Orioles let chance at win slip away

Orioles let chance at win slip away

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles suffered through an exasperating end to an exhausting day Thursday, when they held a lead with two outs in the ninth and couldn't seal the deal. Closer Jim Johnson had Cleveland's Andy Marte down to his last strike, but the first baseman turned and clubbed a fastball for a two-run homer and a 5-4 win.

The Orioles had just returned home from a draining three-city road trip and hadn't arrived in Baltimore until 3 a.m., a travel schedule that didn't stop them from forging ahead in the middle innings. The Orioles made things interesting in their half of the ninth by pushing runners to first-and-third but fell short on a check-swing strikeout.

"We were one out away from getting it done -- one pitch from winning the game -- and didn't do it," said Baltimore manager Dave Trembley. "It's pretty cut and dried right there. We didn't close the game out."

For Johnson, it was the first bit of adversity he has experienced since taking over the closer's role in the wake of the George Sherrill trade. Johnson had converted four straight save opportunities as Baltimore's relief ace and had allowed just two earned runs over his last 10 appearances, but one misplaced pitch ruined his evening.

The ninth started innocently enough, with the sinkerballer coaxing ground balls from Luis Valbuena and pinch-hitter Jhonny Peralta. Johnson (3-5) engaged Matt LaPorta in a long at-bat that ended in a base hit and then pushed Cleveland to the brink of elimination before leaving a fastball up and over the plate to Marte. Prior to that pitch, the Orioles had been 44-2 when leading after eight innings.

"It was the worst pitch of the entire outing. I had plenty of opportunities to get the game over with and didn't execute, and I paid for it," said Johnson of the fateful fastball. "It was the worst location I could have thrown it. I didn't get it in, I didn't get it down. It stayed pretty much in the middle, and he did what he's supposed to do."

The Orioles didn't go away, though, and fought right back against Cleveland closer Kerry Wood. Center fielder Felix Pie -- playing in place of injured All-Star Adam Jones -- legged out an infield single with two outs and went all the way to third on another infield single, setting up a confrontation between Wood and Nick Markakis.

Markakis was able to work ahead 2-0, but then he fouled off a pitch and looked at a 93-mph fastball that was called for a strike. Wood's next pitch -- a 76-mph curveball -- tied Markakis in a knot and ended the game.

"Pie beats out an infield hit," Trembley said. "He's stealing, and he goes first-to-third on another infield hit by [Nolan] Reimold. You've got your best guy up at the plate, and it doesn't happen. It's really tough, but that's the way it goes."

"Being able to go to first-and-third against Kerry Wood, one of the best closers in baseball, we did everything we could do," added third baseman Melvin Mora. "We bring Nick -- our best hitter -- to home plate, so that was a pretty good matchup. I guess Kerry Wood made a pretty good pitch, and they won the game."

David Hernandez, who had lost four of his previous five decisions, gave up a leadoff home run to Grady Sizemore in the first inning and then settled into his own rhythm. The right-hander stranded two baserunners in the third inning and got a key double play in the fourth. Hernandez exited after six innings holding a one-run lead.

The Indians (57-70) took a lead in the fifth on a triple by Marte and a run-scoring groundout. Baltimore (52-76) battled back in the bottom half, using a pair of walks and a throwing error to score the game-tying run. Scott gave Baltimore its first lead with a double to the base of the wall in right-center field in the bottom of the sixth.

Matt Wieters helped add to that lead with a solo homer, but the Orioles couldn't make it stand up.

"We certainly were in position to win the game and had the guys in the right spots," said Trembley of the endgame. "There's no gray area. There's no shoulda-coulda-woulda. The game was lined up accordingly."

Johnson was particularly upset with the LaPorta at-bat, which featured three foul balls. The right-hander worked ahead to a 1-2 count but couldn't close the rookie out, setting the stage for Marte's last-minute heroics. Johnson vowed not to let the ninth inning letdown bother him, saying that he's been in that very situation before.

"It's just like any time you blow a game," said Johnson of the home run. "You've got to forget it and come back out the next day. We've got plenty more left, so you can't let it bug you for too long. Obviously, it's going to sting a little bit, but you've got to take your lumps and you learn from it and you don't make the mistake next time."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.