Cruz drives in seven as Orioles pad lead

Outfielder sparks ninth-inning comeback, homers for win in 11th

Cruz drives in seven as Orioles pad lead

ST. PETERSBURG -- Nelson Cruz single-handedly topped the Rays, 7-5, in 11 innings Sunday, driving in seven runs with two homers and a triple to stop the Orioles' five-game road losing streak, prevent a weekend sweep by the Rays, increase the O's lead in the American League East to 9 1/2 games and reduce their magic number to clinch to 12.

It was quite an afternoon.

"He's been playing at a high level, all year -- as a teammate and as a player," praised manager Buck Showalter. "He's been solid since the day he got here. I think the guys have really come to respect the way he carries himself."

"It was one of those wild, crazy games," said Cruz, who continues to lead the league in home runs with 39 and now has 101 RBIs. "It wasn't pretty but it was nice to come away with the W."

Cruz became the first player with seven RBIs to account for all of his team's runs since Colorado's Jason Giambi did so on May 19, 2011, and the first AL player to do it since Anaheim's Garret Anderson on May 8, 2003. The last seven-RBI game by an Oriole was by Luke Scott on July 7, 2009.

Fittingly, the strange game ended in controversy as reliever Andrew Miller struck out the Rays' Logan Forsythe. The ball ricocheted off Forsythe's leg and bounced all the way to the backstop while Sean Rodriguez raced home from second base.

While first Showalter and then Rays manager Joe Maddon came out of the dugouts to discuss the play with the umpires, the Orioles came out on the field to celebrate.

"He swings at the ball, the ball hits him, the ball is dead, and the game is over," Showalter explained. The umpires agreed.

So the Orioles left town Sunday night the same way they came in, 9 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees, despite dropping two out of three to the Rays this weekend.

"Losing two out of three is not what we envisioned," admitted starting pitcher Bud Norris, who worked the first six innings and served up four home runs. "But you've got to build momentum somewhere.

"We've got a lead. And we know we've got to keep going."

"I think we're in pretty good shape," said Cruz. "We've just got to stay focused and go about our business like we do every day."

The Orioles are 13-5 in extra innings and 44-11 in multi-homer games.

Cruz, who belted a two-run homer in the sixth inning, and lashed a clutch, bases-loaded ninth-inning triple down the right field line in the ninth Sunday to give the Orioles a 5-4 lead, smacked his second homer of the game over the center-field wall with Nick Hundley aboard and one out in the 11th.

"I was just looking for something I could drive," he said. "Maybe hit it in the gap so we could score."

Cruz has 13 multi-homer games in his career, including three this season.

"It was a challenging day," Showalter said. "We got more runs than they did. At the end of the day, that's what matters."

The Orioles used 23 players, the most in club history since Sept. 14, 1960, against the Tigers and one shy of the franchise record. It also was the most players Showalter had ever used in his career.

"It was an organizational lineup. We got contributions from a lot of people. A lot of good things. This was an organizational win as much as any."

On the brink of their sixth road loss in a row, the Orioles loaded the bases before anyone was out in the top of the ninth as singles by Ryan Flaherty, and pinch-hitters Jimmy Paredes and Adam Jones. After Delmon Young struck out, Cruz delivered his triple, boosting his RBI total for the year to 99.

The Rays tied things up with an unearned run off closer Zach Britton in the bottom of the ninth when Evan Longoria reached first on an errant throw by shortstop Flaherty, James Loney singled, Brandon Guyer bunted both along and pitch-hitter Sean Rodriguez bounced a high chopper to third.

Forsythe, in the Rays starting lineup because Yunel Escobar was ill, walked to load the bases. But pinch-hitter Ryan Hanigan flied to right to send the game into extra innings.

The blown save was the fourth by Britton, who had converted 18 in a row.

Norris, who had allowed just two home runs in his previous nine starts, served up four to the Rays on Sunday, although all came with the bases empty. He worked six innings, allowing four runs on eight hits, striking out four.

Back-to-back homers by Longoria and Loney put the Orioles in a 2-0 hole in the opening inning. The Rays then loaded the bases against Norris in both the second and third innings, to no avail.

In yet another strange moment in what has been a weird series, the Rays' David DeJesus flied to left center with two outs in the fourth. Alejandro De Aza, playing left, and David Lough, who was filling in for Jones in center, converged on the ball. De Aza caught it momentarily, but Lough jarred it loose as the two collided, sending the ball flying out of De Aza's glove, then chased the ball as it rolled all the way into the left field corner while DeJesus raced around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.

"You can't hear out there, that's what happened," Showalter said. "I saw it, it was almost like it was in slow motion. I was afraid they were going to run together. The heck with what happened after the fact. I was more concerned about the players' safety."

"It was just a quirky play," Norris said.

After Lough had singled, leading off the sixth, Cruz belted his 38th homer of the year off Jeremy Hellickson, to trim the Rays' lead to 3-2.

The next curious play came later in the top of the sixth when the Orioles loaded the bases with one out against reliever Steve Geltz. Flaherty popped up but Rays catcher Jose Molina and the third baseman, Longoria, let the ball drop between them in front of the plate, clearly in fair territory, for an automatic out under the infield fly rule.

Kevin Kiermaier homered, leading off the bottom of the sixth, for the Rays' fourth home run of the day.

Jones and Nick Markakis, the only two Orioles to start every one of the season's first 141 games, along with J.J. Hardy, who is battling lower back spasms, started on the bench for Sunday's game. The artificial turf at Tropicana Field was a big part of the reason.

"We all know they would all like to play but this turf has 'heavy-legged' a few people," Showalter explained. "It's another one of those things about playing here, especially this time of the year.

"I know the history of what that does to a guy's legs, especially when you've been playing a lot. They've worked very hard to get us where we are. And I want to keep them that way. It's best for them and best for the club. One of the benefits of having a full roster this time of the year.

"Playing on that turf can take a toll on your back and knees," Markakis said. "Buck thought we needed a day off and we'll take it."

All three players are expected back in the lineup Monday night in Boston.

Hardy and the Orioles hope by taking another day off Sunday, the shortstop won't have to miss any more time down the stretch.

"I think I've dodged a bullet in a way," Hardy said. "To be safe, we're taking one more day. I hope these two days will take care of it and I won't have to deal with it the rest of the year. We want to try to avoid missing a week or a week and a half like I did in April. I feel like we've gotten ahead of it. Hopefully, it won't happen again for the rest of the year.

"The spasms, it's wierd. When they come up, they're telling me something is wrong and be careful," the Orioles' shortstop continued.

The Orioles believe they are entering the final three weeks of the season as healthy as they can be.

"We've gotten everybody out of the woods a little bit," Showalter said. "We want to keep some people out of the woods, out of harm's way."

Jim Hawkins is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.