Despite Orioles manager Buck Showalter's best efforts to play down the importance of this weekend's three-game series against the New York Yankees, this is by no means your ordinary September trip to the Bronx for the Orioles.
After the Orioles met for their advance meeting, something they do before the first game of every series, Showalter's words were simple.
“The last thing I told them was, ‘Hey, have fun, lets go,'” Showalter said. “And they will. They don't take themselves too seriously.”
And then Showalter put the ball — and the Orioles' increasing playoff hopes — in the hand of perhaps his most unassuming player.
Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, signed to a minor-league contract in late February after he was discovered pitching in the Caribbean Series, baffled the Yankees bats through seven shutout innings in a 6-1 win over the Yankees in front of a crowd of 43,352 at Yankee Stadium.
The win continued the Orioles' surge to the top of the American League East standings. The Orioles will begin September two games behind the first-place Yankees after New York owned a 10-game lead over the Orioles just 6 1/2 weeks ago.
“I think we all know it's a given what the Yankees are about and what they can do,” Showalter said. “We've just got to continue to stay focused on what we have to do and stay in the moment, which our guys have done such a great job with all year.”
The Orioles (73-58) finished August with 18 wins, matching their highest total in a month since September 2004. The Orioles have won five of their last six at Yankee Stadium and are within a victory of winning all three series in the Bronx this season.
They improved to a season-high 15 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 1997 season, the last time the Orioles had a winning record.
“It starts with our starting pitching, and [Gonzalez] went out there and threw a great game tonight,” said J.J. Hardy, who hit one of the Orioles' three homers on the night. “This series has given us the opportunity to cut the gap a little bit. Getting the first win was big.”
The 28-year-old Gonzalez, who missed two full minor league seasons with knee and elbow injuries, had a hard time fighting for innings in minor league camp this spring. And of late, he was becoming pinched in the starting rotation.
Gonzalez waited 10 days between starts for his name to be called for his chance in the Orioles' precision-patchwork rotation.
On Friday, he put the Yankees (75-56) on the defensive, holding them to four hits. He retired the first nine batters he faced and didn't have a three-ball count until the sixth inning. Gonzalez struck out a career-high nine batters and walked one.
“I think Gonzo is a guy who really stays in the moment,” pitching coach Rick Adair said. “He knows where he's been. He knows what he's been through in his career, and he's a guy who is going to attack no matter where he is. He's a very fearless competitor. We're glad to have him.”
The Orioles hit a pair of homers off Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda. First baseman Mark Reynolds hit a towering two-run shot in the second inning to left field and added a solo homer in the ninth.
“It's been a positive year all year because we're winning,” Reynolds said. “It's a lot more fun to come to the yard when you're right in the middle of a race. I've been through it before. It's what we play for, and you can tell, especially in this clubhouse, the quiet confidence that everyone has, expecting to win every night. We're going to keep riding this wave as long as it lasts.”
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Chris Davis' sacrifice fly to left that scored Adam Jones. Reynolds then hit a 2-0 sinker from Kuroda for a two-run homer to give the a three-run lead.
Hardy added a solo shot, his 18th of the season, in the sixth inning off Kuroda, who allowed at least four runs for the first time in nine starts.
Reynolds added an insurance run in the ninth with a solo homer off reliever Derek Lowe, giving him his 14th home run of the season and his 16th career multihomer game. He had a two-homer game 17 days ago against Boston. Nick Markakis' two-out single in the ninth made it 6-0.
But the story was Gonzalez (6-3), who held the Yankees' 2-3-4 hitters Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson to 0-for-9 with four strikeouts. He has allowed just one homer over his last five starts after allowing nine in his first five.
“[I like] the adrenaline, the aggressiveness,” Gonzalez said. “I like pitching against a good offensive team, I guess. I get better. My pitches, obviously today they were real good. I was pitching them in and out, and changing speeds helped me out.”
Gonzalez faced his toughest test in the sixth with two on and no outs. After Derek Jeter beat out a would-be double-play ball to put runners at the corners, Gonzalez struck out Swisher and induced a first-pitch pop-up to third from Cano.
The Orioles improved to 31-2 when their starting pitcher goes seven or more innings as Gonzalez gave way to Darren O'Day, who pitched a perfect eighth. Left-hander Brian Matusz yielded the only Yankees run in the ninth, allowing Granderson's 34th homer of the season.
After the game, it was Reynolds — who also made two fine defensive plays at first — who had a message for anyone still unwilling to label the Orioles a contender.
“Keep doubting,” Reynolds said. “I don't care. We keep coming in and doing our jobs and doing the little things that win baseball games. … It's real fun. Stay up and just keep playing.”