The Tampa Bay Rays had a golden opportunity to gain ground in the American League wild-card race Wednesday night, but the Orioles apparently have made it their personal mission to keep them out of the playoffs.
Jeremy Guthrie delivered one of his strongest performances of the year -- giving up just two runs on three hits and three walks while striking out 10 batters over seven innings -- and the Orioles slammed three home runs on the way to a 6-2 victory before an announced 14,669 at Camden Yards.
Chris Davis delivered the biggest blow to the Rays' late-season hopes, launching a three-run homer in the fourth inning to put the Orioles ahead to stay. Just for good measure, Matt Wieters hit his 20th homer of the year in the eighth inning to give reliever Jim Johnson some breathing room on the way to his second save of the series and sixth of the season.
The Orioles won the series and cooled down a hot team, but they continued to insist -- as they had the night before -- that they are more interested in finishing this frustrating 2011 season with a flourish than playing the spoiler in the American League pennant race.
"I'm not about making statements and all that stuff," manager Buck Showalter said. "Tomorrow our guys have their first true off day in 27 days. I'd just like for them to leave tonight and enjoy tomorrow. The things that they've grinded through this year and continue to, I'm proud of them."
Guthrie (8-17), who tied his career high in strikeouts and recorded his third victory in his past four decisions, couldn't deny that it felt good to step up in a series that meant something to somebody.
"It's a team that came in needing to win games and that's been playing well," he said. "We matched up well at the plate, we pitched well and got some big hits. It's a nice series, and hopefully we can carry it over and play well this weekend."
There was no mystery about the importance of this game to the Rays. The Boston Red Sox had recouped a game in the wild-card race the night before, but their 5-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday afternoon at Fenway Park presented an opportunity for the Rays to move back to within three games.
If it wasn't a must-win situation -- and how many of those have there been around here the past decade or so? -- it was awfully close. The Rays are set to open a four-game series against the Red Sox on Thursday, and the difference between going into Boston four games out instead of three is more than mathematical.
Both teams have 14 games remaining on their regular-season schedules, and each head-to-head victory by the Red Sox is almost like two wins because the Sox can maintain their current lead by splitting the coming series. All they really need to do is buy some time -- the clock is going to run out in a hurry if the Rays don't gain ground this weekend.
That's why Matt Wieters' game-winning home run Tuesday night was such a body blow, and you could see some shoulders slump on the Rays infield when Davis launched a three-run homer off Wade Davis in the fourth inning.
"A couple of their guys were like, 'You know you're out of it, right?'" Chris Davis said, "but the biggest thing for us is to finish strong. We know those guys are battling, and we don't want to make it easy for them. We don't want to just lay down, so I think there's a sense of pride we carry with on ourselves to go out there and compete and make it tough on them."
The Orioles (60-88) had taken the lead in the third on a leadoff homer by Nolan Reimold, who is trying to make a late-season statement that might carry him into next spring with a better chance to win the everyday left-field job. It was his 10th homer in 229 at-bats, which would project out to about 24 over a full season.
Wade Davis (10-9) came into the game with solid career numbers against the Orioles, particularly at Camden Yards. He was 6-3 in 10 starts with a 3.76 ERA overall and 4-0 in five starts in Baltimore, though never had he taken the mound here with quite so much at stake.
Guthrie had other priorities. He had won two of his previous three decisions and wanted to avoid adding any more losses to his major league-leading total, but he was 0-3 in four starts against the Rays (82-66) since his terrific performance Opening Night at Tropicana Field.
"Just taking it one at a time," he said. "I think I have a couple more and see what happens at the end of the year, and then you can look back and see where you're at."
His sixth start of the season against the Rays was much like the first. He retired the first eight batters he faced and faltered only once, walking a couple of batters in the fourth inning to set up a two-run double by Matt Joyce that briefly gave the Rays a one-run lead.
" 'Gut' was good tonight," Wieters said. "He had the one inning where he walked a few guys and got in trouble, but he was outstanding. That's a good-hitting team and a playoff team, so it's something when he can go out there and battle and have an outing like he had. That's pretty impressive."
When Davis answered in the bottom of the fourth with his fifth homer of the year, Guthrie didn't give another inch. He retired the next six batters in a row, then worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in a seventh and tied his career high when he concluded his 30th start of the year with his 10th strikeout of the evening.
"Obviously, his outing was the difference," Showalter said. "You know when you play Tampa, for the most part you're going to have to pitch with them. Starting pitching especially. Tonight it was that case again."
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