ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The announced 12,446 who actually showed up at Tropicana Field on Monday night, an embarrassing total under the circumstances, came to watch the Tampa Bay Rays clinch the second postseason berth in franchise history.
Instead, the fourth-smallest crowd here this season witnessed a sterling performance from an Orioles rookie who continues to pitch as if he's not ready for the season to end.
With manager Buck Showalter watching from a suite while serving a one-game suspension for Alfredo Simon's actions Sunday, Brian Matusz threw seven shutout innings as the Orioles beat the Rays, 4-0, to break a four-game losing streak and keep the champagne temporarily on ice and out of the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field.
"[You] try to come in here and play the role of spoiler and not let them pop champagne against you," said Orioles bench coach Jeff Datz, who served as manager. "I tell you, that's a real good ballclub over there. Hopefully, we can do it for another night or two and go from there. Our guys pitched well; we played a good ball game. It was fun."
Any combination of a Rays win and a Boston Red Sox loss would assure Tampa Bay a spot in the postseason. However, neither took place Monday night, though the New York Yankees also lost, leaving the Rays with a half-game lead in the American League East.
The Orioles (62-94) also have a magic number that is down to one. With one win in their final six games, the Orioles will avoid just the third 100-loss season in franchise history. The dubious distinction seemed inevitable eight weeks ago when Showalter took over a team that was on pace for 113 losses.
But the Orioles are 30-21 under Showalter, who said he did little else Monday night but get on the nerves of other team officials in the suite, including president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. The Orioles are 14-11 on the road since Showalter took over, the same number of road wins in 25 games that the club won in 54 games before his arrival (14-40).
However, their latest victory stood out even for the hard-to-please Showalter, who described the experience of being forced to watch the game from outside the dugout as "brutal." His team's performance made it a little more tolerable.
"That's as good as a game as we've played," Showalter said.
Along with Matusz's gem, the Orioles' third straight victory over Tampa Bay featured clutch hitting from right fielder Nick Markakis, who broke up a scoreless pitching duel between rookies Matusz and Wade Davis with a two-out, two-strike RBI triple in the fifth inning. Markakis connected for an RBI single off left-hander Randy Choate, who had retired the Orioles right fielder in their other seven matchups, to spark the visitors' three-run seventh inning.
The Orioles' bullpen made sure the lead stood up as Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara retired all six hitters they faced, with Uehara striking out the side in the ninth inning.
But the story, as it has been on most nights over the past month and a half when he pitches, was Matusz.
He allowed just three hits, all of them singles and two of them of the infield variety. En route to tying a career high with eight strikeouts, the 23-year-old lefty pounded the strike zone, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 15 batters he faced. He threw 63 of his 94 total pitches for strikes, earning rave reviews from both clubhouses.
"It was as good as it looked," Showalter said.
"I think that's the best I've seen him throw. It's pretty fun to watch when he's on a roll like that," Markakis said.
"He did not miss a spot all night," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose team could have used the right-handed bat of injured third baseman Evan Longoria.
After two base runners reached in the first inning, Matusz retired 10 straight Rays.
He was in trouble again in the fifth after Tampa Bay had runners on first and third with no outs, but he struck out two, and after an infield single by B.J. Upton loaded the bases, Matusz retired Jason Bartlett on a fielder's-choice groundout. He finished his outing by retiring nine of the final 11 hitters he faced.
"I had all four pitches working for me, and when that's working for you, you know it's going to be good," Matusz said.
It has been good for a while now, as Matusz has won five straight decisions to improve to 9-12, not bad for a pitcher who started the season losing 11 of his first 14 decisions.
In his past 10 starts, Matusz is 6-1 with a 2.09 ERA. Over his past seven, he is 5-0 with a 1.58 ERA and has allowed just 24 hits in 40 innings. During that span, only 23 batters have reached second base, and seven of those came in his Sept. 6 start at Yankee Stadium.
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