ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — The vibe inside the Orioles clubhouse after Monday night's 5-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays was a little different from the one seen all too often this season. There was more life in the room, music blasting from the clubhouse speakers, playoff-relevant games from the West Coast playing on the television sets above, and a certain swagger that projected confidence that the team believes it still has a chance to reach the postseason.
The players inside this clubhouse have always said what they've supposed to say, that this group can win now, that the pieces to contend are all here. But underneath they also realize the hole they've dug for themselves, and that the even in late July, the math is difficult.
But when this club gets solid starting pitching — as it did from Kevin Gausman's six shutout innings against an aggressive Tampa Bay batting order — the rest of the team feeds off it.
That's when you see Manny Machado make the spectacular look routine, helping Gausman out of the first inning by flagging down a ball hit down the line by Evan Longoria and slinging a throw to second, where Jonathan Schoop maneuvered an off-balance pivot for as pretty a 5-4-3 double play you'll ever see.
"You have Manny and Schoop making plays like that," Gausman said. "I don't think there's any third baseman and second baseman that roll that double play the way that they did. You feel really confident with those guys out there. Obviously, Manny's going to run down the line and try to get any ball that he can try to put a glove on. You always feel confident with those guys behind you."
That's when center fielder Adam Jones, who realizes he's playing out of position as the team's leadoff hitter, emerges as an offense catalyst, not in the reckless swing-from-your heels way, but with controlled aggressiveness by jumping on Rays left-hander Blake Snell from the first pitch of the game.
"I think any leadoff hitter who gets on base helps the team," Jones said. "You see what [Rays leadoff man Steven] Souza's been doing the last few weeks when he moved to the leadoff spot. He's getting on base and scoring a lot of runs, so you get on base, especially with our lineup. I'm able to run the bases well. We've got Manny and Schoopy, [Chris Davis], [Mark] Trumbo behind me, [Trey] Mancini also. So when I get on base, the chances of me scoring are pretty good."
It all helped Gausman, who spent most of his forgettable first half of the season not that far away from being decent, his season foiled by two-strike hits, spotty command and untimely breakdowns. This season, he had given far too many leads away, deflating the rest of the club. But on Monday, he held the one-run lead he was given with six goose eggs.
"That's one thing during the season, up to this point, that I haven't been able to do," Gausman said. "If these guys give me a three-run lead, more often than not, I've kind of gone out and kind of given it right back. It's good to be able to kind of shut the door today. Their guy pitched great, too. That was one of those things early on I knew if we could get some runs off this guy and I could kind of limit the damage, we might have a shot to win."
Said Jones: "When he goes out there and throws strike one, our defense, you can see what Manny was able to do today. That's what happens when you attack the zone and we feed off that as an offense."
Machado sparked the Orioles defensively two other times, running down a ball in foul ground near the visiting bullpen in left field, then making a backhanded play while playing off the line in the ninth inning.
Lost in the shuffle was a key double play turned by right fielder Joey Rickard, who helped Darren O'Day erase a leadoff walk to Tim Beckham in the seventh by running down Adeiny Hechavarria's drive down the line, then rifling a throw to first to catch Beckham off the bag.
"Manny made a couple of plays that nobody takes for granted," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "They're so hard and he's one of the few guys who can make them. Joey played a good right field, too. Jonathan turning that double play, that's a tough one. But Kevin was good."
Over the course of a 162-game season, you're always looking for a turning point, one game or series that sends a team down its ultimate path. It was just one win, but Monday's victory felt like a game with the potential to set the Orioles forward.
On Monday, the Orioles showed their past winning self. If they play the way they did in the series opener, they will have a chance. If not, there are more lopsided losses to come in the season's final two months. But a win like Monday's might have been just enough to convince ownership that it's worth making a run at October instead of selling off as the trade deadline approaches.
That feeling, however, can be short-lived. Now it’s up to left-hander Wade Miley and right-hander Ubaldo Jiménez to build off the momentum in the last two games of the series at Tropicana Field before traveling to Texas.
"It all feeds off the starting pitching," Jones said. "When they go out there and they attack that zone and use our great defense, good things seem to happen. I just ride the wave. Baseball is a day-to-day game. So tomorrow, it's do exactly what we did today, come out aggressive and swing the bats."