The only thing left to play for at the end of another season in the American League East cellar is a moment like this:
Catcher Matt Wieters slammed a two-run home run off with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning on Tuesday night to give the Orioles a 4-2 victory at Camden Yards and deliver a damaging blow to the playoff hopes of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Orioles stared down Rays ace David Price and finally broke through against reliever J.P. Howell -- Wieters’ 19th homer of the year having a sudden impact on the American League wild card race. The Jays had climbed to within three games of the slumping Red Sox, but their five-game winning streak ended at Camden Yards and the Sox snapped their five-game losing streak at Fenway Park to move four games up with 15 games left for each team.
What an unlikely outcome, considering how well the Jays were playing and how imposing Price can be, but Orioles starter Alfredo Simon delivered a solid seven-inning performance that included a career-high nine strikeouts and the bullpen did the rest. Price also worked into the seventh inning and gave up two runs on four hits, but again failed to get much help from his hitters.
It was the pitching duel nobody in the announced crowd of 13,262 could really have expected. Price is one of the most dominating left-handers in the league -- the 12-12 record he carried into the game more reflective of that inconsistent run support than a .500-caliber performance on the mound. Simon has the physical tools to be overpowering, too, but has yet to prove he is consistent enough to warrant being projected into next year’s Orioles rotation.
Obviously, there are going to be some 2012 jobs to be won and Simon – at 30 – should already be past the point of auditioning alongside the club’s young pitching prospects, but his on-again, off-again performance has remains one of the organization’s unsolved mysteries.
He was on again Tuesday night, matching Price pitch for pitch through the first five innings and hanging tenaciously to the one-run lead that the Rays gift-wrapped for him in the first inning. J.J. Hardy doubled off the out-of-town scoreboard with one out and scored when shortstop Sean Rodriguez fielded a bouncer by Nick Markakis and skipped his throw into the camera well behind first base.
Price shook off that moment of misfortune and settled down to hold Orioles scoreless until Jake Fox’s pinch double in the seventh inning, seemingly gaining strength as the game progressed. He retired 14 of the next 16 batters after the error and struck out the side in the fourth. Orioles second baseman Robert Andino put a big swing on him in the fifth, but left fielder Desmond Jennings made a sensational leaping catch at the fence to end the inning.
Simon also got off to a rocky start and had to dodge scoring threats in the first two innings, the second requiring him to work out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam by striking out catcher John Jaso and getting Rodriguez to ground into an inning-ending double play.
The Rodriguez grounder provided the first two in a string of 13 consecutive outs before Simon walked B.J. Upton and gave up a two-run homer to third baseman Evan Longoria with one down in the sixth inning.
Though there was a lot of game left, the home run allowed the Rays to exhale. They in full scoreboard-watching mode now that they have closed to within sniffing distance of the wild-card-leading Red Sox, and the Sox were going back and fourth with the Blue Jays in a high-scoring game at Fenway Park.
Simon was coming off a couple of rough starts. He had given up six runs in a loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field on Sept. 3 and walked six batters in his previous appearance on Thursday against the Yankees. He was much sharper this time, and did not wilt after Longoria’s second extra-base hit of the game.
He got a couple of ground balls to escape the sixth and wrapped three more strikeouts around a couple of singles in the seventh to set a career high with nine.
It was a convincing performance, but the Orioles can be forgiven if they are still not convinced. It was his sixth quality start in 13 attempts, but it was only his third since reeling off three impressive starts in July. If he remains on turn the rest of the way, he’ll get three more chances to prove he should be on the short list to start in 2012