Blue Jays 11, Orioles 2
-- They returned to the place where their short reign atop the standings had started, a dome with a roof that retracts on days, such as Monday, when the sun shines brightly on this Canadian city. On April 23 in Toronto, the Baltimore Orioles took sole possession of first place in the American League East and have not relinquished it since. Whether this is the place where the reign begins to end will surely be known soon.
The next three weeks are a test for the Orioles. All 19 games remaining before the all-star break are against teams with a .500 record or better. With Monday's 11-2 win, the Toronto Blue Jays are now at 35-35.
The Orioles' legitimacy as a top team will be known after those 19 games. If they lead the division at the break, then perhaps this team likely will be a contender for the rest of the season. If they fall, then perhaps the first half of the season will simply be a positive step toward contending next season.
Four of the 19 games are against the second-place Boston Red Sox and five are against the New York Yankees, two teams that seem likely to be Baltimore's biggest foes this summer. Boston crept within two games after beating the Cleveland Indians, and the Yankees are lurking five games back.
Baltimore will certainly need its starting pitchers to perform better than Bruce Chen did on Monday. Chen, who has been magnificent all season, flopped for the first time.
"He's done a hell of a job," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "It was just one of those games."
Prior to Monday, Chen, with Erik Bedard on the disabled list, had been Baltimore's best starter. He led all starters -- excluding Bedard, whose return is yet undetermined -- in the rotation with a 3.31 ERA and his six wins trailed only Sidney Ponson's seven.
Chen had allowed more than four runs once this season and had allowed three runs or fewer in the five starts prior to Monday. Cast as the team's fifth starter, Chen has been Baltimore's most consistent starter. On Monday, though, Chen had his worst outing of the year. He allowed a season-high six runs in just five innings and took his fifth loss of the year.
"They hit me early and they hit me good," Chen said.
The first two Blue Jays singled in the first inning and Vernon Wells followed with a three-run home run to left field off a 76 mph change-up. Two batters later, Aaron Hill sent a drive over the left field wall to give Toronto a 4-0 lead. Chen, who relies on control, could not keep his pitches down.
"I can't live up there," Chen said. "I don't throw that hard."
Chen pitched better through the next three innings, but was again hit hard in the fifth. Alex Rios singled to start the inning, then scored on a double by Shea Hillenbrand. Hill drove in his second run of the game with a bloop that ticked off the glove of second baseman Brian Roberts.
"There have been games where I've been mad at myself, but today was one of those days when I battled and did everything I could, but they just hit me," Chen said.
Chen and Toronto starter Ted Lilly, two lefty pitchers, appeared evenly matched. Neither is particularly overpowering. Both rely mostly on breaking pitches. Both rarely reach 90 mph on their fastballs. Lilly seemed most in control though. Baltimore, which had swept a three-game series at Rogers Center in April, scored two runs in the second on Eli Marrero's first home run as an Oriole and his fifth overall of the season. Entering the game, Marrero, who took up the roster spot that had belonged to well-liked David Newhan, was hitting just .222 with the Orioles.
Lilly improved dramatically after Marrero's home run. By the end of the fifth inning, Baltimore had struck out nine times against him and had just three hits.
"He made just one mistake, really," Orioles catcher Sal Fasano said.
The Orioles threatened in that fifth inning with the Blue Jays leading, 4-2, when Luis Matos doubled to start the inning. But Matos, who had advanced to third on a ground ball by Chris Gomez, was caught off third base when Fasano hit a ball back to Lilly. The Toronto pitcher threw to third baseman Hill, who tagged out the Orioles' center fielder.
"That was a big run," Mazzilli said. "There's still plenty of time to get back in the game. When you get a ball that's up the middle, it's a pretty tough read. Sometimes you get caught in the middle."
Lilly showed he is far more capable than the 4-7 record with a 6.47 ERA he carried into Monday's start. He ended with 10 strikeouts, which was the sixth time in his career he's had double-digit strikeouts. Lilly left after the seventh, having allowed two runs on just three hits.
The game came undone for Baltimore in the seventh inning, when reliever Steve Reed was tagged for four runs. It is already the fourth time this season Reed has allowed three or more runs in a game. His ERA is now 6.58.
Toronto had so thoroughly dominated Baltimore, three Blue Jays had at least three hits. One, the rookie Hill, had four. Hill, who also scored three runs, is considered one of Toronto's best prospects.
In the eighth inning, with the game pretty much decided, Hillenbrand sent a drive that landed in the second deck in the left field bleachers. It was the final knockout blow on a night when not even the slight breeze that crept into the open dome helped stop balls hit by Toronto batters.