BALTIMORE — The Red Sox and Orioles may be the two best teams in the American League East. And you got the feeling Thursday night that both teams knew it.
They fought each other for 13 innings, neither side wanting to give in. The bullpens didn’t want to give it up. The hitters grinded out at-bats, but just couldn’t get that one big hit.
And, of course, after a hard night at the park, the game was won by the Orioles on a bloop hit by the biggest slugger on the field — Chris Davis — in a 5-4 Orioles victory in 13 innings.
These are games that bring out the cliche: neither team deserved to lose. Surely not the Red Sox, who fought back to tie it with two runs in the seventh inning. Surely not Alex Wilson, who pitched 2⅔ innings of gutsy baseball at a critical time but gave up the winning run.
The Orioles continued this good play against the Red Sox. With the loss, the Red Sox have lost three of their first four games to the Orioles.
Let’s face it, while some of the faces have changed, since the Red Sox’ September 2011 collapse, the Orioles have made Boston’s life a misery.
Baltimore has won 12 of its last 16 games against Boston and 22 of 31. They took the season series, 13-5, in 2012, and manager Buck Showalter owns a 27-19 record against the Red Sox with the Orioles.
Forget about the Yankees and the Rays, the Orioles are the real problem for the Red Sox. They stand between the Red Sox and an AL East title. While the Orioles haven’t completely gotten their act together — at least not as well as last season — they have remained fairly consistent.
Why the success against Boston?
“I don’t think we look at it that way,” Showalter said diplomatically. ‘That team over there is a force and they’re going to be a force all year. We’re fortunate we found a way to win it on a flare to left field. They battled us. We battled them. It was a good baseball game.”
Adam Jones, who singled to continue the two-out rally in the 13th, said the Orioles’ domination of the Red Sox simply comes down to confidence.
“I think it comes down to our ability to compete,” Jones said. “A couple of years ago we couldn’t compete. We’ve started to compete and we have confidence in our team and the ability to get things done and win games. We’re able to compete in our division and we know that it’s going to come down to being able to get it done against our divisional rivals. We just have the ability now to be able to do that with the type of team we have.”
Some would say the Orioles may not have the pitching to do it.
They have a staff composed of third- and fourth-type starters — no real ace. Last year it worked well enough for 93 wins, but lack of an ace hurt them in the playoffs. And they still don’t have one. It doesn’t mean that between now and the trading deadline they can’t find that veteran pitcher, that is if owner Peter Angelos is willing to spend to obtain someone like Cliff Lee.
What is certain is that the Orioles have a lineup that drives Boston crazy.
Superstar third baseman Manny Machado, catcher Matt Wieters, right fielder Nick Markakis, Davis, who has turned into a bona fide power hitter/run producer, the athletic Jones, and the steady J.J. Hardy at shortstop, make this a tough lineup for Boston pitching.
And while Baltimore’s bullpen hasn’t been as stellar as last season, it seems to do OK against the Red Sox. While closer Jim Johnson went through a dip where he blew four of five save chances from May 14-26, he’s since saved eight straight and is back to being the guy who saved his final 26 opportunities last season.
The Red Sox battled hard, but could not crack Baltimore’s bullpen Thursday night.
These are teams who feature two of the best all-around center fielders in the game in Jacoby Ellsbury and Jones. They feature two power-hitting, switch-hitting catchers in Wieters and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was praised by Showalter for making some good plays in tough conditions.
They have two good right fielders in Shane Victorino and Markakis and two young third basemen in Will Middlebrooks and Machado.
They both have self-made players — Daniel Nava, who came out of nowhere playing All-Star caliber baseball, and Davis, who is becoming a Red Sox killer.
He’s 9 for 24 (.375) against the Red Sox with five homers and nine RBIs in his last seven games.
The Red Sox had a lot of problems against rookie Kevin Gausman when they saw him in spring training. And Gausman, arguably Baltimore’s best pitching prospect, represented himself well Thursday night, allowing only back-to-back homers to David Ortiz and Mike Carp in 5⅓ innings in one of his most impressive major league outings. It appears Gausman could become a thorn for Boston in years to come and could eventually take the “ace” moniker.
The Orioles ended the night a season-best nine games over .500 (37-28). While the Yankees continue to fade on the West Coast and the Tampa Bay Rays lost to Kansas City, the Orioles have a direct route to spoiling the Red Sox party.
And they’ve been more than willing to do it since their walkoff win on the last day of the season in 2011, which seemed to jump start the franchise.
So yes, these may be the two best teams in the AL East. The Orioles have had the upper hand, but this has become as competitive a rivalry as you’ll see in the division.