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Joe Saunders leads focused Orioles to shutout of Blue Jays

Baltimore Orioles Joe Saunders pitches to the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto, September 3, 2012.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

First there was talk about the air show that was going on in Toronto before Buck Showalter started musing about pontoon planes and whether they could land on choppy water.

"I'd ask that before I took off," the manager of the Baltimore Orioles was saying before Monday afternoon's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. "I've got enough stuff that scares me."

That wouldn't include his team, the surprise outfit in major-league baseball this season, which refuses to roll over and die in the pressure cooker of the American League East playoff race that the Orioles find themselves embracing.

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After taking two of three in New York from the Yankees, the Orioles flew to Toronto to begin a three-game set against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre with an afternoon start on the Labour Day holiday.

With Baltimore starting pitcher Joe Saunders (1-1) doing his best impression of Felix Hernandez, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning, the Orioles (75-59) would go on to record a leisurely 4-0 victory over the offensively challenged Jays (60-74), who managed just three hits.

The win, combined with Tampa Bay's 4-3 victory over the Yankees, moves the Orioles to within one game of New York for the AL East lead, a scenario not many would have forecast for Baltimore heading into the start of the season.

The Orioles have now won 20 of their last 28 games.

It was actually the start time of the game that appeared to be weighing more heavily on Showalter's mind than any talk about having to provide daily reminders to his young squad on how they are on the verge of something special.

"This is not a Captain Obvious team," Showalter said during a pre-game chat from the Orioles dugout. "It's like today. We said before we started this trip, we thought this would be one of our biggest challenges of the trip, especially with the way the schedule's set up. This should be a night game and Wednesday should be a day game, but nobody asked us.

"I'm sure there are good reasons for it. Most of them have to do with finances."

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That the Orioles are doing as well as they are is an amazing feat considering they are the only team in the major leagues with a winning record that has allowed more runs than they've managed to score.

Their secret lies in Baltimore's uncanny ability to triumph in close games this season. The club is 24-7 in games decided by one run and 22-12 in two-run outcomes.

The Birds are also 12-2 in extra-inning games, having won their last 12 extra-inning contests, the second-longest streak in the majors over the last 27 seasons.

But Showalter is tiring of talking about all the close shaves the Orioles have managed to endure this season.

"We don't dwell on it," he said. "It's something that we get asked about. Most of our guys probably are aware of it now because they get asked about it so much. It's like, we had one we didn't convert in New York. It's just not a topic of conversation."

Much of the success in close games can be attributed to an air-tight bullpen that features two of the best in setup man Pedro Strop and closer Jim Johnson, whose 41 saves have him tied with Tampa's Fernando Rodney for the major-league lead.

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"You could say that tandem might be the best in baseball the way they've performed," Toronto manager John Farrell said.

Both of the Baltimore pitchers got some work in during Monday's contest, essentially mop-up duty for Saunders, who took a perfect game into the sixth inning before it was broken up by a single by Adeiny Hechavarria.

J.A. Happ (3-2) got the start for Toronto and had to scrap his way through five-plus innings, absorbing the loss after allowing three of the Baltimore runs off six hits while striking out nine.

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