Hours after president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said his focus is not on manager Dave Trembley but on finding ways to improve the team's clutch hitting and bullpen, both areas delivered for the Orioles, and the result is their first winning streak of the 2010 season.
For the third consecutive game, call-up Rhyne Hughes spurred a late-game rally, hitting the first of three consecutive two-out RBI singles in the sixth inning that propelled the Orioles to a pulsating 5-4 victory over the New York Yankees in front of an announced 20,536 at Camden Yards.
As always for these Orioles, it got tense at the end as Trembley asked Alfredo Simon, who was called up from Triple-A Norfolk earlier in the day, to preserve a three-run lead in the ninth inning.
Simon should have had the third out without allowing a run, but an error by shortstop Cesar Izturis allowed a run to score and then prolonged the inning long enough for Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph) to cut the Orioles' lead to one run with a single. But Simon, who was throwing in the upper 90s throughout the ninth, got Alex Rodriguez to ground into a game-ending fielder's choice with runners on the corners as the Orioles celebrated their first two-game winning streak and their first victory at Camden Yards this season.
"I think [with] all the other stuff we've gone through the previous 19 games, the ninth inning tonight was a piece of cake," said Trembley, whose team improved to 4-16.
Asked about his decision to give the ball to Simon, who was making his seventh big league appearance and is less than a year removed from having Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow, Trembley said it was decided before the game that Simon would close. Trembley wouldn't commit to him as the long-term closer, but it sure seems that's the direction it's headed.
"I've got nothing to lose," Trembley said. "We're going to give guys opportunities, and I'm going to try to slot guys back in the roles where they're best suited, not only for themselves, but for the club. I've had guys put in situations because of injuries and decisions that are made, and they've done the very best they can, but it's been an uncomfortable situation for them. And that's my fault, but I've gone with the best that I've had. Now I feel like I'm getting some help.
"I talked to [Simon] before the game, and I asked him one question and one question only: ‘Are you scared?' And he said ‘No,' and that's all I had to hear."
In the decisive bottom of the sixth, which started with the Orioles trailing 2-1 after Kevin Millwood kept the home team in the game without his best stuff, Hughes' RBI single off David Robertson scored Luke Scott, who likely would have been out at home had New York right fielder Randy Winn not slipped and spiked his throw into the ground.
Nolan Reimold and Izturis followed with RBI singles to give the Orioles the two-run lead. Izturis added an additional RBI single in the eighth to cap a three-RBI night after he entered the game having driven in only one run on the year.
"We all know that these guys can hit and they're going to score some runs," Millwood said. "It's just been a struggle up to this point. It's just a matter of time. I think we swung the bats well in Boston, and we started out this homestand swinging the bats well. I think we're all excited to see how this thing turns around a little bit."
The Orioles' much-maligned bullpen pitched well behind Millwood with Alberto Castillo striking out three in 1 2/3 scoreless innings and Jim Johnson pitching a scoreless eighth. Then it was Simon's turn.
He started the ninth by striking out Curtis Granderson. Nick Swisher singled, and then pinch hitter Nick Johnson drew a walk. Simon struck out Derek Jeter on a slider out of the strike zone for the second out. Brett Gardner then hit a roller toward a charging Izturis, who saw the ball hop over his glove.
"You don't want to give them a chance," Izturis said. "Every time we give them a chance, it's like, ‘Oh, no, here we go again.' It was a bad hop that the ground ball made, and the next guy was a base hit. But we had a chance to get a W, and that's what counts."
Second baseman Julio Lugo, who entered the game as a pinch runner in the previous inning, fielded Rodriguez's ground ball just behind second base. His flip to Izturis beat a sliding Teixeira by a half step as Simon got his first career save two days after Cla Meredith got his in Boston. The last time two Orioles recorded their first career saves in back-to-back games was Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor on May 7 and 8, 1977.
"I am very happy they gave me an opportunity to close the game," Simon said. "I tried to do a good job. I tried to throw strikes in my first inning. And I am just really happy."
So was Trembley as Tuesday night marked an encouraging start to a homestand that features three games against the Yankees and three more against the Boston Red Sox — and could be pivotal for his future as manager.
"Our complete energy and focus is on doing those things we need to do to improve the situation on the field," MacPhail said before the game. "Part of that is going to be getting more timely hitting, and part of that is going to be wrapping up the game at the end. Those are the two things that probably need the most improvement right at the present time."
Last night was a good start.