BALTIMORE -- The Orioles entered the sixth inning Wednesday night without a hit and trailing by two runs with typically stoic starter Miguel Gonzalez, who was released by the Red Sox as a Minor League free agent over the winter, throwing with a little extra gusto and some added motivation to show Boston its mistake.
All it took was an error by Red Sox starter Aaron Cook to turn the tables, setting up a five-run frame and another improbable Orioles win, this one a 5-3 series-clincher that puts a plucky O's club in sole possession of first place in the American League Wild Card race. Baltimore has not lost in its last five series and moved to 11 games over .500 for the first time since June 18 with the come-from-behind win.
"Once you get to the fifth, sixth inning with no hits, you've got to start pressing a little bit," said first baseman Mark Reynolds, who delivered a two-run double in the fateful sixth inning that started with J.J. Hardy collecting the team's first hit. "The fans know about it. Everybody knows about it. J.J. broke the ice, then [Cook] made the error, threw the ball in center field and that opened the floodgates for us."
With one out and just one run across, Cook had a chance to escape the inning with the lead when he snared Adam Jones' sharply hit grounder back to the mound. Instead, Cook's throw to second base sailed into center field, turning a double-play opportunity into another Orioles run, and extending the inning for Matt Wieters and Reynolds to pile on.
"I feel like we just don't give up," Hardy said of an Orioles club that has won 12 of their last 16 against a Red Sox squad teeming with controversy and struggling to regain its footing.
"Stuff like that, I can't let happen," Cook said of his error, which forced an early exit and brought on three different relievers to end the inning. "I've got to be able to set my feet, take my time, make a good throw and we're out of that inning with one run, and we're in here high-fiving right now."
But all the celebration was across the field, as closer Jim Johnson notched his 35th save to cap the Orioles' ninth win in their last 11 games. Predicted by many to finish in the AL East cellar, the O's are in second place and are gunning for the division-leading Yankees, who have a six-game lead.
"I'll say again: Our intent and our focus is on trying to catch the team ahead of us," manager Buck Showalter said.
Added reliever Pedro Strop: "We battled and worked hard to get in the Wild Card situation, but what we really want is the division -- and we can get it."
Strop, who extended his scoreless streak to 17 consecutive outings with a perfect eighth inning, was at the center of some controversy upon getting Adrian Gonzalez to ground out. Gonzalez started jawing from the dugout and was ejected by home-plate umpire Mike Everitt, who also tossed Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine after he came out in support of his player.
"My guess was he was kind of mad at the quick pitch," said Strop. "He was arguing with the umpire saying that it was illegal. Something like that, but I haven't [been] told that it's illegal. So if it's been working, I'm going to keep doing it."
Everything the Orioles' bullpen has been doing of late seems to be working. The relief corps, which allowed only an unearned run on J.C. Romero's error, has pitched to a 0.45 ERA in the team's last 12 games, with Baltimore improving to a staggering 49-0 when leading after seven innings.
"We know our best asset is our bullpen," Reynolds said. "We know if we can scratch and claw and keep it close, we have a chance, because we know they're going to come in and shut it down for us and keep us in the game. Everybody is picking everybody up, and that's what it's all about."
Miguel Gonzalez got a lift from the five-run sixth inning, notching his fifth win of the year in eight starts since being moved into the rotation. The 28-year-old righty, who had played in one career game above Double-A before this season, worked out of a few early jams and allowed just a pair of runs in the fifth.
Did it mean more to beat his former organization?
"It did," said Gonzalez. "I don't have anything against them. They treated me well when I was with them, but I definitely wanted to win this game, and things went my way"
Gonzalez, who exited after the sixth inning, has thrown three consecutive quality starts and lowered his ERA to 3.38. A late-signing this spring who was in Minor League camp, Gonzalez has worked his way up through the organization and made the most of his opportunity with the Orioles.
"It means a lot to me," Gonzalez said of contributing to an Orioles club pushing for the postseason. "For them to give me the opportunity to pitch, to start, and just do what I had to do. I think all around we did a good job."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.