Orioles designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero hits a two-run… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
Since the day Vladimir Guerrero walked into the Orioles' spring training clubhouse for the first time, his mere presence has been the source of much fascination from his new teammates.
It wasn't just his prodigious batting practice blasts, his Hall of Fame-worthy statistics and his ability to make contact with pretty much any pitch in the same area code as home plate. It was the boyish enthusiasm the 36-year-old plays with, and the smile that's on his face no matter what he does on a baseball field.
"Strikeout, smiling; hits a home run, same smile," Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman said.
With the Orioles in desperate need of something good to happen offensively in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon, Guerrero flashed that wild swing and then that wide smile. His two-run homer off an otherwise dominant Jordan Zimmermann powered the Orioles to a 2-1 win in front of an announced 33,626 at Camden Yards and a series victory over the Washington Nationals.
"Today's a good example of what he can bring for us, just his presence as much as anything," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "A lot of times, he walks through the door like he's playing his first game of Little League, the zest that he has for the game and the day-to-day things that go on for a baseball team for seven or eight months. You look at a guy like him and you realize how much he's going to miss it when he doesn't play. I've been around him a while now, and I've never seen him have a bad day."
Guerrero, who drove an 0-2 curveball that was supposed to be in the dirt about four rows into the left-field seats, pumped his fist as he lumbered around the bases. His fifth home run of the season followed Nick Markakis' single, a rally that came after Zimmermann had retired 13 straight Orioles to take a shutout bid and a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning.
"I was looking for a good pitch to hit and just to make contact, and not for a home run. But I hit it out," Guerrero said through interpreter Rudy Arias, a batting practice pitcher. Guerrero went 1-for-4, ending his streak of multi-hit games at a career-high seven, but he is 21-for-51 (.412) over his past 12 games. "He pitched well, and I got lucky to get a good pitch to hit and, of course, I'm feeling real happy about that."
The Orioles' much-maligned bullpen held the one-run lead, with Koji Uehara throwing a perfect eighth -- after scoreless appearances by Jeremy Accardo and Jim Johnson (3-1) -- and Kevin Gregg pitching a nerve-racking but effective ninth to pick up his eighth save.
The game ended with Gregg striking out Roger Bernadina on a 3-2 breaking ball and catcher Matt Wieters making a perfect throw to nail pinch runner Brian Bixler trying to steal second base. It was the Orioles' second strike 'em out, throw 'em out in the game and a perfect way for the team to go into Monday's day off.
"Anytime you can win a 2-1 game like that -- [Tillman] did a good job on the mound, the bullpen held it together and Vladdy coming up with the big home run -- that's pretty big momentum for us," said Gregg, who went to full counts with all three batters he faced in the ninth.
In another opportunity to stake his claim to a rotation spot with Brian Matusz's return looming, Tillman was mostly effective but hardly efficient. He was seemingly in trouble all afternoon but allowed just one run over five innings on Alex Cora's bases-loaded infield single in the fourth. The Nationals (21-25) went just 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position against Tillman.
He surrendered six hits, walked two, hit one and struck out four while throwing 97 pitches over five innings. It was the fourth time in five outings that Tillman has allowed no more than one earned run, but he has gone five innings in only three of those starts.
"I'm trying to say he had a lot better stuff," Showalter said. "He should have been able to go deeper in that game. I thought, stuffwise, he was the full package. He had the cutter more like a slider today; he got some outs with it. He's got some deception. It's just [that his] fastball velocity fluctuates a lot. I'd just like to see him take that stuff deeper in the game. But that's the challenge [for] most young pitchers."
Tillman acknowledged that he was frustrated with his inability to put away Nationals hitters and get deeper in the game.
"Those guys fouled off pitches and fouled off pitches, and you do everything you can to get them to put it in play, but at the same time, if you're falling behind 2-0, 3-0, it's not easy pitching like that," said Tillman, who was pleased with his cut fastball. "Guys get to select the pitches that they want to hit. I think I made it tough on myself sometimes."