NEW YORK – In a season that has been beset with injuries and continual roster shuffling, the Orioles picked up one of their more complete – and needed – wins Saturday afternoon with a 6-1 victory at Yankee Stadium, hours after suffering a heartbreaking defeat.
It couldn't be without intrigue and lingering uncertainty, though. That would be contrary to this club's unintended theme of the season: Nothing is ever easy.
Staked to a four-run lead and cruising through five innings Saturday, Orioles starter Bud Norris walked off the Yankee Stadium mound with right groin tightness after warming up in the bottom of the sixth.
Afterward, he said he was "pretty sore" and that it was too early to predict whether he'll make his next start.
"I don't want [the injury] to go on and I want to keep pitching for this team," said Norris, who has had left groin discomfort in the past, but never on the right side. "[But] I've really got to take it a day at a time."
Norris said he first felt a twinge while making a pitch to Francisco Cervelli in the fifth inning and told the athletic trainers once he came into the dugout. He was being monitored when he threw a warmup pitch before the sixth, grimaced and shook his head, prompting athletic trainer Richie Bancells, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Dave Wallace to run to the mound.
"He grimaces on every pitch. It might be the umpire, it might be the mound, it might be ... It's hard to know," Showalter said. "We had a feel. He talked to us a little bit the inning before and it went pretty well, and then between innings there, we knew it was a possibility."
Showalter believes the club shut down Norris before the discomfort worsened and is hopeful that he'll pitch the second game of Friday's split doubleheader as scheduled.
"He's getting an extra day next time out," Showalter said. "We've got other options, but I'm hoping we caught it in time and kept it from developing into something with the groin that, obviously, you don't want long-term."
It was an unfortunate development for Norris, who allowed just one run on three hits and two walks in five innings to pick up his fourth straight win, matching his career high for consecutive victories. Norris had never pitched in Yankee Stadium before, and he excelled before a announced sellout crowd of 47,165.
"My first start here in Yankee Stadium is a special day for me," he said. "Yankee Stadium is Yankee Stadium, so I just wanted to keep going every five or six days and give this team an opportunity."
Norris (7-5) has allowed just two earned runs in his past three outings, a span of 19 2/3 innings, and has lowered his season ERA to 3.62. He was on the verge of his third straight quality start before Ryan Webb was forced to enter in the sixth.
Instead of getting most of the day off, the relievers again had to be used heavily, with Webb, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter combining for four scoreless innings to secure the win for the Orioles (38-35). They are again one game behind the second-place Yankees (39-34) in the American League East, with Sunday's series finale between Chris Tillman and Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka looming.
Saturday's victory was particularly essential, considering the Orioles lost on a walkoff home run by Carlos Beltran in the bottom of the ninth Friday night and will have to face the dominant Tanaka in Sunday's rubber match.
"Very big, especially with who they got throwing [Sunday]," said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who homered for the first time this season Saturday. "We got Tillman, our horse, on the mound, but Tanaka is pretty good. So this is a big win for us."
The Orioles' offense tied a season-high with four homers, including three against Yankees lefty Vidal Nuno (1-4). Already having allowed 10 homers at home this season, Nuno was victimized in the first on a solo shot by Adam Jones and by a pair of two-run home runs, one hit by Nelson Cruz in the fourth and another by Steve Pearce in the fifth.
Cruz's homer was his 23rd of the season, tying him with Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion for the league lead. He now has two home runs in three games after not going deep since June 3.
Pearce continued his recent tear and is batting .421 in his past 11 games. In his last four he is 8-for-16 (.500) with two homers, four doubles and seven RBIs.
"Son of a [gun] can hit," Jones said of Pearce. "Doesn't matter whose fastball it is, he can hit a fastball, anybody's fastball. It's impressive. Quite impressive."
Perhaps the Orioles' most essential homer came in the eighth while they were already leading by four runs. It was hit by Hardy, the reigning AL Silver Slugger award winner at shortstop, who hadn't gone deep since Sept. 5, 2013.
His solo shot to left against reliever Jose Ramirez snapped a 339 at-bat homerless streak.
"It definitely felt nice. This has been a long time for me. I felt like I forgot how to do it," said Hardy, who had 25 home runs in 2013. "I think it's a little bit of relief. Started to question myself, if I would ever hit one again, so it felt good."
As he was rounding third he noticed that no one in the Orioles' dugout had moved, indicating that they were going to mess with Hardy and give him the silent treatment. So Hardy high-fived the air and threw sunflower seeds on himself in the dugout, to the amusement of his teammates.
"Luckily there was a [sunflower seed] bag just sitting there on the top step," Hardy said. "So I grabbed it and figured I'd give myself a sunflower seed shower."
Eventually, Hardy was mobbed by his teammates, with Cruz spraying him with water.
"It was tough for me," Showalter said of not reacting immediately to Hardy's homer. "I wanted to hug him when he came by, but I had to go along with the program."
The celebratory mood could have been tempered immensely if Norris' injury had been worse. But with the belief that he should be fine, the Orioles continued their even-keel approach in this roller coaster season, with another divisional game on the horizon.
"It's the Big Apple. The spotlight's on you," Jones said. "If you ain't ready for it, you're in the stands. Show up for a reason."