Before the Orioles sealed their 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays with one of their most dramatic endings of the season Friday night, they spent most of the game frustrated at the plate.
The Orioles ended up rallying from an early four-run hole, taking the lead against the Rays bullpen with a resilient two-run eighth inning, before the game ended with Matt Wieters' tag at the plate beating Mikie Mahtook on Alexei Ramirez's hit down the left-field line.
Left fielder Michael Bourn scooped the ball off the wall and Manny Machado fired a pinpoint throw home to extend closer Zach Britton's save streak to 44. But it was the way the Orioles bucked their trend of winning games with the long ball that pointed to the uniqueness of the win.
The Orioles spent most of the past two nights swinging from their heels, hoping one swing could erase another early deficit. The result was pure frustration, with the Orioles' best power hitters whiffing through pitches and squandering scoring opportunities all over the base paths.
With just over two weeks remaining in the regular season, there's no doubt the pressure is on for the Orioles. And as they open their season-long 11-game final homestand against the last-place Tampa Bay Rays, these games are as must-win as any.
While swinging for the fences isn't anything different from what the Orioles have done throughout this season, and they have gotten this far — in possession of one of the two American League wild cards and two games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox — that wasn't what won Friday night's game.
It was a mix of patient at-bats and small ball in an eighth-inning comeback.
The Orioles remained in the game with a pair of solo homers off Rays starter Chris Archer. Pedro Alvarez hit his 21st of the season in the second inning and Chris Davis opened the fourth with his 38th. But the Orioles' game-winning rally — partially a product of the Rays' unraveling late in games as cellar dwellers are wont to do — came to life after free-swinging second baseman Jonathan Schoop worked a six-pitch walk against reliever Brad Boxberger to start the eighth, and Alvarez followed with a four-pitch walk.
Wieters was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and J.J. Hardy's infield single into the hole at short allowed Schoop to score to tie the game. After a series full of swinging for the fences, Bourn's sacrifice fly gave the Orioles the eventual winning run, scoring pinch runner Nolan Reimold from third.
"There's a lot of good at-bats there," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Jon, a very patient walk. Matty got hit by a pitch. And I thought Pete had a real unemotional at-bat. It's so easy to get caught up in the emotion this time of the year and get out of yourself and try to get too aggressive with the game and not let it come to you. We talk about, that's the guy that's had some issues going on right now. Don't compound them by letting the emotion take you out of your at-bat. And I thought Pete had a great at-bat. And J.J.'s very quietly been very solid for us for a while. Michael made a real contribution tonight."
It was a combination not seen often over the first two games of the series, which consisted of a pair of games that included early inning deficits that took the air out of Oriole Park. Falling behind quickly placed the Orioles offense into a September pressure-cooker, looking for a long ball on any pitch over the plate.
In the seventh inning of Friday's game, the Orioles trailed by one run with the bases loaded and one out. Hyun Soo Kim had just been robbed of a grand slam by Tampa Bay center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who brought the ball back into the ballpark with a leaping grab over the fence. But the ball came out of his glove on the way down, giving Kim the longest of RBI singles.
The Orioles didn't even need a hit to tie the game, only a reasonable fly ball to the outfield. But sluggers Machado and Davis struck out successively to end the inning.
"We had opportunities again tonight, and that was the game tonight that we really needed to win," Wieters said. "C.D. and Pedro hit big home runs for us to keep us in the game earlier in the game, but we had to try and scratch and fight. Boxberger's tough. He's got two pitches where you've got to pick which one to hit. We were able to get two runs that inning."
The previous night, the Orioles were hitless in their last 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position in a 7-6 loss that ended with Mark Trumbo and Davis stranding the tying run on third by striking out.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Entering the decisive eighth inning Friday night, the Orioles had one hit in four at-bats with runners in scoring position — and their two-run rally was fueled by a walk, an infield single and a sacrifice fly.
"It's a little different, right?" Britton said. "You've got to get the job done somehow. Sometimes it's not with the home run. Sometimes it's putting the ball in play and getting a guy in. Obviously we are known for the power more so than manufacturing the runs, but every now and then we find a way to do it. That's what you're going to have to do if you want to get into the postseason, get late into October."
It was Bourn, a player added in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks last month to add corner-outfield defense, speed and contact, who was able to lift a ball to left when the team's sluggers couldn't over the past two games.
"I play the game how it comes," Bourn said. "Small ball, if I need to do that, I'll try to do that. Hitting, defense, whatever it is, I'm going to try to do all of it if I can. Of course you want [to manufacture runs], but this team is known for hitting home runs. … We do need it, but you've got to go with what you've been doing. I'm going to add what I can add. You can't change what you already do. Nobody goes up there trying to hit home runs, you just power. I've also seen them get base hits in big situations.
"I joke with them sometimes, they joke with me when I came here," Bourn said, referring to hitting home runs in each of his first two starts. "I hit two [home runs]. I don't do that on a regular [basis]. Mine I just kind of run into. I just try to play baseball. That's all I know how to do in every facet of the game, and do what I can do."