The Orioles entered Thursday's doubleheader with the hot-hitting Rangers focused on survival.
Orioles pitchers served up eight home runs (and 24 runs) in the first two games of the series to the most dangerous hitting lineup in the American League. A string of injuries — the Orioles made 12 roster moves since Monday — had players shuttling back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. A beleaguered bullpen staff — still taxed from playing 39 innings in three games in Boston over the weekend — needed to avoid an early arrival in both games.
Baltimore split the twinbill Thursday, winning the first game 6-5 thanks to five homers before dropping a ho-hum series finale 7-3 in front of an announced crowd of 19,250 at Camden Yards. Despite dropping three of four to Texas, the Orioles (20-12) ended the night tied for first in the AL East with the Tampa Bay Rays, who arrive in Baltimore for a three-game series this weekend.
"There's another challenge right behind it (in the Rays)," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Just got to turn the page and move on. (We) played a 13-inning game, 17-inning game and 18 innings [Thursday] . To get through it, hopefully — knock on wood — physically, we'll see where we are at the end of the game and [Friday]."
It was just the third series the Orioles have dropped this season, snapping a stretch of four straight series wins. Baltimore had won five of their last six series going in. After allowing a total of 34 runs in the 14 games before the Rangers series, the Orioles allowed 36 in their four games against Texas (21-11) this week.
"It was a tough series, but at least we salvaged one game and put it behind us and move on," Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds said. "We've got to come out and catch better and pitch better and get some timely hits. That's the name of the game."
The Orioles made history in Game 1 by hitting home runs in their first three at-bats — getting solo shots from Ryan Flaherty, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis in the first inning — marking the first time in AL history that a team opened with three consecutive homers and the fourth time overall.
The Brewers last accomplished the feat on Sept. 9, 2007 and Hardy hit the middle home run on that day as well. The 2003 Atlanta Braves and 1987 San Diego Padres also opened games with three consecutive homers.
And thus the latest chapter of Baltimore baseball craziness over the past five days — which included a 17-inning win in Boston in which first baseman Chris Davis was the winning pitcher and Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton's four-homer game here on Tuesday.
"Nothing surprises me when you're dealing with this level of skill," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "These are the best players in the world, but they're also human beings who are susceptible to things and capable of doing great things. It's always an honor to sit there and watch them. There's not a day that goes by that something doesn't happen."
Adam Jones also hit his team-high ninth homer in the seventh, followed by Wilson Betemit's two-run shot later that inning, capping the Orioles' first five-homer game since June 30, 2010, against the Oakland Athletics.
The Orioles would need every run, as the Rangers received a three-run pinch-hit homer from David Murphy in the ninth inning off closer Jim Johnson, who struggled to his ninth save.
All five Orioles homers — which included Flaherty's first major league homer — came off Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who became the first pitcher in major league history to strike out at least 10 batters and allow five homers in the same game.
Meanwhile, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen gave the Orioles the best start of his brief major league career, shutting down a Texas offense that entered the day averaging a league-high 5.7 runs a game.
"You got to look at that kind of like you're playing with house money, everyone expects you to be challenged by those types of lineups," Showalter said. "But, what are you going to do? Are you going to pull the dirt in around you or are you going to compete? And he competed."
Chen, the 26-year-old Taiwan native signed this offseason after four seasons pitching in Japan, held the Rangers to two runs on six hits over a career-high 7 innings, the Orioles' best start in six games. It was his third quality start in his past four outings. Chen, who struck out five and walked just one Thursday, has allowed two or fewer runs in five of his six major league starts.
"Definitely this is my best outing of this year so far," Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin. "I'm lucky because this is a really tough lineup for me and I think because I'm a new guy, they don't know me that much but on the other hand, I felt really, really good today and I had good command. Everything worked for me today. Everything was down (in the zone)."
With the Orioles leading 3-0, Chen averted a big inning in the third. He loaded the bases with one out but induced a forceout at the plate from Elvis Andrus and got Josh Hamilton, who hit four homers Tuesday against the Orioles, to fly out to left.
After allowing Yorvit Torrealba's two-out RBI single in the fourth inning, Chen went on to retire 12 straight batters. He left the game with two outs in the eighth to a standing ovation after allowing back-to-back singles to Andrus and Hamilton.
"Wei-Yin was a difference-maker [Thursday] to get that deep in the game, and against obviously a good lineup," Showalter said. "He was outstanding. He was sharp with his breaking ball, the extra days' rest. It seems like he had a little bit more finish on his fastball. He was a difference-maker for us [Thursday] and it won't be forgotten."
After allowing the trio of homers in the first, Lewis retired 18 straight batters — with 11 strikeouts coming in that span — before Jones led off the seventh inning with a mammoth shot to left. He finished the day with a career-high 12 strikeouts.
Lewis became the second pitcher in major league history since 1918 to allow five homers and no other hits in a start lasting seven or more innings. Former Texas knuckleballer Charlie Hough did the same on June 24, 1989.
In the ninth inning, Johnson came into the game with runners on second and third with no outs, and — after allowing Murphy's three-run homer — struck out Andrus, the tying run, looking to end the game with Hamilton in the on-deck circle.
In Game 2, Hamilton hit his sixth homer of the series and his major-league leading 15th of the season, a two-run shot on a changeup down and in that Hamilton sent onto Eutaw Street behind right field, the second player to do that this season (Toronto's Eric Thames) and the 60th overall in Camden Yards' history.
The Orioles took advantage of three Texas errors on the second inning to plate three runs. They pieced together three singles that inning, capitalizing on Ian Kinsler's fielding error at second that was a sure double-play ball.
Nelson Cruz led off the fifth inning with a double, followed by Mike Napoli's triple to right — a looping ball that dropped in front of a diving Nick Markakis in left. Three batters later , Napoli scored on a two-out Andrus single to make the score 4-3.
Orioles right-hander Tommy Hunter, who was recalled from Norfolk between games after being sent down Monday, allowed four runs on five hits over six innings of work, striking out seven and walking just one.
"No one's happy about losing," Hunter said. "Hell, we don't play this game to lose. For anybody to be happy about losing a series at any point in the season is definitely in the wrong sport. This is what we do for a living, to come out here and get wins is what we're supposed to do. If anybody's happy about it, I couldn't tell you who is. No, we don't like losing. Losing sucks. You've got to find a way."
Three relievers who hadn't allowed an earned run this season had their scoreless streaks end Thursday. Right-hander Matt Lindstrom, who entered the day having not allowed an earned run in 13 relief innings this season, was tagged for three in Game 2 in the seventh inning. Johnson's scoreless inning streak ended at 12 on Murphy's home run in Game 1, which also credited right-hander Luis Ayala (15 scoreless innings) for two earned runs in1/3 inning.
"We have a tough opponent in Tampa [Friday] , so we are just going to come in here and get ready to play and take it to them too," Lindstrom said. "We are looking to continue our success, but [Thursday] was a tough one. I'm glad we got that first one too, but I just wish I had kept it closer."