O's closer Ray passes Bronx test

He strikes out Matsui on slider to give Orioles Friday night win

Orioles 6 Yankees 5

April 23, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

NEW YORK -- It is a place where young relievers tend to fold, where mystique and aura and one of baseball's most vaunted lineups traditionally take over, rendering pitchers powerless to avoid timely hits and clutch comebacks.

That, and 51,282 loud fans, was what Orioles 24-year-old closer Chris Ray was facing Friday night at Yankee Stadium. New York loaded the bases on him in the ninth, Hideki Matsui had worked the count to 3-2 and the tying run was at third and the winning run at second base. Ray never flinched.

Needing to throw a strike, Ray turned to his slider, freezing Matsui with a called third strike and securing a hard-earned 6-5 victory for the Orioles over the Yankees.

"Chris threw the heck out of the ball and that last pitch was as gutsy as I've ever seen from any pitcher," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "If I was a hitter, I am not looking for that pitch, not when you are throwing 96 to 98 [miles per hour]."

Ray pumped his fist violently, securing his sixth save in six opportunities and sending the Orioles (11-7) to their third straight victory and their seventh in the past nine games. Boston's loss on Friday night in Toronto left the Orioles a half game out of first place in the American League East.

"I couldn't believe it," said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who Ray struck out with a 96-mph fastball two batters earlier, before he walked Jason Giambi to load the bases for Matsui. "A 3-2 slider in that situation. Runners are going. They deserve it."

Matsui, who had reached base in his other four plate appearances Friday night, said later that he took the pitch, because "I thought it was a ball."

Ray and the Orioles obviously disagreed.

"It was called a strike and that's all that matters," Ray said. "I am pretty confident with my slider. I'll throw it at any time."

When told that his game-ending pitch was the talk of the Yankees' clubhouse, Ray said, "That's good. Maybe next time they'll look for it and I'll throw my fastball."

Said Orioles starter Kris Benson: "He's got a lot of guts to throw that pitch. He needed to pull something out of the hat and that's what he did."

Ray saved Benson's second win, despite a largely uneven performance in his return to New York, where he played for a season and a half with the New York Mets. In 5 1/3 innings, Benson (2-2) gave up four runs (three earned) on eight hits and was picked up by the Orioles' much-maligned bullpen.

Sendy Rleal, a 25-year-old rookie, relieved Benson, getting Johnny Damon to ground out to second baseman Brian Roberts with the bases loaded in the sixth, keeping the Orioles' two-run lead still intact. Jim Brower pitched a scoreless seventh and LaTroy Hawkins allowed a run in the eighth on Jorge Posada's RBI double, but retired Miguel Cairo in a key spot, stranding the tying run at second.

"That was a big game," Perlozzo said. "You are never safe in this ballpark against this ballclub, but our guys battled."

The Orioles took a 6-4 lead with a three-run sixth inning. Kevin Millar, whose background with the Boston Red Sox made him the target of boos every time he stepped up to the plate, hit a two-run single with the bases loaded. Millar's second hit, a bloop into shallow right, ended the evening of starter Chien-Ming Wang (1-1). The Orioles added another run as rookie Nick Markakis drew a bases-loaded walk off Yankees reliever Scott Proctor.

"Wang is tough," said Millar, who was 2-for-4. "It seemed like he was getting ahead with the fastball and then burying us with the sinker. I just wanted to jump on the first pitch."

The Orioles entered their second road series of the season having lost nine of their last 10 games against the Yankees and 28 of their last 41. They haven't won a series against their American League East nemesis since 1997, going 41-89 over the time.

They spotted Benson with an early 3-1 lead thanks to a three-run third with Melvin Mora driving in two runs and Miguel Tejada lacing an RBI single, but Benson couldn't hold it. He gave up a two-run homer to Robinson Cano in the fourth inning and allowed an RBI single to Rodriguez in the fifth.

"Any other ballpark [Cano's homer] would have stayed, but unfortunately it didn't," Benson said. "But [the offense] came right back and scored three. That's why this was a total team effort."

Said Perlozzo: "It's real early and things are going good. But I sense we're coming together as a team. I sensed that in the dugout tonight."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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