After two weeks of beating up on noncontenders, the Orioles proved they can hold their own against winning teams, too.
The Orioles beat the Nationals two out of three games (with one postponed by rain) during the Battle of the Beltways July 7-10, taking bragging rights in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., regions for the time being.
The Birds had played 14 straight games against losing teams -- going 9-5 during that stretch -- before facing off against the Nationals, the co-leaders of the National League East. The two teams entered the series with nearly identical records (48-40 for the Orioles, 48-39 for the Nats), and the clubs delivered three hard-fought, competitive games.
The series opener in Washington July 7 resulted in one of the Orioles' most dramatic wins of the season. O's starter Chris Tillman matched heralded Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg pitch for pitch, sending the game into extras in a 2-2 tie. In the top of the 11th, Chris Davis -- who had been 0-for-4 with two strikeouts during the game, putting him in a 2-for-38 slump -- crushed a go-ahead two-run home run to set off a three-homer O's flurry in the inning. A loud contingent of Orioles fans took over Nationals Park to celebrate the victory.
After a July 8 rainout, the Nationals' Doug Fister outpitched a rusty Bud Norris to lead Washington to a routine 6-2 win July 9, but the Birds got back on track during the July 10 finale -- though not without overcoming their share of tense moments.
Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez entered the game with a 22-inning scoreless streak, but Steve Pearce brought an end to that by swatting a solo home run in the first inning, his 11th homer of the year. Pearce was also in the middle of a three-run O's rally in the third, which began with two outs when Nick Markakis walked and Pearce singled. Adam Jones followed with a bloop hit into right field, ending up with an RBI double when Washington outfielder Jayson Werth misplayed the ball.
The Nationals' defense let them down in the third. With two in scoring position and two outs, Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz chopped a bouncer up the middle. Washington shortstop Ian Desmond flagged it down near second base, but -- even though he might have had time to throw out Cruz at first -- he made a 180-degree turn and attempted to fire to third base. His throw sailed past everyone and allowed two runs to score on the play.
The Orioles didn't score again during the game, and they spent the rest of the night trying to make their 4-0 lead stand up. The Nationals didn't make it easy on them, whittling away at starter Wei-Yin Chen. Chen started the game on a roll, retiring the minimum nine hitters in the first three innings. But Nats hitters began to square him up the second and third times through the lineup, with eight of 16 batters reaching base against Chen from the fourth through sixth innings.
Ryan Zimmerman got the Nationals on the board with an RBI single in the fourth, and then Chen struck out Bryce Harper to strand two runners in scoring position. Chen then fanned Anthony Rendon to strand two more in the fifth. He didn't escape his troubles in the sixth, though, surrendering a Werth home run and a pair of doubles, which cut the lead to one. Chen left the game after 5.2 innings with the tying run at second, and then reliever Tommy Hunter escaped the inning on one pitch.
"I felt pretty good in the first part of the game," Chen said through his interpreter, Louis Chao. "I felt my fastball had good life compared to the previous outing. [But] maybe later some of the hitters were sitting on the fastball, and my command wasn't as sharp as the first part of the game."
The Orioles' bullpen, with no margin for error, held firm for the final three innings, starting with Hunter's three-up, three-down seventh inning. Darren O'Day then pitched out of a jam in the eighth. With a runner at second and two down, manager Buck Showalter ordered an intentional walk of Harper. The decision went against the conventional baseball wisdom, which holds that a team shouldn't intentionally put the go-ahead run on base, though it allowed for a righty-righty matchup between O'Day and Desmond.
"There's a lot of variables that go into it," Showalter said of his decision. "You just create the best matchup you can. That stuff about the tying run, winning run, all that stuff, I don't pay much attention to it. Are you trying to win the game or keep from losing it? That's the way I look at it. … You kind of go for certain things at certain times. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn't."
In this case, it worked. A pitch from O'Day hit Desmond, loading the bases, but then O'Day retired Wilson Ramos -- another right-handed batter -- on an inning-ending fly ball. O'Day lowered his ERA to 1.11.
"Darren, he manages innings pretty well," Showalter said. "It's very hard to do at the level that Darren's doing this at right now. He's been a rock for us."
Closer Zach Britton finished things off in the ninth, allowing a dribbling infield single to Rendon, which deflected off third base, but retiring the other three hitters on groundouts. That sealed the Orioles' 50th win of the season -- making them the fourth American League team to reach the 50-win mark -- and increased their division lead to three games ahead of the idle Blue Jays.
The Orioles outlasted the tough Nationals, but that was just the first step in an upcoming gauntlet of games. Their next 29 games will all be against teams that currently hold winning records, beginning with a three-game set July 11-13 against the Yankees, which will take them into the All-Star break.
"It doesn't get any easier with the Yankees coming in and our schedule the rest of the way," Showalter said. "The games are starting to dwindle now. We're getting close to the 100-game mark before too long. It's a little bit different feel to the games as you get past the All-Star break. You grind like heck to put yourself in a position to play meaningful games."
If the Orioles hope to maintain their AL East lead, they'll need to play their best baseball against their toughest opponents. They passed their first test against their beltway rivals.