BALTIMORE -- The last time Kirby Yates faced Chris Davis, in the fifth inning of Monday's game, the Orioles' struggling slugger took him deep as part of a back-to-back-to-back home run spree. So it was plausible, although still slightly head-scratching, when Rays manager Joe Maddon made the call to intentionally walk Davis in the seventh inning with the infielder 0-for-3 on the night and batting .188 on the season.
With the scored tied at 4 and first base open, Yates issued the two-out free pass -- Davis' first since June 25 -- and shortstop J.J. Hardy made him pay.
"A little bit [surprised]," Hardy said of watching the walk unfold from the on-deck circle. "But I was just thinking about hitting the ball hard. Didn't happen, but it worked. I try not to let emotions get a hold of me and just hit the ball hard."
Backed by yet another outstanding job from the Orioles bullpen -- which didn't allow a run in the four-game series -- Baltimore made Hardy's two-out RBI blooper stand up as the decisive score in a 5-4 series win Thursday night at Oriole Park.
The victory, which saw the Orioles (76-56) take three of four and improve to 11-5 against the Rays this year, increases first-place Baltimore's lead to seven games over the Yankees in the American League East. With right-handed starter Bud Norris battling through six innings, the O's used a combination of Brad Brach, Andrew Miller and Zach Britton -- who picked up his 29th save in 32 chances -- to keep the relief corps' scoreless streak intact.
"Really? Wow," manager Buck Showalter said when alerted about the bullpen's 14 1/3 scoreless innings over the four-game set. "That speaks for itself. Four-game series are so hard to win, especially with some of the pace of the games we've played the last four games. Our bullpen was just solid. Didn't let anything get in the way, just kept making good pitches."
The Orioles, who improved to 26-19 in one run games, twice came back from a deficit and Hardy's glove was just as big as his bat, executing a key double play to end the top of the seventh. They used that momentum to take the lead in the bottom of the frame, with Nelson Cruz starting things off with a two-out double before Yates walked Davis.
"I see the reasoning behind it," Davis said of the intentional walk. "Right-handed pitcher on the mound, right-handed hitter behind me. Had some good swings on a couple of balls earlier in the game. It's happened before. It doesn't matter what your batting average is, if they feel like you can hurt them at any point in the game and they have a chance to walk you, they can do it."
Hardy muscled a ball into right field after that, scoring Cruz to give the Orioles a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"To take three out of four was big," Hardy said. "I think we are playing pretty good ball. I think after that Cubs series [sweep] we all just kind of forgot about that and moved forward."
Down two runs in the fifth inning, the Orioles used Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar's second miscue to tie the game. With the bases loaded, Davis bounced into a potential double play and Escobar -- after taking the throw at second for the first out -- airmailed a throw into the first-base stands. Both runs were charged to Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, who loaded the bases and exited in favor of Jeff Beliveau after Cruz's lineout.
"I kind of had a late break, but I beat him to the bag," Beliveau said of the play at first. "I beat him there and as soon as I got to the bag, I looked up and it was about 20 feet over my head. Then I realized I had to get the ball."
Hellickson, who was charged with four runs, three earned, watched the O's tie the game in the first inning on an impressive double-steal. After Steve Pearce's homer put the Orioles on the board, Adam Jones and Cruz both singled and Cruz got caught in a rundown between first and second with Jones breaking for home plate from third. Escobar paused for a moment, then fired home, but Rays catcher Jose Molina dropped the ball, allowing the Orioles to tie it up.
Norris outlasted Hellickson but wasn't particularly crisp, allowing a leadoff double and run on Matt Joyce's sacrifice fly, with Tampa Bay pushing the lead to two on Evan Longoria's homer. The righty, who had 34 pitches in the first, settled in and went on to retire nine of the next 10 before allowing the Rays to score a pair of runs in the fifth.
"Short last couple starts the last couple days, but to get through six was big for us and I just really tried to grind it out," Norris said. "It was just a good baseball game and we got the big hit late, and to pass off the ball to the bullpen late like that with a lead, our chances are pretty good."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.