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In sweep of Red Sox, rotation turns in types of performances Orioles will need to reach playoffs

After the middle victory in the Orioles' improbable three-game sweep at Fenway Park Saturday, starter Kevin Gausman put the onus on him and the rest of the rotation to help propel the Orioles into September and possibly beyond.

With Wade Miley's five-plus innings of one-run ball Sunday, however tense it was, the next man in line followed through. Combined with Jeremy Hellickson's seven strong innings Friday night, Orioles starters combined to allow three earned runs in 19 2/3 innings during three wins over the Boston Red Sox.

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None of their makeshift, six-man rotation needs to be told that's what it will take to elevate a team that finally scraped back to .500 past that mark for good.

"That's what every team needs — you need your starting pitcher to set the tempo," Miley said. "It's funny. When we do that, we win, and when we don't, we lose. So we've just got to continue to make pitches, go out and not put pressure on ourselves and try to keep us in ballgames."

The three starting pitching performances over the weekend, even by their own diminished standards established in a season that has left the group with a league-worst 5.52 ERA through 130 games, were representative of what it will take in the final five weeks of the season.

On Friday, Hellickson just had to keep it on the rails as the offense left him in the dugout for long stretches as the league's hottest offense pounded out 16 runs on 20 hits — the type of game during which almost any passable pitching performance will do.

Gausman's 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball in Saturday's 7-0 win were seemingly high-stress, given the final score, because of his erratic command early and the hefty leads that have disappeared on his watch during this puzzling season of his. That he carried a shutout bid into the eighth inning and dragged his ERA below 5.00 for the first time since mid-April was a fitting reward for his in-control performance.

Miley ended up doing the same to his own ERA, leaving at 4.99 and bringing it below 5.00 for the first time since early July. His five-plus innings were high-stress no matter the qualifiers placed on them. Seven Red Sox players reached via hits, and three more walked, but Miley held Boston without a hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position.

He needed to, since the pitchers were charged with making the Orioles' two runs hold up for the duration of the game. They did, completing the three-game set having allowed four runs in three games.

"That's hard," center fielder Adam Jones said. "That's doing a hell of a job. I've seen four runs many innings here. But starting pitching and defense takes you as far as you're going to go. That's not just our team — that's every other team. When your starting pitching is good and your defense is good, hopefully you get good timely hitting.

"The guys holding the ball on the bump right now have been throwing the ball exceptional, especially in this series. Hopefully, we just maintain it and hit our stride, hit the gas pedal and reel off some wins and put ourselves in a good position."

How long this run goes is hard to tell for any team, even more so with the Orioles. Now that Monday's starter, Chris Tillman, is back in the mix from his bullpen banishment, the resulting six-man rotation adds an extra element of unknown from the more traditional five-starter set.

There was guarded optimism that Tillman's time in the bullpen led to improvement despite his allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings Aug. 20 against the Los Angeles Angels, and he'll be pitching with a week's rest.

Right-hander Dylan Bundy has been their most consistent pitcher all year. But the Orioles' desire to have him end up around 180 innings means they're padding his schedule with extra rest days, even if they crave his consistency every five days.

The sixth starter, Ubaldo Jiménez, presents the full spectrum of possible outcomes every time he pitches, with good and bad days mixed in seemingly without reason.

Hellickson, Gausman, and Miley have mixed in rough days with their recent success, too.

Together, it makes for a group that the Orioles have spent hoping at least finds its traditional form and keeps them competitive over the final five weeks of the regular season. Stretches like they enjoyed this weekend could extend their playing days into October. That's been the caveat all year.

"If I state it, it’s Captain Obvious," manager Buck Showalter said. "They know. They’re grinding every day, and I think with a little extra rest our starters are able to get, you can tell they’re a lot crisper for a lot of guys this time of year."

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