Johnson, offense help O's net series win over Jays

Johnson, offense help O's net series win over Jays

Johnson, offense help O's net series win over Jays
BALTIMORE -- While their sights are set much higher than simply being better, the Orioles -- who have defied expectations and conventional statistics -- have a number they should be proud of: 36.

As the O's continue to tread in what has been uncharted territory for the past decade-and-a-half, Baltimore (69-57) tied its win total from last season with Saturday's 8-2 series win over Toronto, a full five weeks and 36 games before the regular season concludes.

Just don't expect this gritty club to be satisfied.

"No form or fashion," manager Buck Showalter said when asked if matching last year's win total already meant anything to him. "I think if someone had told us that was going to be the benchmark this year, they'd ask, 'Who says that?' Our guys from Day 1 in Spring Training have a loftier goal than having a better record than last year."

"We are all playing for something a little bit more," added shortstop J.J. Hardy, who hit a two-run homer and fell a triple short of the cycle. "It's nice to win, but we definitely have a bigger picture in mind."

So how did they get here, full of higher expectations and confidence on a surprising run from last place to playoff contender? A strong bullpen, some much-improved defense and a lot of unexpected contributions; a formula on full display in their latest victory, which kept the Orioles -- winners of 10 of their last 13 -- in the thick of the American League Wild Card race.

Rookie Steve Johnson, making just his second Major League start, continued to seize the opportunity in an unsettled starting rotation, tossing six strong innings and allowing only Edwin Encarnacion's two-run, first-inning homer. Johnson, who struck out seven, was helped by some great fielding including a sliding catch by left fielder Nate McLouth and a dominant night from catcher Matt Wieters, who threw out three Toronto base runners.

"It could have been a whole different ballgame if he doesn't do that," Johnson said of Wieters' efforts, which marked the first time since Mickey Tettleton on August 10, 1988 that an Orioles catcher has thrown out three attempted basestealers. "He's a great catcher back there. He's one of the best."

Wieters' efforts -- he also chipped in a pair of RBIs -- helped the Orioles inch closer to catching the best of the AL East, with Saturday's win moving them to four games behind the first-place Yankees and a half-game the behind second-place Rays, who are leading the Wild Card race.

"Everybody in the clubhouse feels like we have a chance to win every time we step out there," said reliever Kevin Gregg, who struck out all three batteres faced in the ninth. "That's huge. We've won a lot of games in a lot of different ways, and that's a good feeling when we go out there."

On Saturday, every player in Baltimore's starting lineup reached base safely by the sixth inning in a well-balanced attack led by Hardy, who crushed his 17th homer of the season with a two-run shot in the sixth off Blue Jays reliever Chad Jenkins. Hardy fell a triple shy of the cycle and scored three runs, one of which came on Adam Jones' left field blooper, which gave the Orioles a 4-2 lead. Leadoff man Nick Markakis continued his dominance since being moved to the top spot, collecting two more hits and scoring a pair of runs as the O's chased starter Brandon Morrow after 4 2/3 innings.

The offensive output was plenty for Johnson, who retired 14 of his final 17 batters, in his second successive quality start. Combined with his relief work, the right-hander improved to 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in five games, and has been a pleasant surprise for an Orioles staff still searching for some stability in its rotation.

"It seems like all the guys we've had come up are doing it," Hardy said of the team's all-around contributions. "Tonight [Johnson] settled down after the first inning and did a great job."

A local product, Johnson -- who is the son of former Oriole and current team broadcaster Dave Johnson -- struck out seven and walked two.

"He was up a little in the first inning and gave up the two-run homer, but settled in after that," Wieters said of Johnson, who scattered four hits in the 98-pitch outing. "That's one thing you usually love out of a young kid is he is able to stay focused and not worry about too many things. Just worry about making his pitches, and he was able to mix in his off-speed all night and that allowed him to get some strikeouts on the fastball."

Reliever Luis Ayala followed Johnson with two scoreless innings to give the Orioles their 23rd series win, the most in one season since 1998, when they also had 23.

"It's a product of playing good baseball and competitive baseball on a daily basis," center fielder Adam Jones said of the team's turnaound. "We've got 36 games to go. Let's see our record after 36 games."

Added Johnson: "I'm very fortunate to be a part of this team. I've worked hard, and this team has also worked very hard this season, and we believe we can go out and win every day. It's nice being a part of it, and we can do a lot better."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.