ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Orioles didn’t play their best baseball this weekend, but after a 7-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in 11 innings Sunday afternoon, they left Tropicana Field still holding the same lead they had in the American League East when they arrived here.
They could thank designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who drove in all of the Orioles’ runs with a two-homer, seven-RBI game, for salvaging a win in the finale of a three-game series that included more than its share of strange moments down to the final pitch.
With 20 games left in the regular season, the Orioles’ magic number is down to 12 as they head to Fenway Park for a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox.
Cruz capped his third multihomer game of the season with a game-winning, two-run shot off Cesar Ramos in the top of the 11th inning to the deepest part of the ballpark in left-center field. His seven RBIs were the most by an Orioles player since Luke Scott also had seven against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on July 7, 2009.
The Orioles (83-59) were two outs away from being swept in consecutive road series for the first time in more than three years. But trailing, 4-2, in the ninth inning, Cruz’s three-run triple down the first-base line gave the Orioles a 5-4 lead.
That advantage didn’t hold, though, as the Rays (69-75) scored an unearned run of closer Zach Britton, snapping his streak of 18 straight converted save opportunities. But the Orioles took the lead for good when Cruz hit a first-pitch delivery from Ramos (2-6) for his second home run of the game.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said Cruz, who extended his career highs in home runs (39) and RBIs (101) this season. “The only thing that matters is that we got a ‘W.’ … Late in the year, you say you don’t want to think about [the lead] much. Even if you don’t want to, you’re thinking about it. I think we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve got to stay focused and go about our business like we do every day.”
Combined with the New York Yankees’ 2-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals, the Orioles moved ahead by 9 1/2 games again. The Orioles are 13-5 in extra innings this year, which is the best record in the major leagues.
Right-hander Brad Brach (6-1) pitched a scoreless inning to earn the victory. And left-hander Andrew Miller tossed a scoreless bottom of the 11th for his first career save, but not before the controversy came on the final pitch of the game.
Rays second baseman Logan Forsythe swung through a slider from Miller. After the ball got past catcher Nick Hundley, it was initially ruled a live ball and base runner Sean Rodriguez sped around to touch home plate. But Hundley and Miller both immediately argued that the pitch hit Forsythe on the leg, which would make it a dead ball.
After Orioles manager Buck Showalter argued and the umpires conferred, it was ruled a strikeout to end the game. And as the Orioles shook hands on the field, Rays manager Joe Maddon argued with the umpiring crew.
“Andrew threw a really good slider,” Hundley said. “I wanted to go backfoot, and Forsythe swung, and it clearly hit him in the leg, and we won. … It clearly hit him. It was obvious he swung, and it hit him, and the rule states that a swing and it hits him, it’s a dead ball and the game is over. I was very, very confident that we had won the game, and it was just a matter of time before they got it right."
It wasn’t the only weird moment this weekend. Saturday’s game ended with a walk-off passed ball on Hundley. Friday’s game wilted with an eighth-inning bullpen implosion. On Sunday, Rays designated hitter David DeJesus hit an inside-the-park home run, all while the Orioles offense mostly did a disappearing act throughout the series. Before Cruz’s hit in the ninth Sunday, the Orioles were 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position in the series.
“It was a wild series, some unorthodox things happening to win games and lose games,” Hundley said. “We were fortunate to get out of here with a win. It was a great job by Nellie. ... We jumped on his back. He’s been good for us all year, and it was a nice one to get.”
The game might not have gone to extra innings without Cruz’s three-run triple in the ninth, his first triple since July 1, 2011.
Cruz stepped to the plate and saw the Rays employing a shift with three infielders to the left of second base, so Cruz tried to push the ball into the empty gap between first and second bases. Instead, he slapped it just inside the first-base line and into the right-field corner.
The hit scored Ryan Flaherty, who singled to open the inning, as well as Jimmy Paredes and Adam Jones, who both had pinch-hit singles that inning.
“We got contributions from a lot of people,” Showalter said. “I'll remember Ryan Flaherty had a big hit to set us up to go ahead in the ninth. A lot of good things. Jonesy came in and delivered a knock for us. I was hoping we wouldn't play about 15 and then he'd have lost the day off [for him]. Paredes had a good hit. It was an organizational win as much as anything, people all through.”
Evan Longoria opened the bottom of the ninth with a routine grounder to Flaherty, but Flaherty’s throwing error pulled Chris Davis off the base.
James Loney followed with a single, and Brandon Guyer’s sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third bases with one out. Rodriguez, who was pinch-hitting, hit a high chopper to third, and Kelly Johnson threw to first to get the sure out, allowing the tying run to score.
Britton induced a flyout from Ryan Hanigan to end the inning. But the Rays scored a run in the ninth after an error by Flaherty allowed the leadoff runner on base for the second straight game.
The Rays hit four solo homers off Orioles right-hander Bud Norris, including DeJesus’ inside-the-park homer on a ball that was knocked out of left fielder Alejandro De Aza’s glove and ricocheted into the left-field corner after a collision with center fielder David Lough.
“My biggest concern wasn't the home run, it was that they were OK,” Showalter said. “I was really worried. I saw it. It was almost like it was in slow motion. I was watching it, and I was afraid they were going to run together, so the heck with what happened after the fact.”
Before Lough could chase the ball down, DeJesus easily scored for his fourth career inside-the-park homer. Kevin Kiermaier added a solo homer in the sixth to put the Rays up, 4-2.
Tampa Bay took a 2-0 lead on back-to-back, two-out solo homers in the first inning by Longoria and Loney. Norris hung a 93-mph, first-pitch fastball to Longoria, who sent it deep into the left-field seats. Loney then lined a 3-2 pitch that just cleared the fence in the right-field corner.
Norris then worked his way out of bases-loaded jams in both the second and third innings. He loaded the bases with one out in the second inning, allowing the bottom three batters in the Tampa Bay order to reach base, including a walk to .182 hitter Jose Molina.
But Norris escaped, striking out leadoff hitter Ben Zobrist and getting DeJesus to ground out to first base.
He then allowed back-to-back singles to Loney and Brandon Guyer with one out in the third. After a groundout, he hit Logan Forsythe with a pitch before striking out Kiermaier to end the threat.
Norris, who gave up four runs and eight hits in six innings, has allowed four earned runs in three of his last four starts, including twice against the Rays. He had allowed just two homers over his last nine starts before giving up four Sunday.
“Got through six,” Norris said. “Four homers wasn't what I drew up, but the team was in the game the whole way, and obviously to score late and win on Sunday getaway day is a pretty big win for us.”
And now the Orioles will open another series on the road against a division opponent with the same cushion in the AL East.
“Losing two out of three is definitely not what we had envisioned, but every time you’re on the road and every time you come down here, it’s tough,” Norris said. “To lose two out of three, ‘So what,’ I guess you could say, but we know we’re going to play a new Boston team because they made a lot of moves, too. It doesn’t get any easier.
“We’re just trying to see the finish line and see this all the way through.”