As the youthful Baltimore Orioles steam toward their first playoff appearance in 15 years, adding a veteran of nine postseasons to the heart of their lineup certainly can’t hurt.
One day after Jim Thome provided the decisive hit in his return from injury to extend Baltimore’s remarkable extra-inning dominance, the Orioles on Sunday will go for their first seven-game winning streak in seven years and a three-game sweep of the listless Boston Red Sox.
While the Orioles (87-64) trail AL East leader New York by one game with 11 to play, their six-game winning streak has helped tighten their grip on at least a wild card. Baltimore, seeking its first postseason bid since 1997, has a 4 1/2-game cushion over Los Angeles for the final spot.
The last time the Orioles reached the postseason, they lost the AL championship series to a Cleveland team that included a 27-year-old Thome. Now 42, Thome still has enough pop in his bat that Baltimore acquired him from Philadelphia in June. The slugger spent nearly two months on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his neck, but was activated just in time to double home the go-ahead run in Saturday’s 12-inning, 9-6 victory over Boston (68-85).
“These guys have been playing very well and to come in and get a big hit like that is big,” Thome said. “You want to be a part of what they’re doing and I think that’s what makes you work hard when you’re down (in the minors) because you really don’t know when you’re on rehab how the process is going to go. So being here and being in this atmosphere, you enjoy every minute of it.”
Assuming they get there, the Orioles will surely enjoy having Thome around in October. His 17 postseason home runs rank third among active players, and are the most all-time by any player without a World Series ring.
“This situation is not new to him,” said outfielder Adam Jones, who doubled and scored on Thome’s hit as the Orioles won their 16th consecutive extra-inning contest. “He’s missed some time, but stepping into that box … he always rises to the occasion.”
Baltimore, which is 7-1 at Fenway Park this season, now has a chance to win seven in a row overall for the first time since an eight-game run April 22-May 1, 2005, a streak that included two victories in Boston.
The Orioles will give the ball to Chris Tillman (8-2, 3.22 ERA), who looks to win his fourth straight decision. The right-hander improved to 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA in his last four starts after allowing one run and three hits over six innings of Monday’s 10-4 victory at Seattle.
Tillman is 0-1 with a 5.73 ERA in three career starts versus Boston, including an Aug. 16 contest in which he yielded three runs in 4 2-3 innings and didn’t get a decision.
He’ll be opposed by left-hander Felix Doubront (11-9, 5.08), who matched Clay Buchholz for the most wins on the Boston staff by allowing three runs, one hit and five walks in six innings of Tuesday’s 7-5 victory at Tampa Bay.
That contest remains the most recent win for Boston, which has dropped four in a row - its sixth losing streak of at least that many games since the All-Star break.
The Red Sox’s lineup Saturday featured seven players who have spent time in the minors in 2012. Outfielder Cody Ross went 0 for 6, but has been one of the few constants for the major league club.
“That’s the only thing we can do right now - stay positive and keep grinding, keep fighting and a pitch at a time as they say,” Ross said. “So one pitch at a time.”