On a night when the Orioles regained a share of first place in the American League East, another humongous win was overshadowed by another scary injury.
Three nights after the Orioles lost right fielder Nick Markakis for the rest of the regular season, right-hander Jason Hammel limped off the mound in the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s 9-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Hammel, who was making his second start since missing nearly eight weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, left the game after feeling the same piercing pain in the same knee.
“Any lateral movement feels like I’m getting stabbed in the leg,” said Hammel, who will be further evaluated today.
The deluge of adversity the Orioles have faced this season as they attempt to make the postseason for the first time in 15 years hasn’t stopped them from playing quality baseball, though.
On Tuesday, the Orioles (79-62) managed to overcome the loss of Hammel, beating the red-hot Rays in front of an announced 23,828 at Camden Yards. Their win — combined with the Red Sox’s 4-3 victory over the Yankees — put the Orioles back into a first-place tie with New York.
It was the Orioles’ 12th in their last 17 games, and it sent the Rays (77-64) to two games back in the division and the AL wild-card race.
“I don’t ever take it for granted,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “This is a very mentally tough group. There is no guy that puts himself above the group. ...Fortunately, I have a good seat to watch it. [They’re a] very professional, hard-driving group that have their minds set on a goal.”
Shortstop J.J. Hardy had the ninth two-homer game of his career, driving in five runs for the first time since May 12, 2007, when he was with the Milwauke Brewers.
His two-run homer in the third inning off Rays left-hander Matt Moore gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead. He hit another two-run shot off Dane De La Rosa in the eighth.
Catcher Matt Wieters added a two-run double in the fifth, launching a ball off the right-center field wall against reliever Burke Badenhop, and Chris Davis hit his 25th homer of the season in the seventh, the Orioles’ 15th home run in their last five games.
After the game, most of the talk was about Hammel.
“It will be tough,” Hardy said. “We haven’t heard what’s going on, so hopefully it’s not too big a deal. He’s obviously one of our better pitches, and he’s been really good for us this year. Hopefully he will be alright.”
Hammel stood at his locker after the game, frustrated by the injury, which seemed far too similar to the one that led to surgery in mid-July.
“I thought we had cleaned it up,” Hammel said. “It’s more of a kind of wait-and-see how it feels tomorrow now. I’m hoping it is just scar tissue. I’ve been told scar tissue can react like that. But it’s frustrating, because it felt exactly the same.
“But right now there are positive signs,” added Hammel, who said he will be re-evaluated by team orthopedist John Wilckens today and asked for an MRI. “There’s no swelling, which is good. But for it to feel exactly the same, I want to know what the hell is going on.”
Hammel — who allowed just one hit, a solo homer by Tampa Bay second baseman Ryan Roberts in the second — said he first felt pain in the knee after throwing his second pitch to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria with two outs in the fourth.
A few pitches later, Hammel came off the mound favoring his right leg after delivering a first-pitch curveball to Matt Joyce. Showalter and head trainer Richie Bancells ran out to check on him, and Hammel came out of the game without making another throw from the mound.
“It was just one pitch and then after that pitch, I couldn’t load on the leg again when I tried to transfer the weight toward the plate,” Hammel said. “It’s a very sharp pain in the knee in the same spot, so I really don’t know what to say.”
The Orioles made sure they didn’t rush Hammel back into the rotation — even limiting him to about 80 pitches in his first start back Thursday, when Hammel held the Yankees to one run on six hits over five innings.
After Hammel went on the disabled list July 14, the Orioles went 31-20 without their top starter, as Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton did their share to keep their patchwork rotation together.
On Tuesday, it was up to the Orioles’ bullpen, which picked up the slack. Steve Johnson (3-0), making just his second appearance of the month, didn’t allow a hit in 1 1/3 innings.
Johnson, who has pitched to a 1.74 ERA in 10 1/3 relief innings, had two key inning-ending strikeouts. After walking Joyce to put runners at first and second in the fourth, he struck out Ben Francisco. He stranded a runner in the fifth when he struck out reigning AL Player of the Week B.J. Upton.
Luis Ayala, Brian Matusz, Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop worked the next four innings, with Elliot Johnson’s eighth-inning solo homer off O’Day being the only bullpen blemish.
With Hammel in limbo, the Orioles know their road to the playoffs just became bumpier. But they’ve grown used to a wild ride.
“I think it’s that we’ve been through it before,” Johnson said. “The same guys went down before earlier this season, and they’ve maintained. I think they just realize that at any time, whoever’s out there can give them a chance to win, and we’re hitting the ball really well and we’re getting out of some jams with the pitching. So, if you do that, you’ll go a long way.”