CLEVELAND -- When play began Friday around the league, the first-place Orioles found themselves with a favorable scheduling quirk after a season that seemingly has featured one good team after another.
With a three-game series starting in Cleveland on Friday, the Orioles faced a string of 26 consecutive contests against teams that were at .500 or worse. That comes on the heels of playing nothing but playoff contenders since early July.
But the Orioles weren't taking this current stretch lightly, especially considering that four of those clubs -- the Indians, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, and Cincinnati Reds -- all made the playoffs last year.
And the Indians were particularly tough at Progressive Field, where they boasted the fourth best home record in the majors. So it came as no surprise that Friday night would be a struggle -- one that eventually ended in 11 innings with a 2-1 Indians win on a walk-off homer by Mike Aviles against Orioles reliever Brian Matusz (2-3).
It was the first career game-ending home run for Aviles and just his fourth homer this season.
The Orioles (69-51) are now 17-9 since the All-Star break. They are 2-3 this season against the Indians (61-60) and 12-5 in extra innings.
Friday night's game was punctuated by outstanding starting pitching from both sides.
When possible, the Orioles prefer to give lefty Wei-Yin Chen extra rest before a start, and the opportunity arose this week with a rainout and a scheduled off day. Coming off his roughest outing in a month, when Chen gave up four runs in five innings in Toronto on Aug. 6, Chen had eight days in between starts.
He took advantage of it. Chen lasted seven impressive innings Friday, surrendering one solo homer and allowing multiple baserunners just once.
Heading into the game, Chen had a 4.30 ERA in 37 starts on regular rest. His ERA with six days' rest or more, counting Friday's gem, is 3.29.
The only mistake Chen made was a 2-2, 93-mph fastball to outfielder Zach Walters to leadoff the fifth. Walters, who was acquired by Cleveland from the Washington Nationals on July 31 for infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, smacked the pitch to left center and it just cleared the wall for his fifth career homer and second with the Indians.
A fan in the first row attempted to catch the ball, but dropped it back onto the field. The umpires reviewed whether it was a home run -- and ruled that it was after a delay of two minutes and 14 seconds. It was the first of two umpire reviews in the game.
The second came in top of the eighth when Adam Jones attempted to drop a bunt with one out and the pitch hit him in the right hand, cutting a finger. The ruling on the field was that Jones offered at the pitch, and therefore it was a foul ball. While Jones was getting his fingers taped by an athletic trainer, Orioles manager Buck Showalter asked for a review.
The umpires obliged -- it's not something a manager can challenge -- and the ruling stood. Jones then hit a tapper, and was thrown out at first. As he walked to the dugout he appeared to jaw at first base umpire Ron Kulpa.
Perhaps it was the delay in the inning or his accelerated pitch count, but Cleveland starter Corey Kluber surrendered a two-out single to Nelson Cruz, proving he was, indeed, human. He was pulled after a tremendous outing, walking off the mound to a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 27,845 at Progressive Field.
The Orioles took advantage of Kluber's absence. Delmon Young and J.J. Hardy followed with singles against Shaw, the latter scoring Cruz to tie the game. It was Hardy's second hit Friday after sitting out three games with a sprained left thumb.
Hardy's RBI made sure that neither starter would have a chance at the win -- Chen was replaced before the eighth began. He allowed just four hits, one walk and struck out six in seven innings. And he nearly matched Kluber pitch for pitch.
The 27-year-old Indians right-hander continued his phenomenal streak of starts – he's now given up two runs or fewer in 11 of his last 12 outings. In his past four starts before Friday, he was 3-0 and had allowed just one run in 31 1/3 innings -- a 0.29 ERA -- while striking out 35 and walking just three.
He kept pace with his own excellence. He allowed one run on five hits and two walks while striking out 10 -- the eighth time he's had double-digit strikeouts this year. His 10 strikeouts came against four victims: Chris Davis fanned four times and Jones, Caleb Joseph and Jonathan Schoop each struck out twice.
The only time the Orioles had seen Kluber this season, on May 24 at Camden Yards, he threw seven shutout innings, fanning nine. So in two games versus the Orioles in 2014, Kluber has yielded one run in 14 2/3 innings while striking out 19 batters.
"He's really good. He makes the ball go both ways, and commands it," Showalter said pre-game. "He's got out pitches, he's got command, he's got a good angle and he's got good life and he pounds the strikes zone. ... He's good. I like him."
Still, the Orioles nearly got to Kluber early. With two singles and a Nick Markakis one-out walk, they loaded the bases in the third inning. But Kluber struck out Davis and Jones to escape.
They didn't really threaten again until Kluber left in the eighth.
(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun
Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services