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  • Jun

    Back On Track

    Written by Mike Laws

    Back on track

    Five-run seventh reverses fortunes, halts skid

    Cleveland 3, Orioles 6


    Like the Dude, I hate the freakin’ Eagles, man. But they did get one thing right (though I’m revising the city name, for obvious reasons): And that is that in a New York Baltimore minute, everything can change.


    With six and a half played Tuesday evening, a majority of those frames being of the lightning-fast blink-and-you’ve-missed-it variety, the very best thing you could say about the Oriole offensive effort was that J.J. Hardy had managed to bounce weakly enough to short, with one down and men on the corners in the fifth, to avoid an inning-ending double play and plate the lone Oriole run.


    That was how good Indian starter Justin Masterson was, through the beginning and middle of the second of four at Camden Yards. The burgeoning Cleveland ace took a perfect game with him through four; he struck out seven; other than the Adam Jones single off the fists that greeted him, in that fifth (and broke up the fledgling bid for the perfecto), and notwithstanding the Chris Davis rocket off the wall that followed (but went for just a long, loud single), the big right-hander/Red Sox castoff looked just about untouchable.


    Ah, but then came the Oriole seventh.


    But hang on. First we’ve got to address the fine work from one Chris Tillman, who’d also provided something of a bright spot, even by the time the Seventh-Inning Stretch rolled around. Because to say the Oriole starter hadn’t looked like he’d ever get a chance at winning this ballgame, the way he’d begun it, would be a real understatement. In the first, a one-out single followed by back-to-back walks set the stage for a prospective Big Indian Inning — particularly with O’s-masher-du-jour Michael Brantley striding to the dish. But, after firing in a strike, Tillman got Brantley to do about as little damage as we rightly could’ve hoped, socking a liner right at Nate McLouth, good for the second out, though deep enough to bring in the runner from third. Okay, 1-0. I’ll take that deal. And when Tillman got Carlos Santana to pop out behind third — and when Manny Machado had to scramble to get himself back onto the outfield grass and in a position to reach over his shoulder and make a desperation falling grab — it seemed as though Tillman might’ve gotten over some early jitters.


    Except the jitters resurfaced in the second. Mark Reynolds walked. Lonnie Chisenhall (love that name) singled down the line to left. Yuh-oh. First and third and no one out. Probably gonna be 2-0 — at least — in the very near future. Right? Mais non! The next batsman Tillman would face slapped a one-hopper directly down the third-base line — where the ever-alert Machado, after fielding it cleanly, took note of ol’ pal Reynolds straying from the bag, having apparently taken off on contact but then experienced misgivings; the former Oriole slugger was caught between stations, and Machado knew it, and chased him down the line before flipping to Matt Wieters to apply the tag. Nicely done. Not to mention the play had the potential to avert any damage, let alone the dread crooked number. And Tillman would respond in kind, fanning Michael Bourn and grounding Mike Aviles out to second to retire the side. Exhale …


    From there Tillman got better and better, bit by bit, inning by inning — that is, if you remove the fifth from the equation. But we’ll get to that. Tillman stranded a leadoff walk, in the third, needing just nine additional pitches to set the next three Cleveland batsmen down, including a big strikeout of Baltimore fan favorite Nick Swisher. In the fourth the righty enjoyed — finally — a one-two-three inning, fanning his first two hitters. In the sixth he’d require nine total deliveries, retiring the side in order. And in the seventh, Tillman’s final frame, the Baltimore hurler outdid himself, ringing Drew Stubbs up on three straight strikes and getting both Bourn and Aviles to fly out to right on a 1-0 offering.


