The Orioles wrapped up a 5-4 home stand with a series win against the Athletics Aug. 23-25, shaving a game off Oakland's lead for the second wild-card spot. The Birds are now two games back of the A's as they attempt to push for their second straight postseason berth.
The Birds played six straight games against teams they're chasing in the American League -- the Rays and Athletics -- but the schedule doesn't get any easier from here. On Aug. 27, the Orioles will begin a pivotal nine-game road trip against the Red Sox, Yankees and Indians, all teams that are still making noise in the playoff race.
All season long, the Orioles have stressed the importance of winning series, and that need is even more critical down the stretch. Every game from here on out will be vital to keep the Birds' postseason hopes alive. The O's don't have much margin of error to go on any extended losing streaks. It's do-or-die time.
The Orioles did what they needed to do against the Athletics, tallying 20 runs in taking two of three games. Let's look at how the series played out.
A GREAT SERIES, WITH ONE EXCEPTION ...
The Orioles' first and last games of the series were rousing successes, but first let's address the clunker in the middle. It's always best to get the bad news out of the way early, if you ask me.
Tip your cap to starter Chris Tillman, who delivered one of his -- and the Orioles' -- most dominant outings of the year Aug. 24. Tillman overpowered the Athletics through eight fantastic innings, allowing three hits and one run. He tied a season high with nine strikeouts. Tillman seemed to get stronger as the game progressed; he retired the last seven batters he faced, and worked a perfect eighth inning -- with two strikeouts -- even though he entered the inning with a pitch count of 103. Tillman showed no signs of tiring once his pitch count reached the century mark, which has been a struggle for other O's starters such as Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez.
But Tillman wasn't rewarded with a win for his efforts, leaving him still in search of his elusive 15th victory. The Orioles' offense was stymied by A's starter Jarrod Parker, who, like Tillman, allowed one run in eight strong innings. The Birds went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
In my view, the Orioles gave away a chance to win with questionable late-inning tactics. In the bottom of the eighth, with the game tied, Nate McLouth led off with a single. With Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Adam Jones the next three scheduled hitters, the Birds had an excellent chance to push across the go-ahead run.
Then, Machado bunted. The sacrifice was successful in moving McLouth to second base, but it ended up doing more harm than good. It opened up first base, which gave the Athletics the easy decision to intentionally walk Davis. Parker then retired Jones and Matt Wieters on groundouts to quash the threat.
I don't know whether Machado was bunting on his own or whether it was ordered by manager Buck Showalter, but it was the wrong call, in my opinion. The bunt took the bat out of the hands of both Machado and Davis, the Orioles' best power hitter. The slight advantage of moving up a runner 90 feet is not worth the cost of giving away Machado's and Davis' at bats as well as a valuable out. The conventional wisdom is that bunting a runner to second increases your chances of scoring a run, but in this case, I think it was counterproductive.
ORIOLES OUTLAST OAKLAND IN OPENER
OK, enough about the game the O's lost. Let's move on to their two impressive victories, both of which featured prolific offensive performances. If only the O's could've bottled some of those runs and used them on Aug. 24, but alas ... baseball doesn't work that way.
The Birds' Aug. 23 game was a wild, back-and-forth game worthy of two teams in a neck-and-neck battle for a postseason spot. The game featured three lead changes, four multi-run innings and plenty of clutch hitting on both sides.
The biggest blast for the Orioles, of course, was Brian Roberts' fourth-inning grand slam, part of a six-run rally against A's starter Dan Straily, which erased an early 3-0 deficit. It's great to see Roberts becoming a key contributor at the plate for the Birds. His offensive numbers since returning from the disabled list had been middling, at best, for several weeks, but recently Roberts has been generating the kind of production from the second base position that the Orioles have been sorely missing all season.
The Orioles needed to produce another comeback later during the game after starter Bud Norris gave away the lead, and the Birds were up to the task. They rallied for three runs in the seventh against the Athletics' bullpen to regain the lead.
Perhaps the most impressive development for the Orioles Aug. 23 was a dominant ninth inning pitched by embattled closer Jim Johnson. Johnson, who has blown nine saves this year and was bypassed in a save situation Aug. 21, returned with a vengeance to nail down a two-run lead. He blew away Brandon Moss on a three-pitch strikeout, then induced a couple of ground balls -- one of which was speared by a diving Manny Machado -- to wrap up a stress-free inning.
One way or the other, the Orioles are going to need Johnson to be at his best down the stretch, whether he closes every game or not. If his Aug. 23 outing was any indication, Johnson might be back in prime 2012 form.
MARKAKIS ENDS EXTRA-BASE DROUGHT IN RUBBER GAME WIN
During the Aug. 25 rubber game, the Orioles enjoyed what's been a rarity for them this season: a laugher victory.
It seems as if nearly every game the Birds have won this season has been a tense, hard-fought duel. But the Birds' bats came out firing on all cylinders with a 10-run, three-homer explosion to cruise to victory.
For Nick Markakis, the game was especially sweet. He ended both his 31-game extra-base hit drought and his two-month home run drought with a third-inning double and an eighth-inning round-tripper.
Markakis' recent inability to hit for power was a chief subject of concern among Orioles fans, but -- for one game, at least -- he looked his his old self.
"I'm just glad I hit the ball hard," Markakis said. "I just want to go up with a good approach and hit the ball hard. Just continue to look for a good pitch, put a good swing on it, and where it goes, it goes."
J.J. Hardy and Nate McLouth also homered for the Birds, but perhaps more impressive than the long balls were the aggressiveness and intelligence the Orioles showed on the base paths.
In the first inning, Machado adeptly went from first to third on a Chris Davis single, and Davis did the same on Adam Jones' base hit a batter later. Jones then advanced to second on a Matt Wieters sacrifice fly, something you don't often see runners do. An inning later, third base coach Bobby Dickerson aggressively waved J.J. Hardy home from second on a Roberts single, and Roberts and Ryan Flaherty both moved up a base on a medium-depth fly to center by McLouth.
The Orioles' alertness on the bases didn't go unnoticed by Showalter.
"There's so many things today I was so proud of," Showalter said. "Our guys came in with a lot of aggressive baserunning. We ran the bases real well today and took advantage of what might be there for us. The good thing about our guys is they only take it when it's there, and don't run into outs. It was smart."
The Orioles also did a nice job of cashing in runners in scoring opportunities, going 3-for-7 with three sacrifice flies with men in scoring position. Those are the kinds of situations in which the O's will need to excel as they embark on their huge road trip.
With any luck, their Aug. 25 blowout win was a sign of things to come.
Posted Aug. 25, 2013 by Paul Folkemer