Orioles 2, Devil Rays 1
Even the most imaginative baseball fan would struggle to envision a time when a mid-September contest between the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Devil Rays provokes the thrills of a pennant race. Perhaps in several years, when some unforeseen misfortunes have befallen the American League East stalwarts in Boston and New York, fans might relish the chance to watch these teams battle for postseason position.
For now, though, the 31,400 fans who attended Saturday's insignificant 2-1 Orioles' victory at Oriole Park at Camden Yards settled for a rousing pitching performance by Baltimore starter Bruce Chen and the late-inning heroics of center fielder Luis Matos and September call-up Bernie Castro.
Chen yielded just two hits and one run in seven innings to give the Orioles' struggling offense a chance to win the game late. Matos and Castro then helped Baltimore manufacture a run in the bottom of the eighth to break a 1-1 tie.
"We wish that we could do it earlier for Chen because he pitched a heck of a game," Matos said.
The Orioles' inability to hit with runners on base, a recurring theme since the all-star break, nearly ensured their demise. Baltimore (70-77) entered the game having left 403 runners on base since then, and it added 13 to that total Saturday. The Orioles stranded runners in six of eight innings (no one reached base in the other two innings) and left the bases loaded in the fourth, sixth and eighth.
"I think we get to wanting to hit the ball too hard," Orioles interim manager Sam Perlozzo said. "We need to spray it around the field with men on base."
After failing to capitalize on several rallies, the Orioles broke through in the eighth. Castro, who was named the Orioles' Class AAA most valuable player this season, led off as a pinch hitter. With two strikes, he reached out and slapped a single to left field off Tampa Bay reliever Joe Borowski (1-4). Then, as Eric Byrnes attempted to advance Castro to second base with a sacrifice bunt, Castro got a tremendous jump and stole second. Byrnes then laid a perfect sacrifice down the third-base line, moving Castro to third. Following an intentional walk to pinch hitter B.J. Surhoff, Matos brought home Castro by lining a 1-0 slider to left field for a hit.
"Right now I'm really feeling comfortable at the plate in the last five or six days," said Matos, who had two hits for the third straight game. "When I feel like that, I don't look for a pitch. I look for something around the strike zone or something that I know I can handle."
Before the game, Perlozzo singled out Castro as a less-experienced player in whom he has confidence. Castro's base hit and steal reinforced that.
"He does so many things at home plate that confuses you and puts you on the edge," Perlozzo said. "He puts a lot of pressure on the defense."
While the Orioles' offense waited for the big hit, Chen kept the Devil Rays (61-88) at bay with one of his best outings of the season.
"I want to win, and my teammates, they play hard," Chen said. "We're trying our best. We're bunting the ball. We're moving guys over and we're getting good at-bats, and that's all you can ask for. I know my teammates are going to score some runs."
Chen used off-speed pitches to keep the Devil Rays off balance, and he cruised through the first three innings without allowing a hit. His second venture through Tampa Bay's order did not go as smoothly. Devil Rays left fielder Carl Crawford gave his team a 1-0 lead in the fourth when he drove the first pitch of his second at-bat into the Orioles' bullpen in left-center field. Chen allowed only three runners to reach base after that.
"I thought I had good command of all my pitches," Chen said. "I thought I changed speeds really well, and [catcher Javy Lopez] called a good game."
Brian Roberts's RBI infield single tied the game in the fourth. From there, the Orioles' pitchers took over. Chen struck out three and walked three before giving way to reliever Todd Williams (5-4), who pitched a perfect eighth to earn the victory. Closer B.J. Ryan recorded his 34th save of the season and 12th in a row.