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O's outslug A's to gain ground in Wild Card race

Johnson earns first save since Aug. 6; deficit cut to two games

BALTIMORE -- Don't count the Orioles out just yet.

Baltimore, hanging on in the postseason hunt despite having won just three times in its last nine games entering Friday, showed its resiliency in the opener vs. the A's after watching a six-run inning erased by Bud Norris' poorest start as an Oriole.

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BALTIMORE -- Don't count the Orioles out just yet.

Baltimore, hanging on in the postseason hunt despite having won just three times in its last nine games entering Friday, showed its resiliency in the opener vs. the A's after watching a six-run inning erased by Bud Norris' poorest start as an Oriole.

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These battle-tested O's -- who reached the playoffs for the first time in 15 years last season -- channeled some of last year's magic. They used a three-run seventh inning and some quality relief pitching, including a bounce-back outing from closer Jim Johnson, to seal a 9-7 win over Oakland and move to within two games of the A's for the second American League Wild Card spot.

"I've said many times, the baseball gods, if you keep grinding, they'll shine on you, and our guys have. They've never given in," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of his club, which secured its first season series (4-1) over the A's since 1998. "When these guys' backs are to the wall, I have a lot of faith in what they'll bring."

Johnson, who had blown three consecutive save opportunities, navigated the ninth inning in a masterful nine-pitch effort -- eight of which were called strikes -- to secure his first save since Aug. 6. He opened with a three-pitch strikeout of Brandon Moss and got a pair of groundouts, including another sensational play from third baseman Manny Machado, to record his league-leading 40th save.

"You could see the look in his eye," second baseman Brian Roberts, who hit his first grand slam since Sept. 12, 2009, said of Johnson. "Sometimes we need that as players, we need to have a little kick in the rear end.

"Tonight he came out really aggressive. He threw the ball incredible. We all looked at each other and were like, 'Whoa. This is almost a different guy.' And that's great. Sometimes we need to play with a chip on our shoulder, and I think he did that tonight."

Johnson's effort, along with lefty Troy Patton and right-handers Francisco Rodriguez and Tommy Hunter, who pitched around a one-out hit in the eighth, helped bail out Norris, who allowed seven earned runs in an abbreviated 4 2/3-inning outing. It also helped lend some stability to the ninth inning, with Johnson's recent struggles and Showalter opting to use Hunter for Wednesday's save furthering speculation that the closer was on shaky ground.

"I think it was a relief for a lot of people, but there's always work to be done," said Johnson, who became the first Orioles reliever to post multiple seasons of at least 40 saves. "Tonight was a crazy game with the way it went -- four runs, six runs, three runs, all that. We know what we have to do. We know what's in front of us."

Trailing 7-6, the Orioles used a key error from second baseman Eric Sogard and a few well-placed balls in the decisive three-run seventh inning. Reliever Jesse Chavez, who retired eight of the first nine following A's starter Dan Straily, exited after Nate McLouth's leadoff walk in favor of reliever Ryan Cook. McLouth promptly stole second, his 29th swipe of the season, and Machado's single put runners on the corners for Chris Davis.

Davis' liner, which skipped into right field off the glove of Sogard, tied it up. Cleanup hitter Adam Jones then tapped a ball down to third base for a go-ahead RBI groundout.

"It doesn't really matter what the contact was like, to be honest with you," Cook said. "The end of the day, the results didn't happen. [Sogard] makes that play 99 times out of 100. It just got away. I'm frustrated. I haven't been this frustrated in a long time."

The Orioles made the miscue matter, with catcher Matt Wieters legging out an infield single, and Nick Markakis sending a ball shooting back up the middle to push the lead to two and bring a crowd of 36,761 at Camden Yards to its feet.

"When you come back and unfortunately give up four after we score six, it can easily be deflating," said Roberts, who also picked up his first steal since April as he continues to be a spark plug out of the No. 9 spot. "But these guys in here, I don't think any of us feel like we're ever down enough that we can't win. And certainly one run, that's one swing of the bat.

"Guys had good at-bats, our bullpen did a great job, and when you get a chance to win late in the game and the atmosphere is like this, I think we'll take our chances most nights."

Roberts gave the Orioles some favorable odds, highlighting a six-run fourth with his third homer. Baltimore, which worked Straily for a 26-pitch first inning, couldn't get anything going until the fateful fourth, which started with Jones' two-run homer over the visiting scoreboard. Jones' 27th homer plated Davis, and Wieters and Ryan Flaherty both singled in between Markakis' free pass to load the bases. And Roberts cleared them sending Straily's 1-1 89-mph four-seamer into the right-field seats to give the Orioles a three-run lead.

It marked the sixth career grand slam for Roberts -- who has endured an injury-riddled past few years -- and chased Straily from the game, tying his shortest outing of the season.

"It was fun," Johnson said of watching Roberts return to form. "I was happy to see him steal a base right there [in the eighth inning]. I hadn't seen him do that in a long time, and not just Brian. Nick, he's been working harder than anybody, working in the cage constantly, and he comes up with a big hit tonight.

"He's always doing everything good with the glove out there, it's nice to see guys get rewarded for the work they put in."

The Orioles' offense and relief corps covered for Norris, who struggled from the onset. The right-hander never had a clean inning, and after allowing a pair of solo homers -- to Coco Crisp and Brandon Moss -- in the third, watched his offense put up a big six-spot for the Orioles' first lead of the night.

But Norris gave it right back on three consecutive hits to start the fifth and exited after a bases-loading walk -- his second free pass of the inning -- to Alberto Callaspo. Patton came on and surrendered a two-run single to the next batter, Sogard, to push Norris' line to seven runs allowed. The seven runs, which matched a season high, were more than Norris allowed in his first three starts combined (17 innings) as an Oriole.

"They've got [my] number against me this year," said Norris who has a 9.35 ERA in four career starts, all this season, against Oakland. "This is about the team, battling back. They picked me up and then we picked them up again, the bullpen did their job. And to win that one, the first game of the series, is huge. So from a team aspect, this was all about the team. I'm going to go look at some stuff and kind of figure some things out, but I felt pretty good. Threw the ball really well, but definitely have got to work and figure something out."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.


Baltimore Orioles, Jim Johnson, Bud Norris, Brian Roberts