    The problem, of course, as I’ve hinted, was the somewhat anomalous (given how things went otherwise) fifth. Which is when Tillman coughed up a leadoff double into the left-field corner, to Bourn, followed by a Jason Kipnis homer off a 3-1 meatball that just reached the seats in left-center. Man. And here I was just saying how pitching around Kipnis with first base open and only one away might’ve been a smart move. (Also there was the fact that it looked like McLouth, if he’d been able to get back to the wall in time, might’ve been able to rob Kipnis of the dinger.) Anyway, dang. The Birds would respond in their half with Hardy’s RBI fielder’s-choice groundout, but it was now 3-1, and the way Masterson was slinging it, it looked like the home team was just about dead in the water …


    Ah, but then came the Oriole seventh. (Am I repeating myself? That’s not a good sign … Anyway.) Again it was Jones kicking things into gear — this time by getting plunked on the Cleveland starter’s first delivery of the inning. Which, oddly enough, seemed to get the crowd at Camden right back into it. And you know Chris Davis feeds off of that. The man they call Crush, as he is wont to do, didn’t wait any longer than necessary, putting that sweet swing on Masterson’s first offering to him, sending the fastball way, way out over the wall in right — indeed, over pretty much all the seats in that swath of bleachers, too. Unlike many of Davis’s blasts, this one was on a dead rope, and left in a hurry: a cruise missile, rather than a Tallboy. Anyway, hyperbole aside, it leveled things right back up at 3-3 — and, oh yeah, still with nobody out. Wieters followed with a four-pitch walk. Hardy flared out to short, but Chris Dickerson kept the party going with a swinging bunt rolling down toward third; and you know he’s too fast to nab, on that kind of play. So that’s first and second, just the one away, for … well, Alexi Casilla. Who, no offense intended, is probably not the guy you want up there if you’re hoping to put an exclamation point on a rally. But then the miraculous happened: Casilla took a strike, then a ball (which evaded Santana’s grasp, advancing both runners a bag), then, on the third pitch from Masterson, jumped all over what looked like a hung slider that just kind of hung up and right over the middle of the plate; it looked at first merely well-hit, like a double over Stubbs’s head in right — but then just sort of kept traveling, settling in to the second or third row of seats beyond the grounds-crew dugout. Whoa. Casilla’s first homer of the year, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Davis greeted him by picking him up, at the top step of the dugout, the way you’d congratulate your Little Leaguer. Even Wei-Yin Chen’s translator put an arm around Casilla. The backup second baseman, replenishing the power supply and restoring some much-needed momentum — who’d’ve thunk it?


    So here we were at 6-3, Tillman in line for the W, all that’s left is for the bullpen not to totally implode. Troy Patton wouldn’t be the one to cave, tossing a quick eighth that began with a Kipnis single and ended with Kipnis getting doubled off of first (following, to be fair, an absolutely smashed liner off the bat of Brantley). Probably also should note, if for no other reason than it’s fun to talk about Nick Swisher striking out, that Patton struck Nick Swisher out.


    And now it was Jim Johnson time. Now, that can mean so many things: a dominant performance from a sinkerballer par excellence, the MLB leader in saves in 2012; or, alternately, an outing where the Oriole closer can’t find his release point, and walks the world, and grooves get-me-over fastballs that get fairly smacked around. Tonight was the latter — but don’t fret, O’s fans, it didn’t matter this time! Johnson jumped out ahead of Santana 0-2, leading off the ninth, before then delivering a slew of pitches Santana spoiled via foul ball, finally walking the hitter on three consecutive balls, most of them sort of tugged, or maybe held onto a beat too long, and winding up scraping dirt somewhere low and inside to the left-handed hitter. Reynolds followed with a first-pitch single rolled through the 5/6 hole. Crap. Not looking good. But then Chisenhall grounded into a tailor-made 4-6-3 double play (w/ hat-tip here to Casilla, for realizing the fleetness of the hitter and making a nice so-called “power flip” over to Hardy, whose relay was as spot-on and pacey as usual). Phew. Two down. In the bag, right? Well, not quite yet. Johnson proceeded to now walk pinch hitter Jason (“This Freaking Guy Is Still Playing?”) Giambi, again bringing the potential tying run to the plate, this time in the person of Bourn. Against whom the Oriole closer once again leapt out ahead at 0-2 before falling to 2-2 before (exhale) whiffing on a nasty curve, or slider, or slurve, or whatever the hell Johnson’s breaking pitch is (which, in any case, it was clear he had better feel for than the fastball, on this particular occasion). Tillman gets it done. The offense comes through late. The bullpen holds up. Now that’s more like it, hon’. O’s win, 6-3.



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