WASHINGTON, DC -- Since the Orioles and Washington Nationals began their so-called rivalry in 2006, there’s been a consistent theme.The clubs have never had a winning record at the same time when they’ve met for interleague play. Oftentimes, they’ve been awful simultaneously.
But in the Bizarro World that is the 2012 season – Albert Pujols can’t hit, the New York Yankees can’t pitch and the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies are cellar dwellers -- the Orioles and Nationals owned two of baseball’s six best records heading into Friday night.
Both clubs have been led by their pitching, and that trend was evident Friday in a 2-1 Orioles victory in 11 innings that featured superb performances by the club’s two starters: the Orioles’ Jake Arrieta and the Nationals’ Edwin Jackson.
In the end, the game came down to one swing – a Nick Markakis solo homer in the top of the 11th that clanked against the second deck facing in right field against Nationals’ reliever Ryan Mattheus (2-1).
“Slider down and in, I'm pretty sure that’s what it was,” said Markakis, who battled out of a 0-2 hole to hit Mattheus’ fifth pitch of the at-bat for his seventh homer of the year. “I wasn't looking to do too much. I wasn't expecting that. I was just trying to have a good at-bat. Put a good swing on it. It went out of the park and we ended up winning the game.”
It gave the first-place Orioles (26-14) their fourth straight win overall and eighth consecutive road victory. Of their 40 games this season, eight have gone into extra innings – and the Orioles have won their last six.
“I think we've played more innings than anybody in baseball. That doesn't come as any shock to anybody. Hopefully, it bodes well mentally,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “The key is our guys are playing pretty loose through that. It's a loose clubhouse. They have a lot of confidence in close ballgames.”
An assist in all of those extra inning victories goes to an outstanding Orioles’ bullpen that gets even tougher as the innings pile up. Including four scoreless frames Friday, Oriole relievers have now allowed just three runs in 39 2/3 innings (0.68 ERA) in the club’s six extra-inning wins.
Darren O’Day and Troy Patton combined for two hitless innings and Kevin Gregg (2-1) plunked a batter but pitched an otherwise scoreless frame in the 10th for his second victory in three days. The much maligned Gregg now has pitched 9 1/3 scoreless innings in his last seven appearances, dropping his season ERA to 3.46.
“There's nobody more professional in our clubhouse than Kevin Gregg. There's nobody more competitive,” Showalter said. “I think everybody in the clubhouse respects Kevin so much, and to see him get some return for his approach to competition, I think, means a lot to everybody.”
In the bottom of the 11th, Orioles’ reliever Pedro Strop made it interesting. Filling in for closer Jim Johnson, who had saved games on three consecutive days, Strop hit the Nationals’ first batter, pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi.
But first baseman Chris Davis made a nice turn of a 3-6-3 double play. Strop struck out the next batter, Roger Bernadina, but the speedy Bernadina made it to first on a wild pitch. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single before Strop got Adam LaRoche to ground out weakly for his third save.
It ended what was a pitchers’ duel from the start.
“Those are the type of games I like to be a part of,” said Arrieta, who allowed six hits and one run while tying a season-high with nine strikeouts in seven innings. “And I think being a competitor, as well as Edwin is, that’s kind of what your results are right there. So those games are real fun to be a part of."
Playing the season’s first “Battle of the Beltways” game before an energized announced crowd of 36,680, the Orioles scored first against Jackson, whom the club had some interest in this offseason before he signed with Washington.
Rookie Xavier Avery, starting in his sixth straight game since being recalled Sunday, drew a walk to begin the game. Two batters later, Markakis followed with a double and then Adam Jones brought Avery home with a single that caromed high off the pitcher’s mound.
It was Jones’ team-leading 27th RBI and it extended his hitting streak to 10 games. It’s the third time this season he’s had a 10-game hitting streak, becoming the first big-league player to accomplish that feat in his club’s first 40 contests since Brian Roberts did it for the Orioles in 2005.
Jackson retired 13 of 14 after that – allowing a third-inning double to Avery and nothing else -- until Avery singled again in the sixth. Overall, Jackson allowed just five hits and a walk and struck out eight in eight efficient innings.
Arrieta’s lone mistake came in the sixth, when Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond led off by hitting a 92-mph fastball into the left-field seats, tying the game at 1-1. It was Desmond’s sixth homer of the year.
Otherwise, Arrieta was never really in trouble thanks to retooled command of his fastball, something that was lacking in his previous two starts in which he allowed a total of 13 runs in consecutive losses.
“I was frustrated with the way things kind of played out – and (with) the stuff that I’ve had pretty much all year -- to have a couple outings like that, it’s frustrating,” he said. “Especially when I’m supposed to be one of the guys that throws up a lot of zeroes and keeps us in games, 2-1 ballgames.”
Arrieta did his part this time and so did these surprising Orioles, who are now two games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. They seemingly thrive when games are tight. “We feel like we’re not out of the game until the last out is made,” Arrieta said. “I think it has been apparent the last couple weeks.”
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