BOSTON - So much for a big three-game series against the Red Sox. Now, it's time for a big three-game series against the Yankees.
The Orioles are in another pennant race. Remember when late August and early September games meant nothing more than trying to be a spoiler?
Miguel Gonzalez will make his first start since Aug. 20 against the Rays. He's made two relief appearances while manager Buck Showalter has tweaked the rotation with five off-days in August.
"It feels like it's been a while," Gonzalez said. "I've been doing it since last year. I did it for a while, so I'm used to it. Buck knows what I'm about. I can be in the 'pen, I can be here. I'm flexible for that. He's probably happy about that. He has one of his starters who can do both anytime he needs to, and especially with the day offs that we had. That's probably why they pushed me back more than all the other guys."
Gonzalez is 2-1 with a 2.20 ERA and four quality starts in five career starts in the Bronx, including the postseason. He's 2-1 with a 2.27 ERA and five qualty starts in six outings against the Yankees.
No wonder Showalter wanted him to start the series-opener tonight.
Why has Gonzalez come up so big in the Big Apple?
"I don't know," he said. "I guess the adrenaline, the fans. I've been around that a lot. I like pitching at Yankee Stadium because of that. And there's a lot of lefties, and that helps me out, too. It's fun being out there. And it's been working out, thank God ."
There's got to be some pressure on him, as the Orioles continue an important three-city road trip.
"I try not to think about that stuff, stats and things like that," he said. "I don't really worry about that. I just worry about going out there and trying to do my best."
Asked why Gonzalez seems impervious to the pressure of pitching in New York, Showalter replied, "I don't think he's impervious. He's just pitched well and there are some games where he's had command of his fastball and his off-speed pitch.
"Pitchers and players are creatures of memory somewhat. That's why the one thing I always look at before a series is how guys do in certain ballparks. There are certain things that don't waiver a whole lot. But Miguel will be challenged tomorrow. They've got a lot of their people back and they're playing well."
Catcher Matt Wieters had lots of nice things to say about 15-game-winner Chris Tillman last night. For example:
"He's been good a lot this year," Wieters said. "That's what we expect when he goes out there. It's a tough lineup. He was able to throw strikes and really battle through a tough lineup. He expects to go out and give us a chance to win every time he goes out there. He's still a young guy. He's developing more and more as a pitcher each year.
"I think, especially for us to get into the playoffs, we need everybody that goes out there to be an ace for us. At times, everybody on the staff has been able to carry a team and help a team out. Tillman has really put together a consistent year for us, which is huge and what we needed. I think he understands how to get deep in games more. And how to save a little or when he needs to turn it on a little bit, when he can sort of throttle back.
"I enjoy working with Tillman, first off, and to see him improve, to see him get to where I always knew he could get. He has that kind of stuff. On top of that, he's one of the best teammates in the clubhouse, so it's good to see him succeed. Hopefully he'll keep working."
Before one of Bud Norris' recent starts, I noted how opponents were swinging at his first pitches 31.8 percent of the time, the highest rate in the American League. What's that all about?
"I think it's just a compilation of things," Norris said. "One is they don't want to get deep in counts with me because they know I've got, I guess, a better put-away pitch. It's definitely something I've seen before and I've got to be careful and pick my spots and so forth.
"I know, for example, the first pitch of the game is always a tricky one for me. But I threw a changeup to Coco (Crisp) the other night and it worked all right. But the fact of the matter is, these guys want to get the fastball and they want to hit early in the count, so I've got to be cognizant of that and really try to hit the corners. But that's also an advantage because if you can get some sinkers in there, you can get some ground balls and it helps your pitch count. But it's something you know about, and you can kind of figure some things out from there."
So, Norris was aware of this trend?
"Pitching down in Houston, I know that guys wanted to try to get to me early and they were definitely aggressive," he said. "It's something I've learned over the years."
A few nights ago, Triple-A Norfolk left-hander Zach Britton held Charlotte to one run and five hits over seven innings, with no walks and eight strikeouts.
"Ronny (Johnson) said it was the best game of the year for him. Maybe for them," Showalter said. "Said he was really impressive. Fielded his position real well."
That last point is important, too. The Orioles want Britton to do a better job with the glove.
Britton has allowed only two earned runs in his last two starts over 14 innings.
Brian Roberts stole second base during Wednesday night's game at Fenway Park, then was cut down trying to swipe third. Manny Machado homered off John Lackey, and the Orioles had to settle for only one run.
Roberts was running on his own, just as Machado did in the eighth inning of a recent game, leaving first base open and causing Chris Davis to be walked intentionally.
"(Roberts) came up to me and said something," Showalter said. "I said, 'That was a great move. If you hadn't gotten thrown out, they wouldn't have thrown that pitch to Manny.' (Lackey) wouldn't have. I thought he lost a little focus. That doesn't mean (Machado) would have hit a two-run homer.
"I like the fact that he stole second. I like the fact that Robby's taking what's there. I know he was expecting (Lackey) to have a no-look move. He wasn't expecting him to throw a fastball up that's easy to throw on.
"I don't dwell on that. I'm just glad Robby feels good. I dwell on the base he stole the pitch or so before that and the fact that they would not have thrown that pitch to him with Manny on second."
Showalter doesn't want his players to be timid. Smart, yes, but not timid.
"If you have that doubt in your mind, I'm certainly not going to be a part of it. I'll tell you that," Showalter said. "I'll go out of my way to make sure I applaud their feel. If you're sitting there and you're going to be robotic and only run on the signal... It's the players' game. So many things that Manny won't repeat because of experience. You head them off as much as you can, but there's some trial and error involved here. It doesn't matter if you're 35 or 25. 'Let's be aggressive. Wait a minute, don't be aggressive. Well, do be aggressive.' Which one is it?
"I don't want our guys to have doubt. If you feel something, I tell them all the time, you go for it. I don't want them to sit around and wallow around in indecision and doubt."