It wasn't going to erase six months of struggles, of coping with a bloated ERA and a mounting loss total, of trying to succeed while getting very little offensive or defensive support.
But just as a small reward for how Kevin Millwood has handled himself during the most difficult season of his professional career and for the leadership he provided to the Orioles' young arms, pitching coach Rick Kranitz desperately wanted the veteran starter to get one more out wednesday night.
"I don't think I've ever pulled for anybody in my life as much as I did in that seventh inning with [B.J.] Upton at the plate," Kranitz said. "He really deserved that. He gave everything he had. He emptied his tank right there."
On his final pitch of the season and most likely his last offering as an Oriole, Millwood fanned Upton for the third time to leave the bases loaded. The 35-year-old allowed just two hits in seven shutout innings and Felix Pie drove in the game's only runs with a two-out triple in the seventh as the Orioles beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 2-0, to take the series, and make sure that they'll avoid what would have been just the third 100-loss season in franchise history.
"To say that it's something that we hadn't looked at mathematically would be less than honest," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter whose team improved to 63-95 overall with four games remaining, and 31-22 under him. "But three years from now, four years from now, nobody is going to hopefully think about it. How much of a difference is there between 90 and 100? There's something there, just from a mental standpoint. But I think it will be a distant memory wherever we end up when we get to Sarasota next year."
Showalter did admit that it was quite satisfying to secure a second consecutive series victory against the Rays, who had clinched a playoff spot the previous night, but remain just a half game up on the New York Yankees in the American League East. The victory, backed by two scoreless relief outings from Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara, also came on a night when 36,793 showed up at Tropicana Field, a capacity crowd but not a sellout because the Rays gave out 20,000 free tickets in response to the persistent questions about the team's poor attendance figures.
"When you're able to shut them out here in their own place and in this environment, it makes you real proud of everybody," said Showalter.
The Orioles finished 4-5 in their final road trip, and completed their road schedule with a 29-52 mark. Fifteen of those wins came in just 27 games away from Camden Yards under Showalter. The Orioles have only a four-game home series left against the Detroit Tigers, and they no longer need to worry about the ignominy of losing 100 games.
If the Orioles split with the Tigers, they'll finish with a better record than last year's team, a nice accomplishment considering the club was on pace to loss 113 games when Showalter took over Aug. 2.
"I've thought about it a little bit. It'd be a little embarrassing to lose 100, but you know, we've played really good baseball here the last month, month and a half," Millwood said. "I don't think anybody in contention really cares to play this team right now. I think we are clicking on pretty much all cylinders and I think we can play with anybody right now."
Millwood, who is a free agent after the season and said Tuesday that he plans to pitch next year, likely won't be resigned, so his Orioles career will probably end with him carrying a 4-16 record and a 5.10 ERA. But just to see how his teammates reacted to his performance and defended him through a long season says plenty about the influence that he carried in the clubhouse.
"A lot of people forget that early in the year, this guy was one of the best pitchers in the whole A.L. in my opinion, and we would somehow find a way to goof it up for him," said infielder Ty Wigginton. "So for him to come out and have a night like tonight, it was a lot of fun to play behind him and I think everybody knows some of the hard luck he's been through."
Millwood entered the night having gotten the second-lowest run support of any pitcher in the A.L., and having been the recipient of just 22 runs during his previous 12 outings. His final outing seemed headed in that direction as well, as Rays starter Jeff Niemann held the Orioles to just two hits through the first six innings, extending the visitors' scoreless stretch to 17 innings.
However, Nick Markakis drew a leadoff walk in the seventh, Adam Jones hit a two-out single and then Pie ripped a two-strike triple over the head of Rays right fielder Matt Joyce.
Millwood, whose fastball was in the mid-80s for much o the early innings, then made the lead stand up in the seventh with the bases-loaded strikeout of Upton.
"I really feel good for Kevin. He's had his challenges this year. That was the right way to end it," said Showalter, who also managed Millwood in Texas. "That's probably the baseball Gods shining on him at the end of the season, I think. I hope the rest of his career treats him as well as he's treated the game."
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