BALTIMORE -- In a playoff season, contending teams need to occasionally win ugly. Good teams must capitalize on a few mistakes by lesser clubs on nights when few things go right except the final score.
Tuesday's marathon would fit neatly into that category for the Orioles, who beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-2, in a sluggish display between teams heading in different directions in the American League East.
At this point, though, the Orioles (75-55) don't need style points. They just have to keep winning. And with a couple key hits and a bullpen that didn't allow a run in 4 1/3 innings, they have now beaten the Rays (64-68) in 10 of their 14 meetings this season.
With the New York Yankees' loss to the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, the Orioles are back to a seven-game lead in the division.
For half of the night Tuesday, it appeared that neither team would push ahead before another small weekday crowd at Camden Yards, this one announced at 16,406.
The Orioles eventually took the lead in the bottom of the sixth against a pitcher who was supposed to be their closer in 2014: Rays reliever Grant Balfour, who had agreed to a deal with the Orioles in December before the club backed out because of concerns after his physical.
Balfour's tough season continued Tuesday. He allowed three singles in the bottom of the sixth, including rookie Jonathan Schoop's that scored Chris Davis from second base.
Balfour walked Steve Pearce to start the seventh, and Adam Jones followed with a single before the Australian right-hander was pulled. Nelson Cruz doubled against Joel Peralta to score Pearce, a run that was charged to Balfour (1-6). He has now allowed 31 earned runs in 50 1/3 innings (5.54 ERA).
The Orioles were fortunate to have a chance to rally Tuesday, given the shaky performance by the normally steady Wei-Yin Chen. The Orioles left-hander tied a season-high with three walks and failed to get through five innings for just the second time in 24 starts this season.
Chen's trouble started early. He allowed six of his seven hits in the first two innings. Yet he only gave up one run in that span -- on an RBI single by Evan Longoria -- because the Rays had two runners thrown out at the plate.
With runners at second and third bases and no outs in the first inning, Logan Forsythe grounded to Davis, who made sure Desmond Jennings didn't break from third base before throwing to first base for an out.
As soon as Davis threw, Jennings dashed down the line. Pearce threw home to catcher Caleb Joseph, who tagged Jennings for the double play. Umpires reviewed the play to make sure Joseph wasn't obstructing the plate and, after three minutes and 16 seconds, the call was upheld.
In the second inning, Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan attempted to score from second on a single up the middle, but center fielder Adam Jones threw him out at the plate. It was Jones' seventh outfield assist of the season and second in two days. The Orioles' have 30 outfield assists this season; they were tied for fifth-most in the majors heading into Tuesday night.
An inning later, the umpires halted play again for another review when they incorrectly awarded Nick Markakis a walk on ball three; that one, obviously, was overturned after nearly two minutes of review. Markakis struck out on the next pitch.
It was that kind of game for all involved: sloppy and painstakingly deliberate. The two starting pitchers combined to throw 183 pitches and neither completed five full innings.
The Orioles took the lead in the bottom of the fourth against Tampa Bay right-hander Alex Cobb, who had won seven straight decisions and hadn't lost since June 23. With two outs and runners on second and third bases, Joseph hit a sinking liner to center field that a sliding Jennings couldn't quite snag. The ball nicked off his glove, and Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young both scored. It was Joseph's second hit in 21 at-bats this season with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Cobb didn't come back after the fourth, his shortest start of the season. He allowed three hits and three walks while striking out six batters. Despite the brief outing, Cobb extended his franchise record to nine straight starts of allowing two runs or fewer.
The Rays made sure Cobb wouldn't be the losing pitcher when they tied it in the fifth on an RBI double by Longoria. His liner went over the head and glove of a scrambling, leaping Young. It was Chen's last batter; he lasted just 4 2/3 innings, his second-shortest outing of the season.
Relievers Brad Brach (5-0), Tommy Hunter, Andrew Miller and Zach Britton (28th save) combined to keep the Rays off the board for the rest of the game -- which lasted three hours and 37 minutes.
Tampa Bay has scored just three runs on the first two nights of this four-game series.
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