Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis doubles in the third inning.… (US PRESSWIRE photo )
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The conventional wisdom explaining the Orioles' sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays in the season-opening series at Tropicana Field was that the defending American League East champs were caught at the right time, when they were dealing with key injuries and an unsettled bullpen.
That theory was easy to buy after the Rays came to Baltimore last weekend and swept the Orioles, setting up what was supposed to be more dominance by the first-place Rays this weekend.
But something funny happened on the way to the Trop this time around. The Orioles' starting pitching performed impressively and the beleaguered offense delivered key hits as the Orioles won two of three, including Sunday's rubber match, 9-3, in front of an announced 21,505.
"It was a big series for us because their best players have been playing really well," said shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose sixth-inning grand slam was the big blow. "And for us to come in here and get two out of three after losing the first was big for us."
Sunday's 15-hit offensive barrage -- the most by the Orioles in a nine-inning game this season -- included a two-run single by struggling first baseman Derrek Lee, a homer by Nick Markakis and Hardy's first grand slam in nearly four seasons. It was the most runs the Orioles have scored since beating the Chicago White Sox, 10-4, on April 29.
The Orioles (19-20) have won five of their past six games as well as five of six in St. Pete this season after winning just four last season at Tropicana Field. They also took a 5-4 season lead against the Rays (23-17), who are clinging to first place in the East despite their troubles this weekend.
Give credit this time to a starting rotation that flummoxed the Rays. Sunday's starter, Jake Arrieta, combined with Brad Bergesen and Jeremy Guthrie to allow just five runs in 23 innings (1.96 ERA). Dating to last week's sweep of the Seattle Mariners, the Orioles have received six straight quality starts and the rotation has pitched to a 1.64 ERA.
"It's what they're capable of, and I think the more they do it and the more that they see their teammates do it, they get a feel for the job expectations and the job description," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said about the rotation.
On Sunday, the Orioles beat around Tampa Bay right-hander Andy Sonnanstine early, scoring once in the second inning and twice in the third.
The first run came courtesy of a familiar source; the second two, from a long overdue one.
Vladimir Guerrero led off the second with a double, continuing his dominance against Sonnanstine (7-for-13 lifetime against him). With two outs, catcher Matt Wieters, who has been sublime with runners in scoring position this season, did it again with a single to center.
With that at-bat, Wieters upped his average with runners in scoring position to .565 (13-for-23) with 20 RBIs.
In the third, Brian Roberts ignited the rally with a bunt single, his first since Sept. 2, 2009. Markakis, who entered the game batting just .227 lifetime (5-for-22) against Sonnanstine, followed with a double.
That brought Lee to the plate. Lee entered the afternoon with an .097 average (3-for-31) with runners in scoring position, the worst mark in the AL among active players with at least 25 at-bats this season.
Lee lined a single to center to score Roberts and Markakis and give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. The Orioles could have broken the game open and chased Sonnanstine, but after Guerrero's second double in two at-bats, Luke Scott and Adam Jones flied out.
Scott's fly to right was too shallow for Lee to tag, but it's possible Lee could have scored on Guerrero's double to left that Sam Fuld mishandled. Lee, however, slowed down on his way to third and had to stay there once Fuld recovered and threw the ball in to the infield.
Sonnanstine, who was making his second start of the season after replacing injured starter Jeff Niemann, was on a strict 90-pitch count. He made it through five innings, throwing 84 pitches while allowing eight hits and four runs and striking out two. He also yielded a homer, a 396-foot solo shot to Markakis in the fifth. It was Markakis' fourth homer of the season. He had three hits in five at-bats.
Sonnanstine (0-1) left the game trailing 4-2, and the Rays' bullpen imploded after that. Rob Delaney walked all three batters he faced (one intentionally), and lefty Cesar Ramos served up a 2-0 grand slam to Hardy. Mark Reynolds added an RBI single in the ninth.
It was Hardy's third career grand slam and first since May 12, 2007, against the New York Mets. It continued Hardy's hot hitting. He is 10-for-24 with two homers and seven RBIs since coming off the disabled list Tuesday.
"I feel all right," Hardy said. "I feel like I've gotten a lot of cheap hits, but any hitter, any baseball player will tell you they'll take them."
The Orioles haven't had a grand slam since Corey Patterson hit one against Texas Rangers closer Neftali Feliz on July 9.