BALTIMORE -- How are the Orioles hanging around despite numerous injuries and a club comprised of players who aren't exactly household names? It's tenacity, a word Rays manager Joe Maddon -- no stranger to being the underdog in the American League East -- used to describe the Orioles prior to Tuesday's game, and one on full display several hours later when Baltimore lost starter Jason Hammel to an injury.
"Primarily, I think it's an attitude thing, I think the fact that they weren't going to be denied," Maddon said of an Orioles club that has flourished in manager Buck Showalter's second full season. "I kind of see that with them."
Baltimore's dogged persistence continued Tuesday, as the club overcame a short start from Hammel -- who exited in the fourth inning with a right knee injury -- and leaned on the offense instead, taking a 9-2 series-opening win over the Rays, in the process.
"I don't ever take it for granted," Showalter said of the character of his club, which is also without right fielder and leadoff hitter Nick Markakis for at least three to four weeks. "This is a very mentally tough group. There is no guy that puts himself above the group. I've come to not be surprised. Fortunately, I have a good seat to watch it; [a] very professional, hard-driving group that have their minds set on a goal."
And the O's inch closer with each win.
Buoyed by a stellar night from shortstop J.J. Hardy -- who homered twice for his third career five-RBI game -- and a three-RBI evening from catcher Matt Wieters, the Orioles are now tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East, with New York losing, 4-3, in the ninth inning on a Boston walk-off.
Tuesday's victory marks Baltimore's highest single-season win total since 1998, and it also improved this year's club to 63-0 when leading after seven innings. The bullpen continues to do an outstanding job, and it was critical on Tuesday. Five relievers threw 5 1/3 solid innings after Hammel, who will have an MRI on Wednesday, left with a right knee injury, leaving his season in limbo.
"I think it's that we've been through it before," rookie Steve Johnson, who got four outs after Hammel departed, said of the club overcoming adversity. "The same guys went down before earlier this season, and they've maintained. I think we just realize that at any time whoever's out there can give [us] a chance to win."
With a crowd of 23,828 in attendance at Camden Yards, the Orioles chased Rays starter Matt Moore from the game after working the lefty for 94 pitches over four innings. Wieters' bloop single scored Adam Jones from first base in the first inning thanks to right fielder Matt Joyce's fielding error, and the O's broke a 1-1 tie with Hardy's two-run homer in the third. Hardy also doubled in the fifth, delivered a sixth-inning RBI single and homered in the eighth for his 21st blast of the season.
"I got a couple pitches to hit and didn't miss them," said Hardy, whose fifth-inning hit was the first of three straight off reliever Burke Badenhop, with Wieters' double off the center-field wall plating a pair of runs to extend the O's lead to four.
Chris Davis added a tack-on run with a solo homer in the seventh inning off Rays reliever J.P. Howell, helping ensure Baltimore gain the edge in the season series (7-6) as well as all-time between the two clubs (127-126).
"Back in the day in the mid-90s, you'd come in here and it was always raucous," Maddon said of seeing the Orioles play meaningful September games. "They had so many good teams back then, so it was always like this -- even more so. It's good. It's good for the city. It's good for the organization. And honestly, I'm very happy for them. I love the competition."
But the enthusiasm over the game was dampened when Hammel -- making his second start since coming off the disabled list to undergo right arthroscopic knee surgery -- came up limping.
"It feels exactly the same as it did in the game against Detroit," said Hammel, who missed nearly two months of the season recovering from the procedure. "It was just one pitch [the second to Evan Longoria], and then after that pitch, I couldn't load on the leg again when I tried to transfer the weight toward the plate. It's a very sharp pain in the knee in the same spot, so I really don't know what to say."
Asked if he may have thrown his last pitch in 2012, Hammel said he wasn't ready to go there yet and was hopeful it was just some scar tissue from the operation, which he was told can react with a grabbing pain like Tuesday's.
"I'm still holding on, holding on to the scar-tissue [theory]," he said. "I don't want to be done yet. If there's any way that I can pitch, I'm going to."
Added Hardy: "It will be tough [to lose Hammel]. We haven't heard what's going on, so hopefully it's not too big a deal. He's obviously one of our better pitchers, and he's been really good for us this year. Hopefully, he will be all right."
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.