TORONTO (AP) — Joe Saunders began pondering perfection just one inning into his latest start.
Saunders and three relievers combined on a three-hitter and the charging Baltimore Orioles blanked Toronto 4-0 Monday, cutting their AL East deficit to one game.
“(Saunders) was the difference today,” Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said.
The Orioles, who took two of three at Yankee Stadium over the weekend, moved even closer to New York. The Yankees lost 4-3 at Tampa Bay.
J.J. Hardy drove in two runs as the Orioles won for the eighth time in 10 games. The one-game gap marks the closest anyone has been to the Yankees since mid-June.
Acquired recently from Arizona, Saunders (1-1) retired the first 17 Blue Jays batters before hanging a changeup to nine-hole hitter Adeiny Hechavarria, who lined a two-out single to center in the sixth.
Saunders acknowledged he’d long been dreaming of the possibility of a perfect game or no-hitter.
“You think about it,” he said, smiling. “I thought about it after the first. I was like `Ooh, nice. I didn’t give up a hit in the first.”‘
Baltimore, which had lost four in a row at Toronto, collected its eighth shutout of the season. The Orioles have won 20 of 28 overall.
Saunders bounced back nicely from his Baltimore debut, when he allowed six runs in 5 1-3 innings in a loss to the White Sox.
“When I got traded over here they had a great thing going,” Saunders said. “You just want to come over here and contribute as much as you can. You don’t want to mess it up and get blown up a lot.”
After Hechavarria’s hit, Rajai Davis followed with a walk, but Saunders struck out Colby Rasmus to end the inning. Saunders allowed three hits in 6 1-3 innings. He walked two and struck out two.
“Today he settled in a little bit more,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “He was definitely in control the whole game and was able to mix in different off-speed pitches.”
Luis Ayala replaced Saunders after the Blue Jays loaded the bases with one out in the seventh. Ayala escaped by fanning rookie Moises Sierra and getting Jeff Mathis to fly out.
Pedro Strop worked the eighth and Jim Johnson finished for Baltimore, who were playing their third straight day game and riding an emotional wave after their big weekend series in the Bronx.
“I’m as proud of them today as I have been all year,” Showalter said of his team. “That’s a challenge.”
Adam Jones had two hits and Nick Markakis reached three times for the Orioles.
The Orioles opened the scoring in the second when Manny Machado led off with a fly down the line in right. Fighting the sun and making a long run to the ball, Sierra couldn’t come up with the sliding catch and was charged with a three-base error.
“Obviously Moises had a difficult time with the sun in right,” Blue Jays manager John Farrell said.
Machado scored when Nate McLouth followed with a sacrifice bunt.
Baltimore tacked on two more in the fifth on back-to-back RBI doubles by Markakis and Hardy. Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ avoided further damage by striking out Wieters, Mark Reynolds and Machado to strand runners at second and third.
“They were able to manufacture a couple of runs but he made a number of key pitches to prevent a big inning,” Farrell said.
Hardy added an RBI single in the eighth.
Happ (3-2) allowed three runs, two earned, and six hits in five-plus innings. He walked two and struck out nine.
Brad Lincoln came on after McLouth doubled off the wall to begin the sixth. A walk, a sacrifice and an intentional walk loaded the bases for Hardy, but he grounded into an inning-ending double play.
The Blue Jays, who were blanked for the seventh time this season, have lost three straight and 11 of 15.
NOTES: Toronto recalled LHP Brett Cecil and activated RHP Jason Frasor (forearm) off the 15-day DL. … The Orioles selected LHP Zach Phillips from Triple-A Norfolk and designated RHP Jason Berken for assignment. Baltimore also recalled RHP Tommy Hunter from Double-A Bowie. … Blue Jays C J.P. Arencibia (right hand) has begun a rehab assignment at Class-A Dunedin and could rejoin the team by the end of the week, manager John Farrell said. … The Orioles will recall RHP Zach Britton before Tuesday’s game, allowing him to start against Toronto.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)