OAKLAND — Throwing a game away — literally — doesn't usually sit well with teams, especially when they are attempting to establish themselves as consistent winners.
So when the Orioles dropped a 9-8, 10-inning loss to the Oakland A's Sunday afternoon on consecutive poor throws following sacrifice bunt attempts, it would be understandable if the players were chewing nails in post-game interviews.
For the most part, that was not the case — not after the Orioles (15-10) took three of four in their personal pain chamber, the Oakland Coliseum, to kick off a brutal, three-city, 11-game West Coast swing.
"Real proud of how we played here in Oakland," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We presented ourselves well here and we'll move on."
The Orioles were two outs in the ninth away from just their second four-game sweep of the Oakland A's — the other was at the Coliseum in May 1987 — in the history of the clubs.
But budding superstar Yoenis Cespedes, who was in his first game back from the disabled list with a strained muscle in his hand, lifted a low changeup from reliever Brian Matusz and planted it over the left field wall to tie the game at 8-8 in the bottom of the ninth.
"He took the wind out of our sails," said Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who broke a 6-6 tie in the eighth with his American League-leading ninth home run of the season. "When [Cespedes] hit that ball, I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?' He is a good player."
Normally, the left-handed Matusz would not be pitching in such a situation, especially against a right-handed slugger such as Cespedes.
But closer Jim Johnson had pitched in five of the past six games and Showalter, who manages a bullpen throughout a full season as well as anyone in baseball, was not going to overuse his closer for the sake of potentially getting an April win.
"It's a little different chain when you need to give Jim a day. But we definitely needed to do that. That was a very easy decision. The tough decision was pitching him [Saturday] afternoon," Showalter said. "You just don't do those things. Because when [Johnson] is gone, you kind of see. You can't pitch six out of seven days, you just can't do it. I'm not going to do it. You pay the price."
Showalter had few other options besides Matusz: Darren O'Day had already pitched, Tommy Hunter was being held out in case he was needed in long relief Sunday or Monday if Zach Britton doesn't go deep.
Right-hander Pedro Strop, who entered the day with an 8.22 ERA, was warming in the bullpen, but Showalter chose Matusz, the converted starter who had been one of the club's best relievers.
Strop picked up a key strikeout against Oriole killer Josh Reddick to finish the ninth, but he started the 10th with a single to Eric Sogard.
And that's when things got a little crazy.
The next batter, Adam Rosales, dropped a bunt that Strop fielded quickly. Instead of taking the easy out, he threw to second — with the ball sailing into center field
With runners on first and second, the A's bunted again. This time Coco Crisp pushed one down to the left side of the infield and Manny Machado pounced on it.
His throw to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was covering third, bounced into left field. It took Sogard a moment to notice where the ball went. Once he did, he dashed home, ahead of the throw from left fielder Nate McLouth for the winning run.
Just your traditional, walkoff sac bunt/error.
"We were trying to make the plays and unfortunately we didn't complete it, bad execution. The balls were right there, just bad throws. That happens," Strop said. "It's tough. It's a tough one to swallow because the guys were hitting the ball pretty well, playing so hard."
Afterward, Showalter lauded Strop and Machado for trying to make the aggressive play, something the club practiced continually in spring training.
"I applaud both of them. They are both out if [the throws are made]," Showalter said. "I tell the guys all the time, you feel something, go for it. I would have done the same thing. I am proud they went for it."
Hardy pointed the blame at himself for not getting to the base immediately.
"That was the play all along," Hardy said. "Manny knows when he picks up the ball that he is throwing it to third base and I think I was just a little bit late there and that's why I got handcuffed."
And the 20-year-old Machado wasn't exactly glossing over his rushed throw.
"Do or die. That was the right play. It didn't turn out the way we wanted it to," Machado said. "It's obviously frustrating."
The Orioles looked like they were going to cruise to the sweep when they scored four runs in the fourth, sending eight batters to the plate against Bartolo Colon. Davis had a two-run double, Adam Jones an RBI single and Matt Wieters a sacrifice fly.
McLouth triggered the rally with a leadoff single — one of his four hits and four runs scored. He has now reached base in 22 of his last 36 plate appearances. Machado also turned in his first four-hit game of his career while scoring twice and driving in two runs.
In the four-game series, the typical top five in the Orioles' lineup — McLouth, Machado, Nick Markakis, Jones and Davis — combined to go 33-for-82 (.402 average) with five homers, 21 runs scored and 22 RBIs.
"Offensively, as a team overall, we are doing great," Machado said. "We are executing when we need it."
The starting pitching also was dominant again — at least initially.
Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez had barely broke a sweat in his first five innings, allowing just two hits while throwing 65 pitches. But he unraveled in the sixth, throwing 40 pitches and giving up four runs on five hits and two walks (one intentional).
"That's about as good as you see a guy pitch for [five innings]," Showalter said. "It just kind of left him there and he lost a little feel. But we had some good opportunities. He gave us a good chance to win today and you know they were clicking on all cylinders with Cespedes back and hungry. You knew it was going to be tough to beat them today regardless of what kind of lead you might have."
The 40 pitches in the sixth were the most thrown by an Oriole in one inning this season, and it ruined the Orioles' shot of having four consecutive quality starts. Of the 17 runs Gonzalez has allowed this year, eight have come in the sixth.
"I think it just happens," he said. "I got a little bit tired, but you can't go with that. I do what I had to do and kept the team in the ballgame."
Ultimately, though, the Orioles still took three of four from the A's — and that wasn't lost on them.
"Three out of four is outstanding especially to start a long road trip against anybody, no matter where you are," Davis said. "So I definitely think we can be happy about that."