Of all the nooks and nuances of Fenway Park — from the afternoon shadows that creep along the infield in the fall to the adventurous outfield that includes the Green Monster and the Pesky Pole — none of them go unnoticed by Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
In Sunday’s series finale against the Red Sox, the Orioles had the opportunity to record their second sweep at Fenway this season. And through 7 ½ innings, the teams were tied at one, and it seemed like the Orioles and Red Sox were heading for extra innings for the fifth time in nine games here in 2012.
Before Saturday’s day game, Showalter talked about how the afternoon shadows at Fenway make it a guessing game for hitters because the mound is in the sun and the plate covered by the shade.
And the Red Sox scored the game-winning run just as those shadows covered the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning, scoring a run off reliever Luis Ayala on back-to-back doubles by Dustin Pedroia and Cody Ross to hand the Orioles a 2-1 loss to Boston in front of an announced sellout crowd of 37,310.
The Orioles had the bases loaded with one out in the ninth, but left the tying run on third base, snapping their season-high six-game winning streak.
The Orioles (87-65) remained one game back of the division-leading Yankees, who also lost Sunday, 5-4, to the Oakland A’s. The O’s are now one game in front of Oakland for the top AL wild-card spot with 11 games to play in the regular season.
“This time of the year, probably more so than any ballpark, with the shadows, there's a reason why the runs are scored late in the ballgame,” Showalter said. “The players won't talk about it publicly. It's tough to see here until the shadow catches up with the pitcher. Left-handers in day games, as you know, it's pretty well-documented. It's tougher to see here. “
Heading into their three-city, nine-game road trip — which included six games out west in Oakland and Seattle before returning east to Boston — the Orioles knew this stretch would play an important role in whether they would make the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
And the Orioles finished the road trip with an impressive 6-3 mark and now head home for their final homestand of the season, which opens Monday with a doubleheader against the Blue Jays.
“It’s the first time coming in [to Boston] at this point and time of the year and our name is ahead of theirs,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “That’s a tremendous feat. Now we go home for some big games. They’re not must wins, but they are must wins.
“It’s going to be a long day. We’ve got to get home, get a good dinner and get back on it tomorrow for at least 18 innings. We like to play extras, so I’m saying at least 18.”
Boston’s game-winning hit, Ross’ double down the left-field line off the Green Monster, would have been a fly out at most ballparks, but it proved to be the difference Sunday.
“I made one bad pitch to Pedroia,” Ayala said. “It was a little high. I made a good pitch to Cody but he hit it. It’s a part of the game. That’s a fly ball [in another park]. I can’t control that thing.”
Fenway tripped up the Orioles again in the top of the ninth. After Mark Reynolds hit a one-out single in the ninth, pinch-hitter Jim Thome laced a ball to right that one-hopped into the right-field stands around the Pesky Pole for a ground-rule double — a hit that likely would have lodged in the corner in any other ballpark in the majors and scored Reynolds.
Instead, Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey intentionally walked Chris Davis to create a force play, and rookie third baseman Manny Machado quickly hit a grounder to first, where Mauro Gomez threw home for the force at the plate. Rookie Ryan Flaherty then ended the game looking at a third strike.
Red Sox starter Felix Doubront, who entered the game having lost five of his past six decisions, kept the Orioles off balance all day, striking out a career-high 11 batters over seven innings and allowing just one run on four hits through the shadows.
“It was tough,” Reynolds said. “Guys were trying sunglasses, light-lens, dark-lens. But you know both teams were playing in the same conditions. Probably why the score was 2-1 and in the later innings, when the shadows got past the pitcher’s mound, it was a little easier to see.”
The Orioles had their best chance to break through against Doubront in the fifth. They opened the inning with three straight singles, the last one an RBI single by Machado to tie the game at 1. But the O’s stranded runners at the corners with no outs that inning.
Orioles starter Chris Tillman had his fourth quality start in his past five outings, the exception being Sept. 2, when he left the game after three innings with an elbow injury. Tillman allowed just one run on six hits, striking out four and walking one.
“It was OK,” Tillman said. “I was a little bit out of whack there early on. My tempo was a little slow. But I was able to make some pitches and get out of those long innings. It was a battle for me today.”
After Ayala allowed the game-winning hit, top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy made his major league debut with one on and one out in the eighth. The 19-year-old faced two hitters, inducing two flyouts to get the Orioles out of the inning.