The Baltimore Orioles aren't letting things such as injuries get in the way as they take aim at their first playoff appearance since 1997.
Surprises like Miguel Gonzalez are a big reason why and the O's turn to the rookie on Wednesday night with a chance at sole possession of first place in the AL East in the second portion of a three-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Following a four-game split with the New York Yankees over the weekend, the Orioles opened up their series with the Rays on Tuesday with a 9-2 victory, shaking off a short outing from starter Jason Hammel thanks to a pair of homers and five RBI from J.J. Hardy and another three hits and two runs driven in by Matt Wieters.
The offense produced after losing outfielder Nick Markakis over the weekend for at least the next four weeks due to a fractured left thumb, while Hammel departed in the fourth inning due to a right knee injury. He was making just his second start since coming off the disabled list following surgery on the same knee.
Hammel is expected to have an MRI on Wednesday, but could have thrown his last pitch of 2012.
Still, Baltimore shook off the injury to move into a tie with the Yankees for first place in the AL East, two games up on third-place Tampa Bay. It is the third time this month that the O's have shared the lead in the division, but they haven't had sole possession of first place since June 6.
"It is always nice to get that first one in the series, especially with these guys," Hardy said. "It was a big night for us."
Baltimore has won 24 of its past 35 games and reached 79 wins in a single season for the first time since 1998. It won just 69 games all of last season.
Ryan Roberts, who exited early with a strained left forearm, and Elliot Johnson both homered for the Rays, who had won two of three against the Texas Rangers over the weekend.
Matt Moore (10-10) was pulled after just four frames, charged with four hits and three runs -- two earned -- with three walks.
"(The game) is in the trash can, we did not play well at all," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We didn't pitch well, we didn't play well, we didn't swing the bat well. We just had a bad day."
Maddon's offense was without outfielder Desmond Jennings in the starting lineup for a third straight game due to tightness in his lower back, though he could return tonight to face Gonzalez.
The undrafted 28-year-old is a solid 6-4 with a 3.62 earned run average in 14 outings this season, including 11 starts, and has mixed results against the Rays this season.
Gonzalez was hammered by Tampa Bay at home on July 25, yielding seven runs over just 2 2/3 innings. Five of those runs came in the first inning and he gave up two homers in the game.
The righty was much better on the road against the Rays on Aug. 5, scattering two hits over seven scoreless innings of a no-decision.
Gonzalez tossed seven scoreless frames to beat the Yankees on Aug. 31, but struggled at the Toronto Blue Jays last Wednesday. He yielded five runs on seven hits over 6 1/3 innings, fanning four without a walk in a 6-4 loss.
"I was ready but (the hits) were well-placed," said Gonzalez. "It was tough. Things didn't go our way."
Things have gone the right way for the Rays when Alex Cobb takes the hill as of late. The righty gets the call tonight with his club having won each of his past seven starts.
Cobb is 5-0 in that span with a 3.25 ERA since his last defeat on July 27 and is coming off a win over the Yankees last Tuesday. The 24-year-old righty hurled seven innings of two-run ball, scattering four hits and a walk.
"I stuck to my game plan," Cobb said. "When I established I was in the zone and got their bats in swing mode, I was able to work a little bit out of the zone and make them chase after some pitches."
Cobb is 9-8 with a 4.28 ERA in 19 outings this season and will face the Orioles for the first time in his career.
The Rays and Orioles split their previous 12 meetings prior to this series, including six encounters in Baltimore.