BALTIMORE -- Thursday's eventual 9-7 win should have been easier than the Orioles made it. They jumped ahead 6-0 early and led by four runs as late as the seventh inning.
Then the wheels came off. The Reds tied the game with four runs in the seventh. Suddenly, the game became interesting and, of course, it came down to an at-bat by J.J. Hardy.
As he has so often, the shortstop came to bat with the bases loaded in a critical spot. Earlier this week even, he drilled a grand slam to propel a high-scoring victory against the Twins. This time, a single would do. A liner dropped into right field as Nick Markakis and Adam Jones dashed home. A blowout nearly turned into a collapse and instead became another thrilling win at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"They don't have to be aesthetically pleasing," manager Buck Showalter said. "At this stage, I'm not looking for pretty. I'm looking for W. I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was real pretty."
Nelson Cruz and Nick Hundley both homered as part of a six-run first inning. Cincinnati got two back against starting pitcher Chris Tillman in the third. Jonathan Schoop homered for the third straight game in the fourth to stretch the lead to 7-2.
Cincinnati starting pitcher Mike Leake only lasted four innings, a season low, and surrendered seven runs, a season high.
"The one thing that impressed the heck out of me with the Orioles is they took advantage of mistakes," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "If you gave them a mistake, they did damage and it was extra-base damage. It was doubles and homers."
Those mistakes meant Leake was well on his way to a fifth loss since the All-Star break. Until Cincinnati (66-74) charged back.
After six innings of three-run ball gave Tillman his 14th quality start in 17 outings, relief pitcher Brady Brach allowed a pair of one-out walks and a single in the seventh. Two hits later -- one against Brach and one against Tommy Hunter (3-2) -- and the game was tied.
"Any team in the big leagues can do damage, can score," Schoop said. "But we keep pushing."
Markakis led off the bottom half with a single off relief pitcher Manny Parra (0-2). Outfielder Alejandro De Aza bunted him to second, Jones singled and Cruz walked to load the bases. Barring a double play Chris Davis and Hardy would each get a chance to tilt the game back in the O's (82-57) favor.
Davis missed his chance. Hardy didn't and the crowd at Camden Yards once again had reason to cheer for its late-inning hero, who's now batting .289 with 17 RBIs in the seventh inning of games or later.
"I guess I've got a good approach," Hardy said. "I'm just trying to see the ball right there and not trying to do too much. Hit it hard. It's been working lately."
Moments later, the Yankees completed a rally in New York. A pair of home runs in the bottom of the ninth gave them a 5-4 win against the Red Sox. Baltimore nearly stretched its lead in the American League East to 10 1/2 games, but instead had to settle for the cozy 9 1/2-game cushion and a magic number of 15 even after Zach Britton closed out his 33rd save.
This was always going to be a critical series for the O's in their quest to lock up their first division title since 1997. A three-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs in Chicago left Baltimore with a six-game lead in the division entering an 11-game homestand against the Rays, Twins and Reds -- all sub-.500 teams.
Nine wins later, that lead has ballooned after the O's outscored their opponents 67-38.
"But all that's in our rearview mirror now," Showalter said. "Got to keep looking forward."
David Wilson is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.