BALTIMORE -- Although they'd never say it publicly, the Orioles knew heading into last week just how important it was to flex their muscles in an 11-game homestand against three clubs with losing records.
With Thursday's 9-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds before an announced 21,114 at Camden Yards, the Orioles posted their fourth sweep of three or more games this season. More impressive, the Orioles finished off their longest homestand of the year with a 9-2 record, outscoring the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins and Reds by a combined score of 67-38.
They hit 22 homers in those 11 contests, including one each Thursday by Nelson Cruz, Nick Hundley and the suddenly unstoppable Jonathan Schoop, who has gone deep in three consecutive games.
Cruz and Hundley homered in the Orioles' six-run first inning against shell-shocked right-hander Mike Leake, who allowed a season-high seven runs in a season-low four innings.
Yeah, that qualifies as flexing their muscles.
Still, a brief implosion by the Orioles bullpen allowed the Reds to tie it in the seventh before shortstop J.J. Hardy came up with a clutch, two-out, two-run single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.
With Thursday's victory, the Orioles (82-57) have secured their third consecutive winning season after failing to post one from 1998 to 2011. They maintained their 9 1/2 game lead in the American League East over the second-place New York Yankees, who won with two homers in the bottom of the ninth against the Boston Red Sox and former Oriole Koji Uehara.
The Orioles, whose magic number is now 15, were attempting to take a lead of 10 games or more in September for the first time since Sept. 22, 1979. That'll have to wait for another day.
Thursday's game began as a laugher, but the Reds (66-74) scratched back from deficits of 6-0 and 7-2 to tie it at 7-7 on the strength of a four-run seventh against reliever Brad Brach, who has had two rough outings in five days after stringing together 12 scoreless outings.
Brach gave up three hits, a walk and four runs -- Tommy Hunter allowed an inherited runner to score -- while recording just two outs. The big blow against Brach was a two-run double by Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, who had four RBIs, including a solo home run and a sacrifice fly against starter Chris Tillman.
Hunter (3-2) picked up the final out in the seventh and threw a scoreless eighth for the win and closer Zach Britton notched his 33rd save by not allowing a run in the ninth. The Orioles made three strong defensive plays in the final frame, including a diving stop and throw by third baseman Ryan Flaherty.
The Reds' rally against the Orioles' bullpen cost Tillman his 12th win of the season, but he continued his streak of 17 consecutive outings in which he has allowed three runs or fewer, the fifth-longest such streak in modern franchise history.
It was far from one of Tillman's better outings, though, especially considering the Reds featured a lineup with just two regular starters.
Tillman gave up three runs on five hits and two walks in six innings. One of the runs scored on a bases-loaded, four pitch walk to Todd Frazier.
Tillman didn't need to be at his best, however, with the way the Orioles were going deep early.
Cruz started the barrage with a two-run shot to deep center -- his major-league-leading 37th home run of the year. He's now tied with Albert Belle and Mark Reynolds for the second-most homers by a player in his first year as an Oriole (Frank Robinson holds the record with 49 in 1966).
After Cruz's two-out homer, Chris Davis doubled, Hardy walked and third baseman Kelly Johnson picked up his first hit and RBI as an Oriole with a double down the right field line. Hundley followed with a three-run homer, his fifth as an Oriole, for the club's highest scoring output in a first inning this year.
Schoop made it 7-2 in the fourth with the 15th home run of his rookie year and his third in three games against the Reds. Unlike the first two, tape-measure shots into the visiting bullpen, Thursday's blast landed in the left field seats.
The Orioles are now 22-0 in games in which they have hit at least three home runs. They'll take their power show on the road, with games against the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, before returning to Camden Yards on Sept. 12 for their final homestand of the season.
If they duplicate their most recent home stretch, they'll be in a position at some point that week to clinch their first division title since 1997.
(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun
Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services