Needing three critical outs to squeeze out a much-needed victory, the Orioles used three pitchers in the ninth inning — none of them being American League saves leader Jim Johnson — to close out their 4-2 win over the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night. But the play that might have saved the baseball season in Baltimore will likely go overlooked in the box score.
Manager Buck Showalter often talks about the trust he has in his players, and the faith they have in each other. He wants them playing aggressively, and the way the Orioles recorded the final out Wednesday was a prime example.
With runners at the corners with two outs in the ninth inning and the Orioles clinging to a two-run lead, Kelly Johnson took a tremendous jump from first en route to second.
Catcher Matt Wieters didn't hesitate, trying to end the game by rifling the ball to second. The throw scooted low and skipped just in front of second base, but shortstop J.J. Hardy swiftly picked and in one motion tagged the sliding Johnson for the final out before an announced 28,323 at Camden Yards.
"It was huge," said Orioles slugger Chris Davis, whose 46th homer of the season tied Jim Gentile (1961) for the third-highest single-season home run total in franchise history. "It fired me up. I thought my heart was about to explode in my chest there for a minute. We had another nailbiter. But that's what you expect down the stretch, close games playoff type atmosphere. But to get that throw off on a guy who got a good jump and the pick really was just huge for us."
The Orioles (68-58) avoided a series sweep and pulled to within 4 ½ games of the Rays for second place in the American League East. They also closed the gap with the Oakland Athletics — who come to Baltimore for a three-game series that starts Friday — to three games in the race for the second AL wild-card spot.
But it wasn't a conventional ninth inning as Showalter turned to three relievers other than his usual closer.
Darren O'Day, who pitched a scoreless eighth, came back out for the ninth and allowed a leadoff single to Wil Myers, then Brian Matusz came in and walked pinch hitter James Loney. Showalter then turned to Hunter, who has pitched in myriad late-inning roles.
"We've got 30-something games," Showalter said. "We're going to put our best foot forward every night. Jimmy's our best option, one of them. I'm glad we've got more than one good option. We've got a lot of good options and we'll continue to make use of them."
The manager further elaborated on his decision process, saying he wanted to avoid using Johnson on Wednesday night.
"I could have pushed it," Showalter said. "He had been up [in the bullpen] two or three days in a row and pitched [Tuesday] night. He's like second or third in appearances [in the American league] and I was trying real hard to stay away from him. ... Darren had two days off. Tommy was good for one up and in. ... There were some other factors."
After Hunter got two quick outs, Wieters threw out Johnson to seal Hunter's fourth career save (all this season).
"There was a couple of unbelievable plays made, and that's what it takes to win," Hunter said. "That's a high level of baseball being playing out there, and these guys stepped up today."
Showalter timed Wieters' throw to second at 1.75 seconds.
"That's sick," Showalter said. "You can't do that. He's had a few of those. How about the tag by Hardy? I've got to tell you, he's the best tagger I've ever seen. He does it text book where he starts in front and goes to the straddle and lets the ball travel. He catches the ball moving toward the runner. … It's impossible."
The Orioles homered twice against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, including Davis' majors leading 46th, in which he crushed a first-pitch delivery in the fifth inning for his fifth career Eutaw Street homer and his second this season, giving the Orioles a 4-2 lead. It was the 74th home run to land on Eutaw Street in the history of Camden Yards and the 30th by an Oriole.
Davis now trails just Brady Anderson (50 in 1996) and Frank Robinson (49 in 1966) on the Orioles' single-season home run list.
"It means we put up one run on the board and we were able to get the win," Davis said. "That's the biggest thing. Obviously team goals come before individual goals. I'm happy to be swinging the bat well, I'm even happier to get the win."
Adam Jones also homered, hitting his 26th of the season over the center-field fence — a blast estimated at 451 feet — to open the third inning and give the Orioles a 3-1 lead.
"That thing definitely was filled with helium, man," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That ball did not want to come down. That left the bat hot."