Fenway Park was once a house of horrors for the Orioles, a place where the Red Sox trounced hapless O's teams year after year. During a six-year span from 2006-11, the Orioles combined for a 13-40 record in Boston, losing the Fenway season series each year.
These days, it's a different story. The Birds have flipped the script on the Red Sox since 2012, going 12-6 on Boston's home turf entering this season. And their first two games at Fenway in 2014, a pair of hard-fought contests April 18 and 19, continued the newly competitive rivalry between the two clubs. Each team claimed a victory, as the O's grabbed an 8-4 win April 18, while the Sox claimed the April 19 contest by a 4-2 score.
The opening two games of the four-game series almost seemed to have a playoff atmosphere, and brought a little bit of everything to the table.
Among them was a benches-clearing incident April 19, during which Red Sox catcher David Ross took exception to a pair of high-and-tight pitches while trying to sacrifice bunt off Orioles starter Bud Norris. Order was quickly restored -- O's catcher Matt Wieters calmed down Ross, perhaps by pointing out that the Orioles would be foolish to try to plunk someone who was trying to give away an out. Players from both benches briefly trotted onto the field, but nothing escalated beyond some jawing.
Still, the incident exemplified how passionate and competitive the games between these two teams have become now that the O's are a contending team. It's a far cry from the years when the overmatched Orioles were essentially a nonentity to the dominant Red Sox.
Here are some other early thoughts from the series in Boston.
A TIMELY CHALLENGE
Entering April 19, the Orioles hadn't yet taken the new instant replay system for a test drive. The Birds were the only American League team that had not challenged a play, and one of two in the majors (along with the Cardinals).
That drought ended April 19, when manager Buck Showalter contested a call by first base umpire Ted Barrett in the sixth inning. With runners at the corners and two outs, Nelson Cruz smashed a hard-hit ball to third base and appeared to beat Brock Holt's throw to first, but Barrett called him out.
Showalter's challenge panned out. Replays showed that Cruz beat the throw, and the umpires overturned the call. What had been an inning-ending groundout instead became a game-tying RBI single.
The umpires' review took 49 seconds, an improvement from the two calls that have been challenged at Camden Yards this year -- each of which took more than two and a half minutes to review.
To me, this was a perfect example of why instant replay is a good thing for baseball. The play was reviewed quickly and correctly, and it prevented the Orioles from having a blown call stifle a run-scoring rally.
STICKING WITH THE STARTERS
Showalter showed confidence in his two starting pitchers April 18 and 19, giving them a long leash when other managers might have pulled them from the game. In one case, Showalter's faith was rewarded; in the other, his tactic might have backfired.
During the April 18 game, Chris Tillman labored; with two outs and two runners aboard in the fifth inning, his pitch count was at 107, and he seemed to be running out of gas when he walked Xander Bogaerts on four pitches. But even with lefties A.J. Pierzynski and Jackie Bradley Jr. due up and southpaw Brian Matusz warming in the bullpen, Showalter stuck with Tillman, giving him a chance to finish the fifth with a lead.
Tillman allowed an RBI single to Pierzynski and then dueled Bradley for a marathon nine-pitch at-bat, during which Bradley fouled off three straight 3-2 pitches. Then, on his 122nd and final pitch of the game, Tillman blew a fastball past Bradley to escape the jam and hold the lead. He ultimately picked up the victory.
The decision didn't work as well with Norris April 19. Norris pitched well through the sixth inning, holding the Red Sox to two runs, but he got himself in trouble by walking the first batter of the seventh, Mike Carp. Norris struck out Ross (following the benches-clearing incident) but then gave up a go-ahead RBI triple to Holt on his 103rd and final pitch. In hindsight, Showalter might've been better served by bringing in a fresh reliever to face the lefty-swinging Holt, considering that Norris struggled against left-handers (.889 OPS) last year.
LONG WORK OUT OF THE BULLPEN
I like how Showalter has used the bullpen so far this year. On April 18, Showalter had Matusz -- who is often used as a one- or two-batter lefty specialist -- work 2.2 innings, the longest relief outing of his career. Showalter, too, has used fellow southpaw reliever Zach Britton in multiple-inning stints this season.
I like the idea of stretching out relievers for longer stints so that the Orioles aren't making constant pitching changes and relying on a cavalcade of short-term specialists. Last year, the Orioles had 44 games during which they used four or more relievers (excluding extra-inning games), a rate of one every 3.7 games. This year, the Birds have used four or more relievers on two occasions (again, excluding extra-inning games) -- a rate of one every eight games. If the O's can keep up that pace, they'll be able to keep their bullpen fresher all season.