Nick Markakis receives congratulations from the Orioles dugout,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
With the hardest schedule in the major leagues over the final month and a half of the season, the Orioles will have a definitive say in who makes the playoffs from the American League.
That sure beats what two weeks ago was shaping up as the alternative: trying to avoid the worst season in franchise history.
Suddenly, these Orioles, who took down the Tampa Bay Rays, 5-0, last night in another fine all-around effort led by a tired but determined Jeremy Guthrie, don't look anything like the 107-loss 1987 squad. They also bear zero resemblance to the team that wore 'Baltimore' across their chests just a few weeks ago. And that has nothing to do with the 1971 model bright orange jerseys that they wore for "Turn Back the Clock Night" at Tropicana Field.
When Nick Markakis was picked off by James Shields in the first inning, his teammates responded by getting four consecutive two-out hits and scoring three first-inning runs. After left fielder Felix Pie fell down and turned a Matt Joyce flyball into a sixth-inning triple, he robbed the next batter, Willy Aybar, of an extra-base hit and an RBI with a running catch.
"You're a product of a lot of times your mindset. Getting picked off there, things happen," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "Are we just going to fold a tent or are we going to battle through it and make it not matter? There are so many opportunities in a game, whether it's an umpire's call or something happens, where you can make something bad not matter. That's part of being a teammate."
The only thing that mattered to the Orioles before an announced 24,277 last night was that Guthrie pitched six shutout and two-hit innings despite admittedly struggling with all of his pitches. The offense knocked around Rays starter James Shields for four runs and 10 hits over five innings with Luke Scott and Pie combining to go 6-for-7 with two RBIs. Scott had a home run, Pie had two doubles, and Adam Jones hit a two-run triple in the first. Rookie Josh Bell also notched an RBI.
The shutout, secured by quality relief work from Koji Uehara and Michael Gonzalez, was just the Orioles' second of the season and their first over Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field since Sept. 1, 2004.
The Orioles (41-75) are now 9-2 since Showalter took over, the best 11-game stretch since they won nine of 11 games from April 24-May 7, 2005.
"When you pitch a shutout, you like your chances," said Showalter who said that this series against the American League wildcard leaders would be a barometer for his club. "I don't take any solace or any pleasure. I know what the games mean to them but I also know what they mean to us in the future and where we're trying to head. I've been in their shoes where this time of year, every game is of such importance. It's important to us, too. It's not like we're just letting it fly with reckless abandon. We're playing good baseball and it's showing up on the scoreboard."
In 11 games since Showalter took over, the Orioles have a team batting average of .302 with 54 runs scored. Their average with runners in scoring position, a sore spot all year, is .382 (34-for-89). Oriole starters have turned in 10 quality starts in 11 games and have compiled a 2.62 ERA during that stretch.
"I think definitely the attitude along the whole team has gotten better," said Ty Wigginton who made two diving plays at first base to take away hits. "If something does go wrong, it's not that big of a deal. Nobody's really worrying about it. The next guy's going to pick him up. That's what baseball is all about. I think we're doing things the right way."
Said Guthrie: "It's not a coincidence that we've turned it around since Buck showed up. He hasn't done anything necessarily different to make us win games, but I think we respect him as a manager, we know what he expects and we've played good baseball with him here. [There's] no magic formula, but maybe just a good shift in gears for us and we need to keep it up."
Guthrie (7-11) continued his great second-half run, allowing only two hits and improving to 4-1 with a 1.51 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break. In his last 41 2/3 innings, Guthrie has allowed only 32 hits. Last night, however, was unlike his previous five starts as his command was elusive for much of the night. Guthrie walked four batters, one more free pass than he had issued in his previous five starts combined.
"I had to battle tonight," said Guthrie who won for the first time in seven career starts at Tropicana Field. "I didn't have great feel for any of my pitches for the most part. I made some important pitches at important places in the game, but overall, yeah, it was a battle. I fell behind a lot of guys and I ended up walking more guys than I would have wanted. But it was just a great team effort. We swung the bats well and we made a couple of defensive plays that really helped out."
The tone was set early after Shields, who had tied a modern day major league record by surrendering six home runs to the Toronto Blue Jays in his last start, retired Brian Roberts on his first pitch and then picked off Markakis following a one-out walk. But Wigginton singled and then so did Scott. Jones tripled in two runs and Pie doubled in one. Before the first inning was over, Shields had thrown 34 pitches and allowed three runs.
"We won the game basically in the first inning in a lot of ways because the patience we had there," Showalter said.
The manager's only problem with the night was that he had to wear the all orange uniforms that the 1971 team wore on occasion. Showalter kept a warmup jacket on throughout the game.
"Take a picture because you won't see them again," Showalter said. "Someone said they're like Halloween candy corn, but I'll take it."
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