Even with 130 games left to play, the Orioles can hardly complain about being in sole possession of first place in the American League East.
The Birds grabbed the top spot in the division with a three-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays May 6-8, a low-scoring, tooth-and-nail series during which all three games were decided by two runs or fewer. The Orioles secured their first three-game sweep of the season (they've also had a pair of two-game sweeps) and improved to 5-0 this year against the Rays. Overall, the Birds are a division-best 13-8 against AL East teams this year.
During the three games, 10 O's relievers combined to pitch 10 innings and held the Rays to one run, good for a 0.90 bullpen ERA. They weren't throwing garbage-time innings, either -- every pitch thrown by an O's reliever came either during a tie game or with the Birds clinging to a one- or two-run lead. One false move by any reliever could have changed the outcome of any of the games.
They didn't always make it look easy, though. I mentioned in my May 6 recap that Tommy Hunter had gotten himself into a ninth-inning jam and pitched out of it ... and then he did the same thing the next night, to an even larger extent. Hunter allowed three runners to reach base May 7 while trying to protect a two-run lead, and he gave up one run as the potential tying run reached third base with one out. But yet again, Hunter found a way to buckle down when he most needed to. He induced a pair of lineouts to end the game and eke out another nerve-wracking save.
Hunter wasn't the only reliever to walk a tightrope during a ninth-inning save situation. Darren O'Day got the call to close out the Birds' 3-1 lead during the May 8 finale, with Hunter unavailable after pitching two nights in a row. O'Day did his best Hunter impression by allowing the first two Rays to reach base, putting the possible tying run aboard, but he, too, found another gear and got big outs when he needed them. O'Day induced a double play and retired Matt Joyce on a bouncer to first, earning his second save and completing the sweep.
Other O's relievers stepped up, too. Ryan Webb got eight important outs, working 1.1 scoreless innings apiece May 7 and 8, twice stranding a pair of runners on base. And Brian Matusz recovered from a rocky outing May 7 -- during which he threw two pitches and allowed a game-tying RBI single -- by retiring all four batters he faced May 8, three of them righties.
COOL BATS HEAT UP
The Orioles' offense didn't exactly erupt during the series, but the Birds were able to get a few clutch hits late during games. And a couple of their struggling hitters found a groove.
Adam Jones entered the series struggling through a season-long slump, batting .252 with a .619 OPS with one home run at the end of the Twins series May 4. But he tripled his season home run total during one game May 7, smacking a pair of first-pitch blasts to center field in his first two at bats off Rays starter Cesar Ramos. Jones added a pair of hits May 8, upping his average to .267 and his OPS to .682. It's a good sign for the Orioles if Jones, a fixture in the middle of their lineup, has begun to hit his stride at the plate.
Jonathan Schoop, too, was struggling entering the series, hitting .231/.278/.374/.652 and in the midst of a 3-for-22 slump. He had two hits during the series, and both were critical ones. Schoop delivered a tie-breaking two-run homer in the seventh inning May 7, taking Brandon Gomes deep on an 0-2 pitch. Then, May 8, Schoop contributed an RBI single in the fourth inning off David Price.
THE PEARCE RENAISSANCE
Steve Pearce's return to the Orioles could hardly have gone better so far. Pearce has started eight consecutive games at first base in place of the injured Chris Davis and has proved himself a valuable fill-in both offensively and defensively.
Pearce cranked his first two home runs of the year during the Rays series, including a two-run blast off Price May 8, giving the O's a lead they didn't relinquish. He went 4-for-10 during the series all told.
Pearce also made a potentially game-saving defensive play May 8. With the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, Evan Longoria hit a hard bouncer to short. J.J. Hardy fed Schoop at second for the lead out, and Schoop's relay to first was in the dirt … but Pearce displayed dazzling leather to scoop the short hop while keeping his toe on the bag, successfully completing the inning-ending double play. If Pearce hadn't made that stop, at least one run would've scored -- and possibly two -- which likely would've changed the momentum of the game.
In fact, the entire Orioles infield looked sharp during the series. Hardy gobbled up numerous grounders at short, while third baseman Manny Machado several times made short-hop scoops and was able to force out a runner at second with his cannon arm.
A HISTORIC ESCAPE
The Orioles ended up on the wrong side of a historic feat May 8 (though, because they won the game anyway, they probably won't beat themselves up over it).
In the sixth inning, the Orioles loaded the bases with nobody out against Price, forcing Rays manager Joe Maddon to call to his bullpen for right-hander Brad Boxberger.
Boxberger then did something that no pitcher in baseball history had ever done, according to Baseball Prospectus. He struck out the side with the bases loaded -- on nine pitches. He racked up a three-pitch strikeout off Pearce, then did the same to Schoop and repeated the feat to Caleb Joseph. Though Orioles fans were surely frustrated by the Birds' inability to score in that situation, that had more to do with Boxberger's dominance than any O's futility. That's one of the most overpowering outings you'll see from a reliever.