CLEVELAND — Two days into the final month of the baseball season, the bats are back — and so are the smiles — in the Orioles clubhouse.
Opening their three-game series in Cleveland on Monday, Indians right-hander Justin Masterson was pulled in the second inning with rib-cage soreness, forcing Cleveland to fill eight innings minus their ace.
The Orioles jumped on the Indians bullpen early and right-hander Bud Norris recorded the win as he led the Orioles to a 7-2 victory over Cleveland in front of an announced 15,020 at Progressive Field.
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After opening their road trip losing four of five and back-to-back series in Boston and New York, the Orioles are 2 1/2 games out of the second American League wild-card spot after Monday’s win.
The Yankees’ 9-1 win over Chicago kept the Orioles a 1/2 game up over New York in the wild-card race, but the Orioles are now 1 1/2 games ahead of the reeling Indians (72-65), losers of five of their last six.
Norris won his career-high 10th game of the season, holding the Indians to just one run on four hits and tying a season-high with eight strikeouts.
“We want to be more than relevant,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “People are saying well you’re playing [in meaningful games]. It’s more than that it’s about doing the things it takes to stay in it. It usually starts and ends with the starting pitching setting the tone, and Bud was the difference-maker. Especially after we scored some runs, he went right back out there and put some zeros up.”
The Orioles bats were alive on Monday, and after scoring just 13 runs in the first five games of their road trip, they’ve scored 14 in the last two contests.
Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth drove in three runs, including a two-run homer in the fourth inning and catcher Matt Wieters capped a four-hit day, tying his career-high for hits, with a two-run homer of his own in the ninth to punctuate the win.
“We’re going to need to do a lot more of [Monday] and [Sunday] over the last month of the season,” McLouth said. “Hopefully as the calendar flips to September, so does the offense. The first two games have been pretty good.”
After Masterson left the game, the Orioles scored three runs in the second inning – and could have done more damage had Nick Markakis not been called out on a controversial appeal at second base.
Masterson left the game with a 1-0 count to Markakis — just 25 pitches into his outing — after allowing a lead-off single to Wieters. Markakis singled off Preston Guilmet and Nate McLouth followed with a run-scoring double that hit off the bottom of the right-center field wall.
Markakis, who went to third on the hit, was called out after an appeal at second as the umpires ruled that Markakis missed the second base bag.
The Orioles rebounded and two batters later, the Orioles went up 3-0 on Brian Roberts’ two-out, two-run double into the right-center gap. McLouth’s two-run homer off left-hander Nick Hagadone on a 2-1 pitch in the fourth gave the Orioles a comfortable 5-0 lead.
“It was nice to finally get a lead and let [Norris] be aggressive,” Showalter said. “He had a whole lot of strikeouts. We haven’t been doing a good job lately of getting leads for our pitchers so they can go to work, but he pitched a great game today.”
Meanwhile, the Indians used seven different relievers after Masterson’s exit.
Norris allowed just two baserunners over his first five innings of work and ended up tying a season-high with eight strikeouts. He worked ahead of the Indians often, especially late, throwing 16 of 25 first-pitch strikes.
“I think it’s the best location he’s had,” Wieters said. “He didn’t have to get too much into his off-speed stuff because he was able to locate his fastball like he did today. And I think that was big. He wasn’t just throwing them over the plate strike one, he was throwing a quality strike to where if they were aggressive there were some early outs.”
Norris wasn’t in trouble often, but he escaped an early two-on, two-out jam in the second inning when he picked off Michael Brantley at second base to end the inning.
“It’s something that doesn’t necessary pop out in the box score, but it’s definitely helps you get out of the inning and get another zero with a couple guys on base and I get to go back out the next [inning] and be back in the windup,” Norris said.
Norris (10-10) went on to retire 10 straight after that before Lonnie Chisenhall’s leadoff double in the sixth, but Norris retired the next three Cleveland batters to end that inning.
Jason Kipnis’ solo homer to lead off the seventh was Norris’ only blemish on the day. Over his past two starts, Norris has allowed just two runs over 12 2/3 innings and has allowed two or fewer runs in five of his seven starts since joining the Orioles in a trade with Houston on July 31.
Norris is 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA in four road starts with the Orioles.
“We’re right where we need to be and getting hot at the right time is what it’s all about,” Norris said. Everyone knows that getting hot in September is what it’s all about. … We’re just going to go out there and play the games. Everybody is picking each other up and supporting the guy next to them and we really do have a chance to do something.”