OAKLAND – If there's one thing that separates the Oakland A's and the Orioles, the American League's two upstarts, it's that the A's young pitching has been a tick better this season.
On Saturday, in Oakland's 5-2 victory, A's 23-year-old right-hander Jarrod Parker was a whole lot better than 24-year-old O's lefty Zach Britton, who gave up five runs and walked four in just four innings.
"It's not as good as [Britton] is capable of or we need him to be. So we'll move on," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think [the A's] are like second in the league in ERA. We knew coming in here runs were going to be at a premium."
The disparity in starting pitching was the difference in the Orioles' second consecutive loss to the A's – the first time the Orioles have dropped back-to-back games since Aug. 16-17. The Orioles have now lost 16 of their last 18 in Oakland and have not won a season series against the A's since 1998.
Paired with a New York Yankees' victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday afternoon, the Orioles have dropped back to second place in the American League East, one game behind the Yankees.
The Orioles (81-64) still maintain their grasp of the second wild-card spot, but they have fallen three games behind the A's (84-61) for the top spot. With the win, Oakland clinches the season series against the Orioles (5-3) – which would give the A's home-field advantage if the clubs tie for the wild-card spots.
"We're playing good baseball, we've just got to do what got us here. No one in this clubhouse is down. Last two days, we've been beat," said Adam Jones, who had two hits but a costly baserunning error. "I don't think we've beaten ourselves. We haven't really made mistakes, it's just timely hitting. We've got guys on base, just haven't scored more runs than them over the first two games."
On Saturday night, it all fell apart for Britton and the Orioles in a 10-batter, 38-pitch third inning in which Britton (5-3) allowed five runs on four hits, two walks and a hit batter.
Stephen Drew led off the inning with a solo homer, his fourth of the season and second with the A's. Britton then walked Coco Crisp and hit Jonny Gomes before Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes followed with RBI singles. The big blow came off the bat of Chris Carter, a double down the right-field line that scored Reddick and a sprinting Cespedes from first.
Britton has now allowed 10 earned runs and nine walks in his last two games, spanning 7 1/3 innings, after making four straight quality starts. He said he's been battling with a mechanical flaw that he just can't seem to adjust while pitching in the last two games, leading to a lack of command.
"It's an easy recipe for success, don't walk guys and I have success. Right now, it's just a small adjustment with my front side," Britton said. "It's funny, it's completely obvious because [Nick] Markakis brought it up to me in the dugout. Like, 'Hey you are flying open a little bit [with the lead shoulder].' And it's such an easy fix, but when you are out there in a situation you tend to over-think it. These outings, the last two, haven't been very good and have put us in a hole."
Steve Johnson entered in relief in the fifth and threw three scoreless innings to keep the game close. The rookie from Kingsville hasn't allowed a run in last 8 1/3 innings (four games), but he walked three Saturday.
"I like that I'm not giving up any runs. But I haven't been sharp the last two times out," Johnson said. "My breaking stuff really isn't where I want it to be. So I've got some stuff to work on, but I've been fortunate to get out of some jams."
The Orioles, who out-hit the A's 8-5, attempted to mount a rally against Parker in the top of the fourth. Jones singled and Chris Davis followed with a double down the left-field line. Jones inexplicably slowed on his way to third before heading home.
"I did slow down the first couple steps right before third base. That's something I never do. I score on the balls down the line, I score on most doubles," Jones said. "It's still something I'm still frustrated about it right now, because having a chance at the score 5-3 with no outs, man on second base, it changed the dynamics of the game … Honestly, there is no reason why, no excuse why. It's one of those things you can't explain, it just happens on the field.
Jones was thrown out at the plate on a perfect relay from Cespedes to Drew to catcher Derek Norris. It was one of several tremendous defensive plays by the A's, including a couple by Drew and a highlight-reel snag of a foul pop by third baseman Jason Donaldson while falling onto the rolled-up tarp near the home dugout.
Parker (11-8) did the rest, scattering seven hits and one walk while striking out five and allowing just two runs in seven innings. He yielded a Nate McLouth homer and an RBI double by Mark Reynolds, but little else. After the Jones play, Parker retired 11 of 13. He has given up three runs or fewer in five of his past six starts.
The Orioles had a bit of a scare in the fourth when athletic trainer Richie Bancells and Showalter came out to the plate because Reynolds was dealing with a physical issue after a swing.
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"The previous at-bat he took a hard swing with his biceps in his left arm, it had just gone numb on him," Showalter said. "It came back for him. We will see how he is tomorrow."
After the game, Reynolds, one of the club's toughest players, refused to acknowledge the injury, joking that Bancells and Showalter made the visit because "they were just asking me if I was seeing the ball OK."
When told that cameras caught him rubbing his left arm, Reynolds joked, "I just massage myself every now and then. It makes me feel better."
Reynolds expects to be in the lineup Sunday, when the Orioles face one of their most crucial games of the season. They don't want to be swept and fall too far behind the A's or the Yankees or allow some other potential wild-card contenders to close in.
"It's important. You have that extra wild card, it does allow that one-game playoff, and there are five or six teams in that boat and we want to keep ourselves in there," Jones said. "We just have to come back tomorrow with the same plan and get this win.
"It's not a must win, but it is a must win."