BALTIMORE – During a conversation back in spring training, Drew Hutchison was describing all the things he’s picked up from Mark Buehrle when he relayed this little anecdote. "I used to joke with Pete Walker that watching him pitch is frustrating because he makes baseball look so easy," Hutchison said at the time. "He’ll get two guys on, makes a pitch, pops a guy up."
The unflappable left-hander certainly has a remarkable ability to escape trouble, and he fed another dose of that to the Baltimore Orioles to earn career win No. 200 in a 12-5 thrashing by the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday afternoon.
Without a doubt the offence did the heavy lifting in spoiling the defending AL East champion’s home opener, with Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Dalton Pompey leading the way, although contributions came from all over a lineup that’s fun to watch. But without a couple of key pitches before the game got out of hand, and a few top-notch defensive plays, things might have played out differently.
"I don’t think it was a clean game on my end, we scored a lot of runs, that helped out. I was just out there six innings, I feel like if this was a 3-2 game, I don’t know if I would have stayed out there that long," said Buehrle. "I wasn’t as crisp as I wanted to be, guys were getting on base, I got in a lot of jams, I pitched out of it, but then again, that’s me.
"I’m going to give up hits, I’m not striking out guys out. I’m trying to put the ball in play and they’re going to find holes, they’re going to hit the ball hard at times. When guys are on base I’ve got to minimize the damage as much as I can."
That combination is, of course, the foundation Buehrle’s built his remarkable career upon – he never misses a start, works fast, throws strikes and leaves the rest up to fate, and his defence. The only active pitchers with more wins than Buehrle are Tim Hudson (214), CC Sabathia (208) and Bartolo Colon (205).
"He’s Mr. Reliable," manager John Gibbons said before the game, and the praise continued afterwards. "That’s a huge milestone in this business. He’s the epitome of a professional baseball player. He lays it out there every night, never an excuse, never been on the DL, 200 innings year after year, what more could you want?"
Pivotal to that is Buehrle’s ability to make good pitches when he needs them, the skill Hutchison marvelled at.
He made one such pitch up 4-1 in the second with the bases loaded and two out, inducing a soft liner to right by Everth Cabrera that was chased down by Bautista. And then another in the third with men on the corners and one out, inducing a 5-4-3 double play from Delmon Young that Devon Travis turned brilliantly.
A rally at either point would have significantly changed the game, but as is his knack, Buehrle kept the innings from unravelling, and the Blue Jays popped things open with a five-run fifth highlighted by two-run doubles from Pompey and Donaldson.
How did he learn to pitch to contact so effectively?
"Throwing 82 miles an hour you kind of have to," quipped Buehrle, who finished with six innings of two-run ball on eight hits and two walks. "I’m not striking guys out. Yeah, there are situations I’d love to try to punch a guy out, second and third nobody out I want to punch a guy out, but I don’t have that capability. I just try to make pitches and put the ball in play, and hopefully the best happens."
Beyond the Buehrle milestone, this was a meaningful win for the Blue Jays at a place where they had lost three straight, watching the Orioles clinch the AL East last September, and eight of their previous 12 visits.
They also pummelled Bud Norris, 4-0 with a 2.36 ERA in six previous starts against them, for eight runs over three-plus innings. The offence has 27 runs over four games.
"If we continue to have good at-bats like we have and get on base like that, the pitchers pretty much have nowhere to go with this lineup," said Bautista, 3-for-4 with two RBIs before leaving the game in the bottom of the sixth with some minor cramping in his calves. "Once you have guys on base you’ve got to throw strikes and everybody in here can hit. That’s a good thing."
Also a good thing is the way the Blue Jays continue to play strong defence.
Beyond the good throw from Donaldson and strong pivot from Travis on the Young double play in the third, there was an excellent pick-up and throw by Pillar in left field and a similarly strong tag at second by Travis to get Adam Jones trying to stretch an RBI single in the fifth.
Then there was Pillar leaping and crashing into the left-field fence to rob Chris Davis of at least a double and perhaps a home run leading off the six.
"That’s just trying to read the guy’s swing and start moving before he hits the ball," said Pillar. "He’s tough, he’s got power all ways, we played him to pull and the ball just hung up there long enough. As I was getting to the track, you’ve got to make a decision to go for it or not, and the score dictates it there, you’re more likely to be aggressive there. Worst-case scenario he’s standing at second and we’re up eight runs, so go and get it."
Pillar was sporting an icepack on his knee after the game as a result of crashing into the wall.
"I looked down and I had like a second kneecap," he said. "It doesn’t feel any different, just precautionary."
The Blue Jays also turned a nice 6-4-3 double play to end the seventh and another in the eighth, Travis standing in at the bag indifferent to runners coming for his shins.
It all made for a rewarding day for the team, and for Buehrle.
"I don’t take it lightly, obviously 200 wins is a great accomplishment, but at the same time, I just try to stay healthy and go out there and win every game I can," he said. "I’ll look back when I’m retired. Just being in the big-leagues this long, pitching this many games, this many innings, staying healthy, I’ll look back at everything and soak it all in and it’ll mean a little more when I’m done."