For a starting pitcher coming off a poor outing, the four days leading up to his next start are the most brutal. There’s plenty of time to think, to replay the mistakes over in your mind, to overanalyze.
So these past four days were rough for Orioles left-hander Joe Saunders. In his first start for his new team Wednesday, Saunders allowed seven runs — six of them earned — in a seven-run loss to the White Sox.
“You think about it in your head between starts,” Saunders said. “It’s tough as a pitcher any time you have a bad start.”
Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair told Saunders to keep trusting his stuff. Catcher Matt Wieters knew Saunders’ sinker was just inches away from dominating.
Eventually, it’s time to look forward, and that’s exactly what the 31-year-old Saunders did in the Orioles’ series opener against the Blue Jays on Monday afternoon at the Rogers Centre.
Saunders took a perfect game into the sixth inning — retiring the first 17 Blue Jays batters he faced — in leading the Orioles to a 4-0 shutout win over Toronto in front of an announced Labor Day crowd of 17,220.
“First game of the series, you always want to set the tone,” Saunders said. “When you throw up a couple zeros there early on, that gives your offense a chance to put up some numbers. We were able to do that today and get some early runs. I just said, ‘Hey, try to get as many outs as you can.’”
Now the Orioles (76-59) — who have won eight of their past 10 games — are knocking on the door of the American League East lead. Their win, combined with the Yankees’ loss to Tampa Bay, put the Orioles just one game back in the division, the closest they’ve been since they were a half-game back June 14.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Monday’s game would present his team’s toughest test in its six-game road trip. It was their fourth afternoon game in five contests, with travel to New York and Toronto in between. Orioles players admitted they were lagging.
That made the effort of Saunders, acquired from the Diamondbacks on Aug. 26, even more important
“He was the difference today,” Showalter said of Saunders, “because I know our guys were really challenged physically today. I thought the adrenaline of Joe really wanting to make his mark would be a big difference maker for us on the plane ride coming out.
“That game today is a real [gut] check. I hope everybody is looking forward to getting more than three or four hours sleep.”
In retiring the first 17 batters he faced, Saunders threw 10 first-pitch balls, but he pounded his two-seam sinking fastball down in the strike zone against an aggressive Blue Jays lineup.
“Location was key today,” Wieters said. “He had good stuff. He was able to attack with his fastball most of the day and we were able to scratch off a few runs early and Joe was able to do a good job of making it hold up. After a few [at-bats], you knew he was going to have some good stuff to throw at you.”
Toronto shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria broke up Saunders’ perfect game in the sixth with a looping single to center field, but Saunders allowed just three hits through 6 1/3 shutout innings.
Saunders won his first game in nearly a month and yielded zero earned runs in a start for the first time since July 14.
The win put the Orioles 16 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 1997 season, the last time the O’s had a winning record. It was also their 29th win against the AL East — a critical stat as the Orioles push for a playoff spot — surpassing last year’s season total with 23 division games still to play.
It was the Orioles’ third win in four games on this six-game road trip to New York and Toronto. The Orioles are 38-29 on the road, and their .567 winning percentage away from Camden Yards is the best in the American League.
The Orioles, who left 14 runners on base, jumped on Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ, putting 11 runners on base in his five-plus innings of work, but they plated just three runs off the Toronto left-hander.
Manny Machado led off the second inning slapping a ball deep down the right-field line that Moises Sierra failed to make a sliding catch on. Machado landed on third base — Sierra was charged with an E9 — and he scored one batter later when Nate McLouth laid down safety squeeze bunt to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead.
The Orioles opened the fourth with four straight base hits off Happ — who struck out nine Orioles — including back-to-back RBI doubles to left by Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. The Orioles tacked on an insurance run in the eighth on a two-out single by Hardy.
Saunders was relieved by Luis Ayala in the seventh. Ayala got out of a one-out bases-loaded jam in the seventh by striking out Sierra and getting catcher Jeff Mathis to fly out lazily to center.
Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson pitched perfect eighth and ninth innings, respectively, to improve the Orioles’ record to 59-0 when leading after seven innings.
“Our bullpen [has] tried to stay focused, especially this time of year,” Ayala said. “These games are really important, so we all want to do the job. No matter what the situation or who is hitting, we’re trying to do it with less pitches and winning games.”