BALTIMORE -- Despite his obvious power and previous success, Orioles infielder Chris Davis has been struggling so much this season that it has become business as usual when pitchers challenge him.
So, in the Orioles' 5-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, it was somewhat surprising that Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon chose to have reliever Kirby Yates (0-2) intentionally walk Davis with two outs and a runner on second base in a tied game.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy made the move backfire, dumping a bloop single into right field to score Nelson Cruz from second base for the eventual game-winner in front of an announced 16,915 at Camden Yards.
Maddon, considered one of baseball's best tacticians, went with the conventional call with first base open, instead of playing the obvious trend.
Davis was hitless in three at-bats and had just two hits in the four-game series, dropping his season's average to .188. He had been intentionally walked eight times this year -- but not once since June 25. Hardy was 1-for-3 in the game and was hitting .281 heading into that at-bat.
With the win, the Orioles (76-56) moved back to seven games ahead of the New York Yankees in the American League East and 9 1/2 games over the third-place Toronto Blue Jays. The fourth-place Rays (65-69) fell to 12 games back. The Orioles took three of four in the home series and are 11-5 versus Tampa Bay this year.
Once again, the Orioles bullpen was the unheralded hero, throwing three more scoreless innings. In the four-game series, the relievers tossed 14 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run.
Andrew Miller (4-5, 1-0) picked up his first win since joining the Orioles, facing four batters and getting five outs. Zach Britton threw a perfect ninth for his 29th save.
Apparently the Orioles' pitching strategy in the series was to lull the opposition to sleep early.
On Thursday, the role of hypnotist was played by right-hander Bud Norris, who threw 34 pitches in the first inning, allowing one single, one double, one homer, one walk, and he hit a batter. He gave up two runs and escaped a bases-loaded jam with an inning-ending groundout.
It was the third consecutive night in which the Orioles starter ran into serious trouble in the first inning. On Wednesday, Kevin Gausman also threw a head-shaking 34 pitches in the first and gave up two runs. On Tuesday, Wei-Yin Chen threw a reasonable 15 pitches, but he gave up one run and three hits and needed an out at home plate to limit the damage.
Both Gausman and Chen were done in by their early woes, neither getting through five innings.
That's where Norris separated himself. After hitting Yunel Escobar with a pitch to load the bases in the first, Norris retired 10 of his next 11 batters and rescued his outing.
In the fifth, though, Norris allowed two singles, a sacrifice fly by Evan Longoria and a two-out RBI double to James Loney to fall behind, 4-2.
Norris, whose last start was cut to two innings because of a lengthy rain delay at Wrigley Field, lasted six innings Thursday, giving up four runs, six hits and two walks while striking out five batters. He threw 100 pitches -- but only 64 from the second through the sixth.
The Orioles scored twice in the first against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, who was making his eighth start since coming back from January elbow surgery.
He, too, struggled early, allowing a homer to the Orioles' second hitter, Steve Pearce. The shot to left was Pearce's 16th of the season and extended his career-best hitting streak to 11 games. He has five homers and five doubles in that span.
Adam Jones followed Pearce's homer with a single and then moved to third base on a base hit by Cruz. Jones then scored on the first of two terrible defensive plays by Escobar, who was a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop last year before losing the vote to Hardy.
Cruz attempted to steal second base, and Rays catcher Jose Molina threw to Escobar. Cruz, knowing he was caught, headed back to first to trigger a rundown as Jones dashed home.
Escobar waited too long and rushed a high throw that bounced out of Molina's glove, allowing Jones to tie the game at 2-2. It was ruled a double steal -- and an error on Escobar. It was the first time an Orioles player had stolen home since Robert Andino on June 14, 2009.
The Orioles scored twice more in the fifth to again tie the score and ultimately chase Hellickson, who loaded the bases with no outs.
Two batters later, Davis hit a grounder to first that could have been an inning-ending double play. But Escobar caught the force at second and then launched a throw well past first base, guaranteeing no double play and allowing a second run to score.
It took Norris off the hook for the loss and, again, the Orioles bullpen did the rest.
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