Cruz's HR backs pitchers' strong group effort
Britton secures first save to cap relievers' spotless 3 2/3 innings
KANSAS CITY -- Zach Britton was calm, cool and collected. He acted for all the world as if he had been there before.
Only he hadn't.
With the Orioles clinging to a one-run lead, courtesy of Nelson Cruz's two-run homer in the fourth, Tommy Hunter stayed put in the bullpen and on came the lefty Britton for the ninth inning. Three groundouts later, two against right-handed batters, and the Orioles were celebrating a 2-1 victory over the Royals.
Fans might be wondering if a new closer was uncovered, but Baltimore manager Buck Showalter wasn't ready to make that declaration. He did offer a positive review on how Britton handled his initial ninth-inning assignment, without putting the pressure of a label on a lefty who now carries an 0.81 ERA.
"Guys graduate," Showalter said.
Showalter isn't ready to award a closer diploma, but can take comfort in knowing that Britton has now been there and done that.
"If we need him on a given night, it's nice to know that a guy has one under his belt," Showalter said. "We'll see where the matchups take us and the best way to keep all the people in our bullpen healthy."
Britton said his first Major League save was special, but he took it all in stride.
"We have multiple guys who are capable of throwing that inning," Britton said. "I just treated it like any other inning. I wanted to pound the zone with sinkers and throw the breaking ball if needed. To me, it was just about getting three outs like in any other inning I pitch."
Britton got Alex Gordon on a grounder to second and Danny Valencia and Johnny Giavotella on grounders to shortstop.
"It's a cool feeling," Britton said. "When Tommy needs a break, we're ready to step in for him. And when he comes back and is ready to go, we'll go back to doing what we normally do."
Royals starter Yordano Ventura again had electric stuff, but a walk to Chris Davis leading off the fourth and Cruz's homer to right-center on a first pitch gave Baltimore all the offense it would need, with five Orioles pitchers doing their jobs.
"I just tried to be aggressive," Cruz said. "He was throwing mostly fastball first-pitch strikes the first time through. I was looking fastball and I got it. Anytime you can win a game like this by one run, it's huge."
The Orioles (21-18) broke a four-game losing streak while the Royals (20-20) saw a three-win streak come to an end. After seeing Ventura strike out the side in both the fifth and sixth innings, Showalter pushed every button possible to maintain the one-run lead. That meant calling on right-hander Darren O'Day when the Royals put two on with one out in the sixth.
O'Day retired all five batters he faced, and Troy Patton and Ryan Webb provided a sturdy bridge to Britton for the ninth.
Baltimore starter Wei-Yin Chen went 5 1/3 innings and survived a scary fourth inning when the Royals loaded the bases on three singles and saw former Oriole Valencia send a deep drive to left that had the crowd at Kauffman Stadium thinking grand slam. But Valencia's drive died near the wall, and the Royals got only a sacrifice fly for their lone run of the night.
"When the ball left the bat, my heart skipped a beat," Chen said through his interpreter.
The Kansas City pitchers had 13 strikeouts, including nine by Ventura. It was clearly a night when Baltimore's pitchers had little margin for error.
"A lot of these ballparks have giveaways where if you strike out 10 or more, you get pizza or chicken," Showalter said. "That would be a bad investment with their pitching staff."
Ventura was intent on getting ahead of Cruz when the Baltimore right fielder homered to the opposite field on a night when the wind was blowing left to right in the early innings.
Valencia's drive in the fourth died in the wind, and Royals manager Ned Yost wished that Valencia's blow with the bases loaded would have been struck a couple of innings later when the wind died down.
"We couldn't even drive a ball to the [left-field] warning track in batting practice," Yost said. "When Danny hit that ball, the wind was still blowing. If he'd hit it an at-bat later, it would have been a grand slam. That would have taken care of a lot of things."