None of it would have mattered -- not the six strong innings from resurgent rookie Zach Britton, not J.J. Hardy's latest clutch hit, not the Orioles' stirring comeback against a seemingly in-control David Price -- had first baseman Mark Reynolds not made the right decision on the game's final play Friday.
Reynolds realized early that Hardy's throw from short was going to bounce before it reached first base. He also knew that if the ball got by him, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the bases loaded and two outs when Brandon Guyer hit the ground ball in the hole, were going to score two runs and deal the Orioles the latest in a season full of gut-wrenching losses.
"I said in my head, 'We are either winning or we're losing,'" said Reynolds, who had the option of coming off the bag and making sure the ball stayed in front of him rather than taking an aggressive swipe at it.
"I'm going to pick it. If I don't, we lose. I just had the glove in the right spot. I guess I'm just getting pretty lucky over there."
Reynolds' scoop of Hardy's throw bailed out Kevin Gregg after another shaky outing and ended the Orioles' 3-2 victory over the Rays before an announced 11,955 at Tropicana Field. It was the Orioles' fifth straight road win, and, at least for one day, it staved off the pending reality of clinching a 14th consecutive losing season.
"The way he's played for how many weeks that he's been over there, he's been a Gold Glove first baseman," Hardy said. "I looked at that on film with him afterwards, and that was not an easy pick at all. I think it clipped like the dirt or grass so it was right in between, probably the hardest pick that there is. He made it look easy."
Gregg certainly did not. Does he ever? In picking up his 20th save, the much-maligned closer allowed a leadoff single to Sam Fuld, then back-to-back two-out walks to bring Guyer to the plate. However, the way Gregg tells it, he got the matchup he wanted with Guyer. He also got his desired result, barely.
"The bottom line is you obviously haven't acquired my taste in pitching yet," said Gregg, who has walked 36 batters in 52 innings.
"It's what I do. It's what I've always done. And yeah, it'd be nice if I was like [Jim Johnson] and went 1-2-3, every inning I'm out there. But I'm not J.J. I don't throw 97 [mph] with sink."
The frenetic bottom of the ninth blurred what easily was one of the Orioles' most improbable victories of the season. Britton (9-9) allowed two runs before even getting his first out and didn't appear to be long for the game. His counterpart, the uber-talented Price, dominated the Orioles (55-81) over six scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out 10.
"It looked like Price was going to pitch forever and not allow much," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "The only way that you're able to have a shot at that is to get a well-pitched game. It's what we've been talking about. Zach has had his nose bloodied a little bit, and he's come back. He's fine. That bodes well for him in the future."
Even with Britton steadying himself and allowing just the two runs over six innings, the Rays' 2-0 lead never appeared remotely in jeopardy until the seventh inning. Vladimir Guerrero, the lone Oriole Price did not strikeout, led off with a single. After Price fanned Matt Wieters -- his 11th strikeout of the night and his 25th over his past 14 innings -- he issued back-to-back walks to Reynolds and Robert Andino.
Nolan Reimold cut the Rays' lead in half with a sacrifice fly, then rookie second baseman Ryan Adams kept the inning alive with a single that ate up Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman and loaded the bases.
Price (12-12) had his way with Hardy over their first three matchups, including striking him out on three pitches to start the game. But this time, after the Orioles shortstop fought off a couple of two-strike pitches, Hardy found the hole and bounced one into left field to score two runs and give the visitors the lead.
"He was carving us all up the whole game," Hardy said of Price. "His cutter was moving a lot more than it was before whenever I've faced him. It still had the velocity. He was really tough. I think just that one pitch was a cutter that probably caught more of the plate than any of his other pitches all night, and I was able to find a hole."
Johnson protected the one-run lead by retiring all six batters he faced. But the Orioles still needed one more big play from Hardy and the right split-second decision by Reynolds at first base to hold on. They are 7-6 against the Rays (74-63) this season -- 11-29 against the rest of the American League East -- and 6-1 at Tropicana Field.
"[Hardy's] unbelievable," said Britton, who has allowed just three runs in 18 innings since coming off the disabled list. He jammed his thumb fielding Sean Rodriguez's comebacker to end the sixth but said he doesn't feel like it will affect him going forward.
"I did not know a lot about J.J. coming in, but he's one of those guys when he's in the box, I feel like something big is going to happen every time. And you like to feel that about everybody on your team, but especially J.J. when he's in the box, especially in that situation he's in. I was like, 'He's going to do it right here.' He is probably my favorite guy to watch on the team."