When the Orioles gathered for a team workout Thursday at Rangers Ballpark for the start of the unofficial second half of the season, manager Buck Showalter gathered his team under the hot Texas sun for a brief meeting behind second base.
"The look on their faces told me, 'OK, I don't need to do this,'" Showalter said.
Showalter often talks about how this group of Orioles players are easy to trust, so he saw quickly that there was no need to preach the importance of sustaining their level of play down the stretch in search of a second straight playoff berth.
The Orioles kicked off the second half this weekend with their first road sweep of the season, relying on eight strong innings from All-Star right-hander Chris Tillman, who guided the club to a 4-2 win over the Rangers on Sunday.
“I don't state the obvious to these guys,” Showalter said. “That shows a sign of mistrust. We had some things that we've done well that we need to continue to do and we're off to a decent start but there's 63 left to play. [We are] just trying to give ourselves the chance to play meaningful games in September.”
With the win, the Orioles (56-43) have won five straight and are now a season-high 13 games over .500 — through 99 games last season they were just five games over — as they head to Kansas City for a four-game series against the Royals.
“I think any time you come into a ballpark like this, [against] a ballclub like this, and get them all I think that's important,” Tillman said. “It's a good start to the second half. Hopefully we can keep it rolling. … It's a new start, the second half. A whole new ballgame. We are happy with where we are at and ready to keep grinding.”
Tillman (12-3) recorded his 10th win in his past 11 decisions, holding the Rangers to two runs on six hits over eight innings, striking out seven and walking three. His 12 wins this season match last year's club-high accomplished by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen.
The Rangers' two-through-five hitters were 2-for-14 with four strikeouts against Tillman. As a team, Texas was 3-for-22 with runners in scoring position with 25 runners left on base.
“He expects it when he goes out there,” catcher Matt Wieters said of Tillman. “And he expects to give us a chance to win and he expects to go deep in the game. He's a guy who's always had good stuff, but the confidence has improved every year and he's a guy whose mentality on the mound is perfect. He's not going to assume anything's going to happen but he's going to pitch his butt off.”
Tillman worked ahead of hitters and was able to throw his curveball, slider and change-up for strikes to keep Texas hitters off balance. Of the 15 1-1 counts he faced, he threw strike two on the next pitch 12 times.
“That was huge,” Wieters said. “That's a big count to get ahead and then you've got a couple of pitches to work with to get that final strike.
“He had his fastball really working for him and really we had all three offspeed pitches working. That makes it fun for a catcher. Knowing I can put down any finger and he can be around the plate with some pretty nasty stuff. He really had everything working and I could really call any pitch and been comfortable with it.”
The Orioles have received seven quality starts in the past eight games, with all seven of those quality starts producing wins. Over the three games in Texas, Orioles starters are 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA.
The Orioles offense continued their weekend assault on Rangers pitching — Baltimore outscored Texas 14-6 in the three-game series — led by Wieters, who was 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs on the night and was 6-for-12 in the series. Wieters has hit safely in six of seven games against Texas this season and is hitting .370 (10-for-27) with four RBIs against the Rangers.
The Orioles are now 16-8 this season against the AL West and their .667 winning percentage against the division is their second best since each league went to a three-division format in 1994.
They did their damage in Texas, where they had lost five of their past six regular-season games entering the series. The Orioles never trailed during the series, had a lead in each game by the second inning and outscored the Rangers 12-0 through the first three innings of the three games here.
The Orioles left Rangers Ballpark — where they ended the Rangers' season last year by winning the AL Wild Card game — by sending them to their seventh loss in their past eight games. The Rangers were swept in a series of three or more games for just the second time this season.
Tillman, who improved his career record to 11-1 against the AL West, has been especially dominant on the road, going 7-1 with five quality starts in nine starts away from Camden Yards. He has allowed three or fewer runs in 16 of his past 18 road starts dating back to July 4, 2012. Tillman is also 3-1 with a 3.21 ERA in four career starts against the Rangers and 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in three starts at Rangers Ballpark.
“Some things you see and you think, well he got away with this, but guys that consistently do things the right way, good fortune kind of follows them around,” Showalter said of Tillman. “It's a good calm around him when he pitches because he's able to understand he can be a real contributor as a starting pitcher in the major leagues and doing it in a tough division.”
The Orioles scored first on Wieters' second-inning single off Texas starter Martin Perez, which scored Chris Davis from second after his leadoff double.
Three batters later, Brian Roberts hit a run-scoring single with the bases loaded to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
Back-to-back two-out doubles by Wieters and J.J. Hardy plated another run in the third and Manny Machado's fourth-inning single scored Roberts to put the Orioles up 4-0.
The Rangers (54-44) scored their first run on Ian Kinsler's two-out RBI single to right in the fifth, but Texas ran itself out of the inning when the Orioles initially caught Kinsler between first and second and then snagged David Murphy between third and home in an inning-ending rundown that was scored 9-3-4-5-2.
“A real fundamentally sound three days for us,” Showalter said. “And we've talked about if we continue to put emphasis on continuing to do those little things, it's going to be a small margin of error between here and the end because there are a lot of good teams. We want to do the things that make us one of them. I'm proud of the cutoff relay. It's hard to get that many people in the right place, but they were. We got an out of it.”
Tillman held the Rangers to just two hits over his last three innings of work, tying his season high of eight innings, which is also the club-high set six different times.
He left the game one batter into the ninth following Adrian Beltre's 22nd homer of the season, a solo shot to center field. After Brian Matusz struck out A.J. Pierzynski, he walked pinch hitter Jurickson Profar.
With closer Jim Johnson unavailable after back-to-back outings, right-hander Darren O'Day faced the tying run twice, but closed out the ninth inning — striking out Murphy swinging for the final out — for his second save of the season to complete the sweep.
“We wanted to come out crisp after the break and sometimes it's hard to do, to have those four days off and jump right back in,” left fielder Nate McLouth said. “But we were pretty crisp this whole series.”