In their most recent hot stretch, the Orioles have milked the drama -- with their previous seven wins coming by a margin of three runs or fewer.
For much of Saturday’s 6-5 victory, the trend looked like it finally would end, with their most consistent starter, Jason Hammel, cruising, and Adam Jones and Nick Markakis each hitting two-run homers against the Washington Nationals to take a 6-0 lead into the fifth.
But these surprising, exciting, befuddling Orioles apparently don’t do things the easy way. There must be no fun in that after all these years of losing.
So the Orioles had to breathe deeply and hold on until the would-be tying run struck out in the bottom of the ninth to get their fifth straight win and ninth consecutive road victory. At least, technically, it was a road game, though a large chunk of the announced crowd of 42,331 at Nationals Park seemed to be rooting for the visitors.
“[The Nationals] strung together a lot of good at-bats. It wasn't anything we were doing,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “They did some really good things there with a good batting order. You knew they were going to make a run at us regardless, and our bullpen allowed it to stand up.”
Ultimately, the American League-leading Orioles (27-14) clinched the first “Battle of the Beltways” series this year and will go for the sweep against the Nationals (23-17) this afternoon. In 14 series this year, the Orioles are 10-3-1, and they are 14-3-2 in their past 19 series dating to Sept. 12 last season. In that span, they have compiled a 38-20 record.
On Saturday, they looked like a legitimate playoff contender -- for the first five innings anyway. A huge part of that was Hammel, who didn’t give up his first hit until the fourth inning and his first run until the fifth.
It was about then when his sore right knee, which pushed his start back a few days last week and was a factor in his lasting just five innings against the New York Yankees on Monday, again began bothering him.
“It’s same as last time, my leg,” said Hammel, who allowed four runs on six hits and two walks while striking out five in 5 1/3 innings Saturday. “I get to a certain point now where it’s almost like I am pitching on one leg and transfer everything to the arm. I got one out further than last time, I guess, so that’s good. We just’ve got to get the leg stronger, but I’m definitely hitting the fatigue stage.”
Hammel said he feels like his conditioning is getting better, but his back leg still isn’t as strong as it needs to be. He has no plans of resting it at this point in the season.
“It’s not really pain. It’s just soreness, and then I can’t sit [weight] on it,” he said. “The back leg is the most important part of the pitching delivery -- stay over the rubber, and when you can’t do that, it turns to all arm and [pitches] start to get up in the zone. And now it’s just a chain reaction there. Obviously, I’ve got to keep working on it.”
Robert Andino’s two-run single in the second gave the Orioles their first lead. Jones put them up 4-0 in the third with his team-leading 14th homer of the season; the club is 13-1 in games in which he has gone deep.
Jones, who extended his hitting streak to a season-best 11 games with a first-inning single, didn’t hit his 14th homer last year until July 15. He is on pace for more than 50 homers -- a plateau reached only once in club history, by current special assistant Brady Anderson in 1996. No Oriole has hit 40 or more since Rafael Palmeiro had 43 in 1998.
“That would be awesome. I’d be up with Brady,” Jones said. “I just try to square it up. My main mission every time I step into that box is hit this ball as hard as you can hit it. I don't care where it goes.”
Nationals starter Ross Detwiler, who allowed six earned runs in five innings after entering the night with a 2.75 ERA, put Jones in some pretty lofty company after the game, mentioning the Orioles’ center fielder with the Cincinnati Reds' Joey Votto and the Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen.
“It's just like Votto, it's just like McCutchen, that we've seen recently. They're not missing mistakes at all,” Detwiler (3-3) said of Jones. “The first pitch for the single, it was away. It was just good hitting. And the next pitch, he definitely jumped on a mistake.”
In the fifth, Markakis made it 6-0 by hitting his eighth homer of the season and second in two nights here.
The easy romp, though, turned into another pressure-cooker.
Hammel (5-1) permitted his first run in the fifth on an RBI single by Steve Lombardozzi, then really ran out of gas in the sixth, giving up two doubles, a walk and one run. He was lifted with runners on second and third and one out in the sixth after throwing 94 pitches.
Reliever Luis Ayala allowed both inherited runners to score on a groundout and an RBI single, making it a two-run game and the fingernails of all Orioles and Nationals fans a little shorter.
“We were up 6-1, 6-zip and they kept fighting back,” Jones said. “They got one, another one the next inning and then they exploded for two. They were coming.”
Washington kept getting runners on base, but none scored against the Orioles’ bullpen until two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Ryan Zimmerman hit a full-count fastball from Jim Johnson into the bullpen in left to cut the lead to one run.
It was the second run Johnson has given up this season -- the other was a homer, too, to the Texas Rangers' David Murphy on May 10.
Johnson redeemed himself by throwing a 96 mph sinker past Adam LaRoche in another full count to secure his 15th save of the season and 23rd consecutive dating to last year. He has saved seven of the Orioles’ past eight wins; Pedro Strop picked up the other.
It has been that kind of crazy early season. Lots of wins, lots of close calls. And now the Orioles will try to continue the roll against 23-year-old phenom Stephen Strasburg.
“Success makes you more confident, but I try to keep an even keel. One day at a time. I know it's a super cliche, one of the lines I don't really like, but it's true,” Jones said. “I'm worried about the game [today]. [Saturday’s] game's over with. Relax and get to work on Strasburg.”