CLEVELAND -- September is an eternity.
As his club prepared for the final month of the regular season, Orioles manager Buck Showalter constantly reminded reporters that anything can happen down the stretch. Only two days in, Showalter, who managed the first-ever Wild Card team in Arizona, certainly looks like he knows what he's talking about.
A day after a lethargic Baltimore lineup snapped an 18-inning scoreless streak with seven unanswered runs and a sweep-avoiding win, the Orioles got a bout of luck in watching Indians ace Justin Masterson exit with injury one batter into the second inning on Monday afternoon. The result, a 7-2 series-opening win over Cleveland, helps prop up a previously scuffling third-place O's club and moves them within two games of the Rays, who lost to the Angels, for the second American League Wild Card spot.
"We want to be more than relevant," Showalter said. "People are saying, well, you're playing [in meaningful games]. It's more than that. It's about doing the things it takes to stay in it. It usually starts and ends with the starting pitching setting the tone, and Bud [Norris] was the difference-maker. Especially after we scored some runs, he went right back out there and put some zeros up."
Backed by a standout effort from Norris, who turned in seven quality innings for his career-high 10th win, the O's used a three-run second inning to jump out to an early lead to hand the Tribe their fifth loss in six games. The victory, in front of 15,020 at Progressive Field, ensured Baltimore stays a half-game up on the Yankees -- in both the AL East and Wild Card -- and 1 1/2 games ahead of Cleveland.
"We know what we have in this clubhouse. It's a special group of guys," said Norris, who turned in his best outing since being acquired in a Trade Deadline deal with Houston. "We have a lot of talent, and we're coming together. A couple breaks haven't gone our way this year but a couple have.
"Everybody is picking each other up and supporting the guy next to them and we really do have a chance to do something."
Norris easily outlasted Masterson, who allowed a leadoff single to Matt Wieters and left the game after a 1-0 pitch to Nick Markakis with soreness in his left ribcage.
"I think he felt it a little bit on a couple pitches to [Chris] Davis [in the first inning]," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He mentioned something to the trainers, so we were keeping an eye on him when he went back out. He wasn't letting it go. So I made a trip. Guys want to pitch. They want to play. But, we didn't like what we were seeing. It was time to get him out of there."
The Orioles' capitalized, going on to score three runs in the second, despite an appeal call that cost them an out on the basepaths. Markakis, who advanced from first to third on Nate McLouth's RBI, was ruled out for missing the second-base bag by umpire Mike DiMuro, but Brian Roberts picked him up with a two-run double into right field.
McLouth, who had his second-inning hit removed for a fielder's choice, left no doubt in his next at-bat. The Orioles left fielder drilled reliever Nick Hagadone's 2-1 fastball into the right-field seats for a two-run homer -- also driving in J.J. Hardy -- in the fourth.
The offense was plenty for Norris, who struck out eight and allowed four hits, one of which was Jason Kipnis' solo homer to start the seventh, the lone blemish in an outstanding 92-pitch effort.
"I think it's the best location he's had," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who added a two-run homer in the ninth, said of Norris. "He didn't have to get too much into his offspeed stuff because he was able to locate his fastball like he did today. And I think that was big. He wasn't just throwing them over the plate strike one, he was throwing a quality strike to where if they were aggressive there were some early outs."
Norris retired 10 straight before Lonnie Chisenhall's double to start the sixth and he got a pair of flyouts and a popup to strand Chisenhall. After needing 105 pitches to get through 5 1/3 in his last outing in Boston, Norris was far more economical against the Indians. He also showcased his prowess in the field, pitching around a one-out single and walk in the second, with a Jason Giambi strikeout and a pickoff of Michael Brantley at second base.
"Just attacking the zone, real confident. He had command of all his pitches," Showalter said of Norris. "He's an athletic guy. I thought the pickoff was big."
Not everyone was as complimentary toward Norris, with Kipnis remarking of the righty's effectiveness: "He had a scheduled start against our offense. That's about it right now."
The same could be said for the Orioles' offense just a few days ago, and the club hopes that frustrating stretch is behind them.
"We're going to need to do a lot more of today and yesterday over the last month of the season," McLouth said. "Hopefully, as the calendar flips to September, so does the offense. The first two games have been pretty good."
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.