The Orioles' season-long struggles away from home continued during their month-ending road trip. In the end, though, they finished July in first place in the American League East thanks to a hard-fought 12-inning victory in Toronto July 31.
The Birds entered the series finale against the Blue Jays in the midst of a freefall, carrying a five-game losing streak that dated back to July 26. Both the offense and the starting pitching shared responsibility for the Orioles' slide. On the hitting side, the O's plated a total of 12 runs during the five games and went 5-for-28 with runners in scoring position, continuing their second-half woes in RBI opportunities.
As for the pitchers, none of the Orioles' starters delivered a quality outing during the five-game losing streak. They were particularly ineffective against the Blue Jays, as righties Kevin Gausman and Yovani Gallardo combined to cough up 11 earned runs in 7.1 innings July 29 and 30. That pushed the Blue Jays ahead of the Orioles in the AL East standings and put the Birds on the brink of getting swept.
For six innings, the series finale July 31 seemed to be following the same depressing pattern for the Orioles, especially offensively. The bats couldn't manage anything against Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who retired the first seven hitters he faced -- including striking out the side in the second. He didn't allow a runner to second base until the fifth inning.
In fact, Sanchez faced just three batters over the minimum through six scoreless innings. Sanchez was the latest Jays starter to hurl a quality start against the Orioles, after righty Marco Estrada and lefty J.A. Happ did so during the first two games of the series.
"They're a good pitching staff," manager Buck Showalter told MASN. "Their starters are solid. Sanchez is having a great year. You've just got to have a really good outing by your starter in order to compete and take your chance at the end. We like our chances if we can do that."
On the positive side, O's ace Chris Tillman rebounded from a rough outing against the Colorado Rockies July 26 -- six runs in five innings -- with a solid start in Toronto. He held the Jays to two runs in 5.2 innings, although his escalated pitch count of 111 knocked him out of the game in the sixth. Still, it seemed his efforts would go to naught.
The game turned in the top of the seventh, though, as the O's finally solved Sanchez by delivering some quality at-bats with runners in scoring position -- a skill they've often lacked since the All-Star break. A walk and a double put runners at second and third with nobody out, and while the O's didn't deliver a hit, they made do with a pair of productive outs. Pedro Alvarez drove home one run with a groundout to second, and Matt Wieters brought in the other with a game-tying sac fly.
The Orioles' bullpen took over from there. Five O's relievers kept the Jays off the board the rest of the way, working 6.1 scoreless innings and allowing only one hit. Perhaps the key to the game was Showalter's decision to bring in closer Zach Britton for two innings. Many managers are hesitant to bring in their closer in a tie game on the road, instead preferring to hold them back until their team takes the lead and a save opportunity arises.
The logical flaw in that mindset, though, is that managers risk losing the game without ever getting their best reliever onto the mound -- something Showalter was quick to point out during his MASN post-game interview.
"He had had five days off,so we felt comfortable with him for two innings today," Showalter said. "Regardless of the score and what conventionality tells you, I'm putting my best pitcher on the field. I'm not going to save him around for a close [situation] that may not happen."
Thanks to the efforts of Britton and the other O's relievers, the Orioles were able to break the tie in the 12th. Jonathan Schoop delivered the Birds' first hit with a man in scoring position, ripping an RBI single to plate Alvarez from second. Schoop entered the game 1-for-20 during the Orioles' five-game losing streak.
"I just stopped thinking, because this week wasn't going my way," Schoop told MASN. "So I said I'm going to go in there and bat with my mind free and just get a good pitch and swing, because I was thinking too much about my mechanics."
Two batters later, Adam Jones removed all doubt of the outcome by crushing a three-run homer to extend the Birds' lead to 6-2, which ended up being the final score. The win moved the Birds back atop the division, a half game ahead of the Jays, as they head into their first off day of the second half following 17 consecutive games.
"We came here in first place, we're leaving that way," Showalter said. "I'm looking forward to getting around some friendly people and the guys getting a well-deserved day off."
The Orioles have closed the book on July, but their August schedule doesn't get any easier. They'll start a three-game home series against the AL West-leading Texas Rangers Aug. 2, then will head back out on the road for a three-city, 10-game trip that takes them to the West Coast for the third time this season.
Starting with their series in San Francisco Aug. 12, the Orioles will play 22 consecutive games against teams that are currently .500 or better. With the Blue Jays and Red Sox hot on their tail in the AL East, the O's can't afford any more extended losing streaks, but they have an arduous task ahead of them. They'll need to get their offense clicking again, and get respectable outings from starting pitchers more frequently, if they hope to remain perched in first place in the division.