Nick Johnson’s brief career in an Oriolesuniform offered few highlights until Friday night.
The 33-year-old had grown frustrated with his inability to contribute to the burgeoning Orioles offense. It seemed as though he had left his bat at spring training in Sarasota, where he impressed the organization as one of the biggest dark horses to make the club as a non-roster invitee.
But with sole possession of first place in the AL East on the line, Johnson played the role of hero.
Johnson, who opened the season with a 0-for-28 hitless streak, hit a game-winning two-run homer in the seventh inning to give the Orioles a 4-3 win over the Rays on Friday night in front of an announced crowd of 26,669 at Camden Yards.
“It felt great,” Johnson said. “I was seeing the ball pretty well tonight. I had my legs under me, I wasn't hitting with skates on the way I have been all year. (I) did a lot of film work. Saw something in film work and gave it a shot.
“You want to get on base and let guys drive you in and produce. But I kept pushing, am going to continue to keep pushing, and we're going to continue to win ballgames.”
The win gave the Orioles (21-12) a one-game lead over the Rays in the opening game of this weekend’s three-game series. Gone suddenly was the bad taste of losing three of four to the Rangers to open this 10-game homestand.
Trailing 3-2 in the seventh, Johnson, who entered the game hitting just .086 (3-for-35) against right-handed pitching, took Rays right-handed reliever Joel Peralta’s full-count offering over the grounds crew shed in right-centerfield.
“Nick Johnson is always going to work you a good at bat,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “With two strikes I did not see that one coming. That was kind out of leftfield, out of rightfield actually.”
Said Johnson: “I squared it, but I didn't know I got it. I think the wind blew it out. I put a good swing on it.”
It was Johnson’s first homer as an Oriole and his first major league homer in more than two years. His most recent one came May 5, 2010 with the Yankees against the Orioles. Johnson spent last season in Triple-A nursing a nagging right wrist injury.
"Nick had a lot of good at-bats tonight, the type he's capable of putting together that we saw in the spring,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I think you can tell what everybody in the clubhouse thinks of him and respects him so.”
Injuries have plagued Johnson throughout his career. Just swinging in batting practice last season was painful. Only once since 2007 has Johnson played in more than 38 major league games in a season.
But this Orioles team is now facing its toughest task of the young season – shuffling its roster through a rash of sudden injuries –making the contributions of reserve players like Johnson more important.
"You trust guys with Nick's makeup and the things he's been through to get to this point,” Showalter said. He's always been coveted on clubs if he could just stay healthy, and I think that's what's been frustrating for him. For the first time, he's been healthy, knock on wood. But he'll be the first to tell you that tonight was one night. With some of the injuries we're having, we're going to, once again, need some guys to step up."
Orioles left-hander Dana Eveland, whose contract was purchased from Triple-A Norfolk before the game to fill the club’s empty starting-rotation spot, struggled with his control all night, but still gave the Orioles just their second quality start in their past six games.
“I don’t feel like I could throw the ball much worse than I did today,” Eveland said. “If I can do that on my worst stuff, hopefully when I have my good stuff I can really go out there and put up some good innings.”
Jones hit his team-leading 10th homer in the second, capping a nine-pitch at bat with a shot that landed just inside the left-field foul pole to tie the game at 1 in the second inning. Jones didn’t hit his 10th homer of the season last year until June 18.
Markakis hit his third homer in as many days – and his third in four games (He didn’t homer in Game 2 of Thursday’s doubleheader) – for his fifth home run of the season, a feat he didn’t accomplish last season until June 25.
Eveland, a groundball contact pitcher who relies on his control, walked six batters (one intentionally) and hit two others in six innings of work, but allowed just three runs on five hits. Going into the night, Eveland has walked just six batters total in 36 2/3 innings at Norfolk this season.
“Definitely very frustrating,” Eveland said. “I just couldn’t get it done today. I was trying to go sinkers away from guys and leaving them up. I hit a couple guys. I hit a guy with a 0-2 pitch, that’s obviously the last thing you want to do. It was a tough day for me. I was glad to get out of there and pitch six innings and only give up three runs and keep the team in the game. With these guys the way they are swinging, I had a good feeling about tonight so I was glad to get out of it.”
With the game tied at one, the Rays (21-13) scored two runs off Eveland in the fourth, an inning in which Eveland allowed three hits, walked two and hit a batter.
But the Orioles avoided further damage that inning when Markakis fielded Elliot Johnson’s one-out single off the right-field scoreboard and began a 9-4-2 throwout of Sean Rodriguez at home plate, a player that might have saved the game for the Orioles.
Johnson’s single plated one run to make it 2-1, but as Robert Andino’s relay throw reached catcher Matt Wieters at home plate, Rodriguez lowered his shoulder and barreled full speed into Wieters, but the Orioles’ 6-foot-5, 240-pound Gold Glove catcher held on for the out.
“I took away the plate, and you always check the replay, and I took away the plate pretty good,” Wieters said. “They always have the option to go around, but at the same time, if you take away the plate, at the same time, they always have the option to run over you, too, so it's part of the game. Thank God, I hung onto the ball."
That was a critical out. The Rays went up 3-1 that inning after Eveland issued an intentional walk to load the bases and then hit Carlos Pena on the right arm, but Eveland gotB.J. Upton to fly out to right to end the inning.
That was all the Rays would score, despite testing Eveland – who induced nine groundball outs out of 16 on the night – to the brink.
The Orioles bullpen tossed three shutout relief innings, retiring all nine batters it faced. Darren O’Day’s perfect seventh inning earning him the win. Pedro Strop threw a scoreless eighth and closer Jim Johnson set the Rays down in order in the ninth to earn his 10th save in as many opportunities.