BOSTON — Orioles closer Jim Johnson often refers to his teammates as a bunch of grinders, a group of blue-collar players who pay little attention to individual accolades and instead focus on doing the unnoticed essentials that lead to winning.
Johnson uses the grinder term because it bears reference to the gritty third-liners of a hockey team (he's a die-hard New York Rangers fan), the guys who lay down hits instead of scoring goals.
So when Johnson set a new Orioles single-season record with his 46th save to close out a 4-2 win over the Boston Red Sox on Friday night, he didn't get caught up in the mark. More important was that his scoreless ninth inning helped the Orioles take another step toward cementing their first postseason berth in 15 years.
“It means we're winning games, that we're having a good season, so that's pretty much all it means right now,” said Johnson, who broke a tie with Randy Myers, who set the previous club record in 1997. “People ask how many do you think you're going to get? What's a good season? What's a good number? It really kind of doesn't mean anything. We'll talk about it at the end of the year and see if it really does mean anything.”
The Orioles grinded out their fifth straight win — and their eighth in their last nine games at Fenway Park — in front of an announced sellout crowd of 37,731 to take sole possession of the top American League wild-card spot. The Orioles (86-64) also remained one game behind the AL-East-leading New York Yankees, who beat the Oakland A's, 2-1, in 10 innings.
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters drove in three runs, starter Miguel Gonzalez recorded his seventh quality start and the bullpen shut the door on the Red Sox to improve the team's record to 67-0 when leading after seven innings.
"That's hard to do,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of the Orioles' eight wins in their last nine here. “But I've said many times, that one common denominator for teams that get a chance to play in the postseason is, you've got to compete on the road. … It's the pitching. What having guys that make runs and leads matter does for morale of a club over a long season like we play is so important."
The Orioles now have 43 road wins and a .579 road winning percentage. Both marks lead the American League.
“We're just a team, a bunch of guys who just battle,” said Johnson, who has converted 46 of 49 save opportunities. “You know you have to go into enemy territory to try to steal some wins. They talk about how you have to win the series at home and protect on the road, but I feel like we go into every series expecting us to win. It's just that mindset we've had since the beginning of the year, and we've carried it the whole way through.”
The Orioles have won 15 of their last 20 games against the Red Sox, this time defeating long time Orioles killer Jon Lester for the first time in his career. The left-hander entered the night with a 14-0 career record against the Orioles, even though the O's had won the previous three games Lester started against them.
Orioles second baseman Robert Andino, who was hit in the head by a Mark Melancon fastball in the ninth inning, was removed from the game and went to a local hospital after the game to get a CT scan. He was not made available to reporters after the game.
After the Red Sox took a 1-0 lead in the third on Pedro Ciriaco's RBI double, the Orioles plated two runs the next half inning on a two-run single to left by Wieters.
Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia capped three consecutive two-out hits off Gonzalez with a run-scoring single in the fifth to tie the game.
But Wieters drove in his third run of the night in the sixth by pulling a double down the left-field line off Lester (7 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 3 BB), scoring Adam Jones from first to give the Orioles a 3-2 lead.
That was followed by an RBI single by Mark Reynolds, his 15th RBI in 10 games against the Red Sox this season. Reynolds is hitting .441 (15-for-34) against Boston this season.
“He's been tough against us,” Wieters said of Lester. “All year, all prior years. He's a good pitcher with a good arm and he's been really, really tough on us. But we were able to get a few runs off him today and Miggy made it hold up as well as Darren [O'Day]and Jim coming in at the end.”
Gonzalez, working on eight days rest, earned his fifth win in his last seven decisions, allowing just two runs over 6 1/3 innings before giving way to O'Day, who threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings. In three appearances against the Red Sox, Gonzalez is 2-0 with a 2.76 ERA.
After the game, Lester joined the growing group of believers in this group of grinders.
“I saw a stat on the other day, they're able to win those one-run games,” Lester said. “It's very important, can turn your whole season around. The back end of their bullpen is very good. We saw that tonight.
“And their closer. Buck has done a good job over there as far as trying to change the mentality of their players. The offense was always there. They could always hit the ball and run and do the little things inside the game. They lacked a little pitching, whether it was starting or the back end of the bullpen, and they've done a good job of filling those pieces and it's finally coming together for them.”