The size of the crowd at Camden Yards on Friday night even surprised Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Some of it could have been attributed to the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. The postgame fireworks promotion probably brought a few out as well. The sudden excitement over the first-place Orioles also had to have some effect. Whatever brought the fans out to Camden Yards for the Orioles series opener against the Kansas City Royals, it filled the ballpark with a rare buzz for late-May.
Fans purchased nearly 11,000 tickets after 5 p.m. on Friday, setting a Camden Yards record for walk-up sales, adding to the crowd of 28,954. It was the largest Friday night crowd at Orioles Park since Opening Day as fans watched the Orioles roll to an 8-2 victory.
“My first thought in the dugout was, what was the promotion?” Showalter said.
“You want the promotion to be good baseball."
The Orioles provided that Friday night. Right-hander Jason Hammel gutted out his best performance in a month, the Orioles offense provided its own brand of fireworks and even the Orioles' biggest mistakes went rewarded.
Two base-running blunders keyed the Orioles’ five-run fifth in their win.
The win gave the Orioles their largest margin of victory in 11 wins – their last 10 victories were by three or fewer runs – and kept the Orioles (29-17) solely perched atop the AL East standings.
The talk going into the game focused on center fielder Adam Jones nearing the most lucrative contract in club history -- the Orioles and Jones were near a deal in the realm of six years and $86 million Friday.
On the field, the Orioles sent the fans home happy, scoring five runs in the fifth inning, each of them off former Orioles left-hander Bruce Chen, sending 10 batters to the plate in the inning.
The first two base runners were nearly picked off first base. After Xavier Avery drew a leadoff walk in the fifth, Chen threw to first just as the fleet-footed rookie broke for second base. But Avery beat Eric Hosmer’s throw to second base.
A bunt single by Robert Andino put runners at the corners, but he was caught by Chen off first. This time, Hosner’s throw was there, but Andino avoided second baseman Irving Falu’s tag by lifting his left arm out of the way to avoid the tag on his head-first slide – making a swim move through the infield dirt.
"Momentum's a big thing in this game,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who followed with an opportunistic two-run double to make it a 3-0 game. “Had one of them been thrown out at second, it could have been a total momentum changer. It was first and third when Dino put the swim move on there, and got in there. It could have gone totally different. It was a good job by both of them. Five-run fifth is always good."
Said Royals manager Ned Yost of Andino’s steal: “I went to talk to the umpire and he said (Andino) did a swim move. I was like, 'What the heck is that.' After I saw the replay, I understood what he was talking about.”
Nick Markakis, who had three hits on the night, followed with an RBI double into the left-center-field gap to score Hardy. Jones drove in his second run on the night with a single up the middle, and Chris Davis' single into right plated the fifth run of the inning.
"Usually, when you go through a big inning, everybody's thinking there's been doubles and home runs and whatever, but usually you can go back to the bunt and a couple of stolen bases,” Showalter said.
Hammel, still nursing soreness in his right knee, battled through the middle innings. He flirted with disaster, but stranded runners at second and third in the fourth and fifth innings while clinging to a one-run lead.
With the Orioles up 1-0, Hammel issued a one-out walk to Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who went to third on Jeff Francoeur’s double to right field.
When Hammel needed it, the strikeout was his best friend. He struck out Alex Gordon looking on a sweeping curveball, then got catcher Brayan Pena swinging to end the inning.
Hammel faced runners at second and third with one out again in the fifth, but struck out Hosmer on a 95-mph high fastball. He also had help from Hardy, who made a leaping catch of Billy Butler’s line drive at shortstop to end the inning. The Orioles then opened the game up with five runs in the bottom half of the inning.
“It was huge, because they could have opened it up big right there,” Hammel said. “J.J. comes down with the ball we come in and score runs and the next inning it’s a quick inning, we go back out there and starting swinging the bats. So it was a huge turning point.”
Hammel, who labored through his past two starts because of his knee, threw six shutout innings and allowed just five hits with seven strikeouts and one walk. Take away those past two starts and Hammel has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his other seven starts. It was his best start since tossing seven shutout innings against Toronto on April 24 and gave Hammel his sixth win of the season, tied for most in the American League.
“I was aware of the knee in the fifth inning was when it started,” Hammel said. “I knew it was there, maybe a little bothersome. But then I got through the sixth with the same feeling. So it didn’t get any worse. So huge, huge step there. Hopefully we got over a nice hurdle [Friday].”
Hammel’s start was the Orioles’ 23rd quality start of the season. The Orioles are 22-1 in those games .
Davis added to a 6-0 lead with his seventh homer of the season, a towering two-run shot that hit off an umbrella in the right-field flag court. All nine starters reached base for the Orioles -- seven by base hit, two others by walks.
Kansas City’s only offense came in the eighth, when Francoeur launched a two-run homer to straightaway center off reliever Stu Pomeranz, snapping his five scoreless-inning streak to open his major league career.
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