Nolan Reimold homering in four straight games; Jason Hammel emerging as a legitimate ace; Chris Davis getting a “W” on the mound at Fenway; contributions from Bill Hall, Steve Tolleson, Steve Pearce, Ronny Paulino; the best bullpen in baseball for most of the season, led by the most efficient closer in the game. The Orioles in the playoff hunt. There are a lot of things Orioles fans couldn’t possibly have seen coming in 2012. Wednesday night in Minnesota, the list grew by one.
With the starting rotation looking like a shadow of its former self, and with the bullpen more spent than a GSA credit card, the Orioles called, once again, on the often maligned (and more often, hit) Tommy Hunter. Hunter was 3-4 with an ERA over 6 coming in. He’d chucked so many home run balls (20) that there is a waiting list of potential Home Run Derby participants wanting him to be their personal pitcher in the contest next year. He was demoted following his last appearance in the majors, a relief stint June 30th, in which he gave up 5 runs on 8 hits in an inning and two-thirds.
It has not been a good season for Hunter, really, since beating Francisco Liriano and the Minnesota Twins, 8-2, in the season’s second game. Yet, here he was. The Orioles, obviously desperate, needed the original number 2 starter on the staff to, at the very least, live up to his previous reputation as an innings-eater, and give their bullpen a blow. And, oh, by the way, if he could help to do something about this 1-4 start out of the gates in the second half of the season, yeah, that’d be appreciated, too. The good news? Hunter was, again, facing the Twins, and going head-to-head against Liriano, so maybe that would be a good omen.
Tommy Hunter (W, 4-4) was not dominant Wednesday. He allowed at least one base runner in every inning except the sixth. He scattered six hits. He gave up another long ball. But he stretched things out for his longest start of the year—7.1 innings. He threw more pitches (106) than he had all season prior. The moment he took the mound at Target Field, he had a lead. And he never relinquished it.
For a second straight night, only one swing produced runs for the Orioles. For a second straight night, Adam Jones delivered that swing. In the first, JJ Hardy picked up a one-out single to center, setting the table for the Orioles’ All-Star centerfielder. Jones waved at a good change-up from Liriano (L, 3-9), for strike one. But Jones absolutely crushed the second pitch of the at-bat, a 90-MPH fastball up and in. The ball landed in the very top row of the second deck at Target Field, a mammoth shot, for Jones’ 22nd homer of the season, putting the Orioles on top, 2-0.
The Twins got on the board in the fourth, on Josh Willingham’s 23rd homer of the year. They would threaten several more times throughout the game, including a two-on, one out situation that Hunter wiggled out of in the seventh. The biggest threat, though, came in the eighth.
After Hunter struck out Jamey Carroll to start the inning, Buck Showalter, weary of Hunter’s pitch count, called on Troy Patton out of the bullpen. Patton walked Denard Span, and gave up a single to Ben Revere. Joe Mauer stepped in, carrying a .330 average, and hitless on the night. He bounced to second baseman Tolleson for out number two, moving the runners up to second and third. Patton walked Willingham intentionally, and, with the bases loaded and two outs, got Justin Morneau to bounce out to Hardy at short.
In the ninth, Showalter went to his closer. Jim Johnson hasn’t been the same pitcher since his first All-Star Game appearance in Kansas City earlier this month, giving up more earned runs since then (6) than he had all season prior (5). When he gave up a bloop hit to Trevor Plouffe leading off, a feeling of utter fear befell Orioles Nation. This was, again, one of those precarious moments, of which there have seemed to be so many in recent weeks, where, with a loss, the house of cards, delicately standing in its most fragile and susceptible state, could come crashing down.
But then, Orioles fans got to witness something else they couldn’t possibly have seen coming. Jim Johnson was picked up by an unfamiliar source: his defense. Brian Dozier was trying to drop down a bunt to put the tying run in scoring position, but he popped it up on the first base side. Mark Reynolds, with 10 errors in just 67 games, sprinted toward the plate as the pitch was delivered. He kept coming hard as Dozier’s bunt went airborne, and laid out in a dive to catch to ball in the webbing of his first baseman’s mitt just before to ball landed on the ground. It was a remarkable catch in the most clutch situation of the game from the erratic Reynolds, and it completely changed the tome of the inning.
Johnson would get Ryan Doumit,as well as Carroll, to secure a very big, much needed 2-1 O’s win over the Twins.
The O’s wrap up their stay in Minnesota with an afternoon game. Wei-Yin Chen (7-5, 3.80) goes for Baltimore, vs. Cole De Vries (2-2, 4.37 in 7 games, 6 of which have been starts) for Minnesota.
- Hunter’s game gave the Orioles’ bullpen a rest. With Chen going tomorrow in a day game, the hope is that the ‘pen won’t be overworked heading into the Cleveland series.
- Not only an error-free night, but the defense was stellar Wednesday. The Reynolds play was simply enormous. He was joined by Hunter in flashing the leather. Hunter made a couple of nice plays, both on balls hit by Revere. He nicely handled a low ground ball comebacker to start a double play. He also made a great play on a Revere drag bunt attempt, scooping the ball with his glove near first base, and flipping to Reynolds for the out.
- The birds move to 35-0 when they hold a lead after the seventh. That is Mariano-era-Yankee-esque (and that, hard as it may be to take, is a compliment).
- In the eighth, Jones hit a one-out triple. Matt Wieters (ground out) and Reynolds (strike out) left him on third, with the game very much up in the air. Situational hitting is definitely not a team strength.