The Orioles stuck to their usual September story line on Monday night, opening the first full series of the month here against a division rival that came into Camden Yards on a roll and bursting with incentive to mop the infield with the last-place home team.
This time, it was the Tampa Bay Rays, who just swept the Boston Red Sox to re-assert themselves as a legitimate wild card contender and need badly to stay on a roll in Baltimore to keep their once-faint playoff hopes alive.
So far, so good.
Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann pitched a strong 7 2/3 innings and sizzling center fielder B.J. Upton set a team record by extending his on-base streak to nine plate appearances on the way to a 5-2 victory before an announced crowd of 11,924.
The Rays' fifth consecutive win inched them a half-game closer to the Red Sox, who were nine games ahead of them as recently as 10 days ago, but now have just a three-game cushion in the wild card race with 16 regular season games remaining for each club.
"We started the playoffs last Friday against the Red Sox,'' said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "There is no letting up. No taking any mulligans. We have to go out there and believe we can win every night."
In other words, the Rays have everything to play for and the O's have little more than the chance to avoid 100 losses, but O's starter Zach Britton (9-10) — who gave up four runs over five innings on the way to his 10th loss — clearly was disappointed that he did not put up a better fight.
"We all know that they're in the battle for it, they are playing really well,'' Britton said. "So I actually want to go out them and beat them. You don't want them to get it on your clock. So I was really disappointed that I didn't put together a good effort and got us in a hole early and we couldn't put it together. So it's just a mixture of walking those guys and, at the same time, you give them chances to score runs, they are going to score runs."
Even though they are trying to overtake the Red Sox and time is running short, the Rays started rookie Brandon Guyer over veteran Matt Joyce in right field to take advantage of the right-left matchup against Britton. Joyce hasn't been playing much against lefties, but he is batting .280 with 18 homers and 64 RBI and Guyer has played in just nine major league games and came in hitting .192.
So, what happens? Maddon pushed the right button again. Guyer led off the third inning with a double to start the three-run rally.
The Rays got their first two runs on a double by Ben Zobrist and added a third on a seeing-eye single by Sean Rodriguez. The middle of the Rays lineup continued to make things tough on Britton in the fifth, starting with a leadoff double by Upton that turned into the fourth Tampa Bay run on a sacrifice fly by Johnny Damon.
Upton came into the game having reached base safely in five straight plate appearances. He walked his first two times up and doubled in his next two at-bats to stretch his on-base streak to a record-breaking nine plate appearances before striking out in the eighth.
Britton gave up four runs on five hits before giving way to reliever Jeremy Accardo. It wasn't anything to cry about, but he couldn't have been thrilled that all four runs scored with two outs or that he walked four batters and neither was his manager.
"It starts and stops with fastball command,'' manager Buck Showalter said. "That's one of the reasons Tampa is doing a good job with their starters. They have guys with good command of the fastball. Zach didn't have it tonight. Didn't have command. He's just inconsistent with it, like a lot of young pitchers. Hopefully he'll figure it out with the help he's got and will continue to get.'
The Orioles scored in the fifth on an RBI double by Robert Andino, but again left two runners in scoring position with fewer than two outs at a point when they could have gotten back in the game. Matt Wieters accounted for the other O's run with a 402-foot homer off Niemann in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Wieters' 18th homer snapped a 40-inning homerless streak for the team – the second longest streak of that kind this year.