Wei-Yin Chen didn’t come to the Orioles with the reputation of being a strikeout pitcher, but after Sunday afternoon’s record-breaking performance, perhaps that may begin to change.
The 27-year-old lefty from Taiwan has often deflected attention during his rookie season, repeatedly saying through his interpreter that he’s more concerned with team wins than individual stats.
In the top of the sixth inning of the Orioles’ 6-1 win over the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, the announced crowd of 19,698 at Camden Yards was giving Chen a standing ovation after he fanned Josh Reddick for his 12th strikeout of the game.
Behind him, the stadium’s video board told fans that Chen had set a new major league record for strikeouts in a game by a Taiwanese-born pitcher. On the mound, Chen had no clue the cheers were for him.
“I [had] no idea,” Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin. “After I walked to the dugout, a teammate told me that's my record. I [had] no idea. When the fans [stood] up and [gave] me a standing ovation, I totally had no idea about that.”
Chen — who broke Chien-Ming Wang’s mark of 10 strikeouts set June 17, 2007 with the Yankees — also tallied the most strikeouts by an Orioles pitcher in five years, since Erik Bedard tied a franchise record with 15 strikeouts on July 7, 2007.
“When you talk about the history of baseball, it always gets my attention,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “[Chen] has been a pleasure to be around, and I like to see good things happen to people who go about their business the way he does. I don't for a second not take in what it means to the people of Taiwan. I'm sure they're very proud of Wei-Yin, probably as much as we are.”
Needing a win Sunday afternoon to avoid a sweep at the hands of the red-hot A’s — and with a six-game road trip to New York and Tampa Bay looming — the O’s got a clutch performance from the pitcher they signed in the offseason after four years pitching in Japan.
Chen allowed just one unearned run in the sixth, yielding just three hits over 5 2/3 innings and falling one out shy of his 10th quality start in 21 outings. He battled against an Oakland lineup that worked counts and fouled off pitches, raising Chen’s pitch count. Still, he became the first pitcher in Orioles history to strike out 10 or more batters in less than six innings.
He was aggressive in attacking the strike zone with his low-90s fastball — nearly 70 percent of his 108 pitches were strikes and 11 of his 12 strikeouts came on four-seam fastballs — but he also used a complement of change ups and sliders to keep the A’s off balance.
“Not only can he command it,” catcher Matt Wieters said of Chen’s fastball, “but he knows where in the zone he needs to go to be able to get strikeouts and be able to get ground balls. He can move in and out and up and down. It's not just command on either side of the plate, but height-wise, too.
“He's improved every start he's gone out there, which is real impressive,” Wieters added. “He's gotten stronger and his breaking stuff is really come along, which is why you can see the swing-and-misses on the breaking pitches.”
Chen (9-6), who had lost four of his last five decisions, struck out the side in the first and the fourth, and he got six of his first seven outs by strikeout.
“I think my fastball got really good life today, and I located it well, and everything's good today,” Chen said. “I think my fastball located really well today. I think it was down. My breaking ball and off-speed pitch was good. Everything was working today.”
The Orioles scored three or fewer runs in nine of Chen’s last 13 starts, but they gave him a 5-0 lead Sunday.
The O’s (53-49) were fueled by a four-run third inning that was highlighted by Wieters’ three-run homer off Oakland starter Travis Blackley. Wieters, mired in a 1-for-31 slump and hitless in his previous 16 at-bats, returned to the lineup after missing the last two games with tightness in his right biceps
“It's hard sitting on it the last two days,” Wieters said. “You want to get in there, and the only way to feel good at the plate is to keep swinging.”
Wieters’ home run came one batter after Adam Jones’ double plated J.J. Hardy and placed runners at second and third.
The Orioles also received key contributions from newcomers like left fielder Lew Ford and second baseman Omar Quintanilla.
A’s rookie Yoenis Cespedes led off the second with a base hit down the left-field line, but Ford quickly cut the ball off and rifled a throw to Quintanilla, who took a short-hop throw at second and tagged out Cespedes.
Ford, who was called up earlier in the day from Triple-A Norfolk, was playing in his first major league game since Sept. 30, 2007 and tallied his first outfield assist since May 16, 2007.
“I had no idea,” Ford said. “I really didn’t even look to see where he was at, I kinda just made the throw over there and it happened to be right on the base. [Quintanilla] made a nice little pick up and tag and got him, so yeah, that felt pretty good to get that out of the way.”
Quintanilla, acquired in a trade with the New York Mets on July 20, also made an impact with his bat. He hit his first home run as an Oriole, a solo shot in the sixth inning, and finished a triple shy of a cycle. His bunt single also started the Orioles' four-run third.
“This was real big,” Quintanilla said. “Chen came out and he did his thing. He threw real well, and overall it was a great team effort. We’ve just got to keep it up.”
After throwing 108 pitches, Chen left to another standing ovation with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth. Right-hander Darren O’Day got out of the inning by getting Derek Norris to pop up to third. Four Orioles relievers combined to toss 3 1/3 scoreless innings against an Oakland lineup that scored 20 runs in the first two games of the series.
O’Day, who entered the day ranked 11th in the American League in strand rate (82.1 percent), has now left 23 of his 28 inherited runners on base.