Fresh off a sweep of the Rays, the red-hot Orioles returned home for a three-game weekend series against the worst team in the majors, the Astros. And though the Birds were denied a second straight sweep with a 5-2 loss May 11, a pair of dramatic late-inning victories May 9 and 10 clinched a series win and kept the Birds in first place in the American League East.
Let's get the clunker out of the way first. Orioles starter Chris Tillman struggled with his control May 11, walking a season-high five batters and throwing 61 strikes and 44 balls during his five innings of work. Three batters into the game, the Astros took a lead they never relinquished, as Tillman walked the first two hitters ahead of a Jason Castro three-run homer.
Tillman hasn't looked much like a top-of-the-rotation horse of late. During his past five starts, he hasn't worked more than six innings, and he's allowed at least three runs and two walks each time. Tillman has kept the score close more often than not -- the O's won four of those five games -- but the O's would surely like to see Tillman find more of a groove.
The loss came in front of a Mother's Day sellout crowd of 45,944 at Camden Yards. Fans who have the Sunday season ticket package haven't gotten to see a win yet this year -- the Birds are 0-3 during home Sunday games, with multi-run losses April 13, April 27 and May 11. The Orioles have lost five straight Sunday games overall and are 1-5 on Sundays this year. Still, at least that's not as bad as 2008, when the Orioles lost 15 consecutive Sunday games from April through July.
Now, let's turn to the Birds' two wins of the series. May 9 starter Wei-Yin Chen and May 10 starter Miguel Gonzalez both took advantage of the Astros' weak lineup, with each hurler tossing seven innings and giving up two runs. Chen was sharper -- allowing six base runners to Gonzalez's eight -- though Gonzalez was more efficient, throwing 90 pitches compared with Chen's 101. Gonzalez set a season high with his seven innings (he hadn't gone more than six during any of his previous starts), while Chen's seven frames tied a season high.
Chen got the victory for his efforts -- thanks to a Jonathan Schoop tie-breaking RBI single in the bottom of the seventh May 9 -- while Gonzalez ended up with a no-decision. The May 10 game wasn't decided until hours after Gonzalez left the mound, and it took fans on a roller-coaster ride.
The O's rallied back from a 2-0 deficit with single runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth, including Nelson Cruz's go-ahead leadoff homer in the eighth. But closer Tommy Hunter's high-wire act took an ugly turn in the ninth as he allowed three more base runners and two runs, capped by a go-ahead two-run single from Jose Altuve.
It was only a matter of time before Hunter's propensity for base runners got him in trouble. He has pulled off numerous escapes this season after pitching himself into jams, but his luck was bound to run out. Although Hunter is tied for the AL lead with 11 saves, he has surrendered 25 runners in 14.1 innings pitched. His WHIP of 1.67 would be the second highest in the majors if he had enough innings to qualify. Hunter hasn't been missing many bats this season, and he'll need to figure out a way to put hitters away or the O's could continue to be in ninth-inning trouble moving forward.
Almost as soon as the Astros took the lead, heavy rains began to fall at Camden Yards, delaying the game for 55 minutes before the bottom of the ninth. Once the teams took the field, the O's appeared down and out -- Astros reliever Anthony Bass retired the first two batters of the ninth, leaving the Birds down to their final out. At that point, the O's had a 5 percent chance of winning the game, according to Baseball Reference.
But the Birds pulled some last-hurrah Orioles Magic out of their caps, loading the bases on two singles and a walk, and pinch hitter Delmon Young legged out an infield single up the middle to plate the tying run from third. The O's then won it an inning later on Steve Clevenger's RBI double down the right-field line, making the Birds 4-0 in extra innings this year. The intrepid fans who stuck around after the rain delay got to see a thrilling finish.
The walkoff victory made the Birds the third team in the AL to reach 20 wins this year, joining the Athletics and Tigers. It also made for a unique-looking scoreboard -- the O's had five consecutive innings of zero runs each, followed by five innings of one run apiece. So not only did the Birds win, but they also did so using an aesthetically pleasing pattern.
KEEPING THEM IN THE GAME
After a shaky start to the season, the Orioles' rotation has settled down a bit during recent weeks. Following Tillman's outing May 11, Orioles starters have worked 13 consecutive games allowing three earned runs or fewer, combining for a 3.20 ERA.
That's not to say they've all been quality starts. During seven of those 13 starts, the O's starter has worked fewer than six innings -- including two of fewer than five innings. So even though the Birds' starters are keeping opponents off the scoreboard, they still need to work on pitcher deeper into games. Orioles starters are keeping their team in the game, but are putting a burden on the bullpen in the process.