Orioles rookie left-hander Wei-Yin Chen had passed all the early tests, facing good major league teams, pitching well, showing poise and not once getting saddled with a loss in his first six big league starts.
Tuesday, however, presented a different challenge. Chen wouldn’t just be pitching against the mighty New York Yankees, but he would be seeing them for the second time -- his first repeat performance against an opponent.
Like the rest of this early season for the Taiwan native, Chen had little trouble, throwing seven strong innings in the Orioles’ 5-2 victory.
"The first time, the debut, I was so nervous,” Chen, whose first big league start April 10 was a no-decision against the Yankees, said through interpreter Tim Lin. “This time, I was just like, 'I’ve had this experience already,' so everything was fine to me.”
Chen’s performance kept the Orioles (23-14) in a first-place tie with the Tampa Bay Rays and gave them their first victory against the Yankees (20-16) at Camden Yards this season. The Orioles have held the Yankees to two runs or fewer in four of their past five games.
“[Chen’s] got his feet on the ground a little bit. He's comfortable. Obviously, he's pitching as well as any of our starters, and very early in the season, he's doing quite well for us,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “There will be some adversity during the season. It's a long season. We'll see how that goes. But adversity, too, is going through some of the things he's gone through in his life in the last three or four months. He’s been in a lot of different venues, and tonight was another one that he's exposed to and handled well."
The former Chunichi Dragons star carried a two-hitter into the seventh inning before allowing his only true mistake -- a two-run homer to Curtis Granderson. And that one was not universally accepted by the announced crowd of 24,055.
In fact, it probably gave some Orioles fans shudders and flashbacks.
Orioles left fielder Xavier Avery camped underneath the deep fly and jumped to catch it, but so did some fans in the left-field seats -- yes, they were wearing Yankees garb -- and the ball was swept over the wall.
“Hell yeah, I had a shot. But they had that 10th man out there helping them out. But it’s all right, it didn’t help them win,” said Avery, who was playing in his third major league game. “When I went up, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m 'bout to get it, I’m 'bout to get it.’ And then all of a sudden, [a fan] knocked my hand out the way and allowed them to have the home run.
“I think [the fan] raised up his beer can or something to taunt me a little bit, and I just turned around and went back to playing.”
Showalter said he considered arguing the call and asking for a review but decided it would be futile.
"I knew what the answer was going to be: The ball would have carried out of the ballpark if nobody's standing there,” Showalter said. “I don't know if it was somebody in midnight blue or black and orange there. I've got an educated guess. So our goal’s to play well enough so [Yankee fans] can't get a ticket.”
The homer was of little consequence -- but it did bring back memories of Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium in which Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier interfered with a fly-ball-ruled-homer off the bat of Derek Jeter that Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco was camped under.
That one will forever be part of Orioles-Yankees lore. This fly-ball-that-got-away was just a blip in another victory for Chen (4-0), who yielded four hits, two walks and two runs while striking out four. Chen remained unbeaten while Yankees lefty CC Sabathia (5-1) dropped his first game of 2012 by giving up four runs on four walks and eight hits in six innings.
Heading into Tuesday, Sabathia was making a case for his own statue in the Garden of the Greats beyond center field. He owned a 16-2 record and a 2.86 ERA in 23 career starts versus the Orioles. He was 10-1 with a 2.95 ERA at Camden Yards, with the only loss coming on Opening Day 2009, his first outing as a Yankee.
But apparently, the Orioles didn’t read Sabathia’s bio.
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Adam Jones did the first bit of damage against the imposing lefty, smashing a 92 mph sinker that didn’t sink into the left-field seats. It was Jones’ team-leading 11th homer and 23rd RBI of the season. Against Sabathia, Jones has three homers and 10 RBIs and is batting .342 in 38 at-bats.
“For some reason, I just see the ball [well] off of him,” Jones said. “Trust me, he’s gotten me. He’s struck me out in big situations.”
The Orioles scored individual runs in five innings, including one on a double play, another on an infield single and the fifth on a passed ball by Yankees’ Chris Stewart.
Reliever Pedro Strop, who got a key double play, and Jim Johnson (12th save) pitched scoreless innings to preserve the win for Chen, who walked off the mound in the top of the eighth to a standing ovation. He has gone seven or more innings in three of his past four starts.
“I think you want your starting pitcher to walk off the mound with a standing ovation every time because it means they threw the ball real well,” Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. “Tonight, he threw the ball great.”