The Orioles enjoyed a rare laugher on Monday night, jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first two innings and scoring a 10-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field that pulled them to within a half-game of the Yankees at the top of the American League East.
What’s wrong with that?
Well, not much, but you might be surprised how tough it can be to get the last few outs of a game like that, and reliever Luis Ayala had so much trouble coming into the eighth inning with a 10-2 lead that he needed Tommy Hunter to bail him out of the ninth.
Not a big deal. The O’s were never in real danger of letting the game get away, but you don’t often see Ayala in that kind of situation and you certainly don’t expect to see him give up three hits and a walk in the ninth inning after the way he has pitched for much of this season.
It’s all about intensity, which is tough to maintain when there seems to be nothing on the line. That’s why it’s fairly common to see a shutdown closer come into a non-save situation to get some work and struggle to get people out. Ayala is not the closer or primary setup man, of course, but even a middle reliever can fall into that trap.
There really is a difference in the way pitchers approach hitters with a big lead. It’s sort of the equivalent of football’s prevent defense.
For a starter, that usually makes it easier to pitch, because he can use more of the strike zone earlier in the game when the opposition is scratching for baserunners. Chris Tillman did that brilliantly last night, giving up just three hits over six innings and throwing just 91 pitches to improve his record to 8-2.
For a reliever, it’s just the opposite. With the game out of hand, the hitters are up there with little to lose and ready to jump on anything in the strike zone, which is why Eric Thames homered off Zach Phillips in the eighth and John Jaso hit a two-run shot off Ayala in the ninth after the Mariners did almost nothing for the first seven innings.
In essense, both pitchers had the luxury of giving up a home run in that situation, so they did.