, losing a lot of games but we're still in there. We have, what, 20, 21 games? We're going to play hard because we're hungry. We want to get to the playoffs. We got a taste last year of what it feels like so we want to be there again."
The Orioles -- who have won four of their past five games -- hit 10 homers in their three-game series with the Royals, during which the teams combined to score 52 runs.
"This is such a snowball time of year," Showalter said. "I said it before. Things can get going really one way or the other. We have to keep the carrot out there. We got 20 games left and we're going to try to win every one of them. If you watch the way our guys are going about their business, that's their idea as much as mine."
The Orioles have had their way with Cueto, hitting seven home runs off him in two meetings since he joined the Royals on July 31 in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. The Orioles hit three homers off Cueto when they last faced him on Aug. 26 in Kansas City, chasing him from the game after he allowed six runs on eight hits in five innings.
Cueto's delivery relies on nuance, from the hesitation in his leg kick to a unique shoulder shimmy to his quick-step fast pitch delivery, but the Orioles have solved him this season. On Sunday, Cueto allowed eight runs — seven earned — on 11 hits over 6 1/3 innings. He owns a 10.32 ERA against the Orioles this season.
The four homers the Orioles hit off Cueto on Sunday were the most he'd allowed since Aug. 21, 2010, tying his career high.
"It's not easy getting Cueto," Jones said. "We were able to get some balls lifted, and we were able to drive them out of the park."
Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen recorded his deepest outing in more than a month, holding the Royals (84-58) to two runs on six hits over seven innings. Chen was coming off consecutive starts of allowing five runs and failing to get beyond the fifth inning, but on Sunday night, he was effective against an aggressive Royals batting order.
"I am [happy] because I haven't been pitching well for some period of time and ... the past few games, my teammates were doing well," Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. "They were scoring runs, but I didn't do my job well. Today they are still doing great and today I am happy that I can do my part of the job and win this game."
Chen also benefitted from some solid defense. Nolan Reimold made a sliding catch to retire Lorenzo Cain in the first inning. Davis made a leaping grab of Ben Zobrist's line drive in the third, then began a 3-6-1 double play in the fourth. And Machado made a diving snag on Kendrys Morales' ball down the third-base line to open the seventh.
"I think, frankly, we played pretty good defense and there were about eight or nine balls hit on the button that our guys made plays on," Showalter said. "But he attacked, didn't walk anybody. And the balls they hit hard, we defended."
For the second straight night, Jones gave the Orioles an early lead with a three-run homer four batters into the bottom of the first.
After Manny Machado drew a one-out walk and Chris Davis singled, Jones took an 0-1 fastball from Cueto into the Orioles bullpen in left-center field for his 27th homer of the season, giving the Orioles a 3-0 lead.
Fourteen of Jones' 27 homers this season have given the Orioles the lead. He drove in a fourth run on a seventh-inning RBI double.
The Royals scored their only two runs off Chen in the top of the second with three straight two-out hits. Salvador Perez and Alex Rios hit back-to-back doubles to score one run and Alcides Escobar plated Rios with an RBI single.
Schoop homered in his first two at-bats of the night, needing to see just three pitches — all sliders — to put two of them over the outfield wall.
Schoop turned on a first-pitch hanging slider from Cueto to lead off the second inning, sending it into the Royals bullpen in left-center field. With one out in the fourth inning, he blasted a 1-0 slider into the center-field bleachers to give the Orioles a 5-2 lead.
"Cueto is a really good pitcher and if you get a good pitch [on] the first pitch or second pitch you better take advantage of it," said Schoop, who has 14 homers in 69 games this season. "You don't want to get into a [deep] count with Cueto because he's got a lot to go to, changeup, slider. He's a really good pitcher, got to attack him early."
Davis then blasted a solo homer with two outs in the fifth, taking an 0-1 changeup into the right-center field seats.
Davis' blast gave him the major league home run lead over former Oriole and current Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz. It was Davis' 91st career homer at Camden Yards, tying him with Brady Anderson for third on the ballpark's all-time list.
Darren O'Day and Zach Britton each tossed a scoreless frame to seal the win. Britton struck out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth inning and ended the game with his 300th career strikeout when he got Mike Moustakas swinging.