The Orioles did it the only way they knew how.
Baltimore had already clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Texas Rangers’ loss to the Cleveland Guardians on Sunday. When that happened, the club was one point away from losing a crucial American League East game to the Tampa Bay Rays, a loss that would have spoiled its first playoff berth since 2016.
But the Orioles wanted to give their playoff victory the celebration it deserved, and the way they did it defined the type of team they are.
They rallied from behind to send the play to the extras. Veteran leaders stepped up. Rejects from other organizations went through the clutch. Two former first-round picks delivered in crucial situations.
As they have all season, the Orioles played as a team, proving that their whole is greater than the sum of any other AL club’s parts. Beating the Rays in the 11th inning, 5-4, they sent home the announced 37,297 fans at Camden Yards and hailed a successful homestand. One celebration over and, they hope, there will be more.
“It epitomizes the way our whole season has gone,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “There’s everyone in the bullpen, everyone off the bench. Everybody refuses to come out last, just keep fighting and keep going, and we just find a way to win, whether it’s pretty or whatever. We’ll just find a way to win the game.
In a game in which manager Brandon Hyde nearly emptied his bench and bullpen, starting pitcher Kyle Gibson was one of the few who had no chance of playing on Sunday.
The 35-year-old watched from the dugout as a team full of players from a decade or more in his junior match against Tampa Bay served serve after serve. In the clubhouse after the victory, he mostly took part in the celebration, picking up corks from the floor as souvenirs and watching the same group of youngsters go wild.
“I think it’s a perfect story of our season,” Gibson said of the victory. “You look at who did it, when they did it, how they did it. It’s our season. It’s this team. … That’s what this team is all about. Everyone participates and everyone does it when necessary.
“There was no doubt that the shot was going to happen when we needed it.”
Before the madness of the final innings, starting pitcher Dean Kremer kept the Orioles in the game with five one-run frames. He and John Means are the only members of the rotation to pitch for the team in 2021, when the Orioles finished with the AL’s worst record 52-110.
Two years later, their turnaround is poised to be unprecedented. Baltimore has 93 wins – tied for the largest jump in two years in MLB history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau – and is on track to win 101, which would be the most the franchise has totaled since 1979.
In 2021, Kremer, the only player remaining from the 2018 Manny Machado trade that kicked off the Orioles’ rebuild, went 0-7 with a 7.55 ERA. He’s now in his second straight year as one of the team’s most reliable starters, and he’s just weeks away from starting the playoffs.
“That means anything is capable of getting the ball back on a day like this,” Kremer said. “It speaks to everything this team has been through over the last two years, and before that. Having the lowest, and now turning things around. This team is not like many others.
Sunday’s victory was possible thanks to Saturday’s victory. The Orioles’ two youngest players, shortstop Gunnar Henderson and pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, led them to an 8-0 victory that ended the club’s four-game losing streak and kept the Rays from take the lead in the AL East.
On Sunday, instead of Henderson and Rodriguez, it was Adley Rutschman and DL Hall. The All-Star catcher hit a 401-foot home run to right-center field past Tampa Bay closer Pete Fairbanks to cut Baltimore’s deficit in half. The 100.8 mph fastball was the hardest pitch an Oriole has thrown over the fence since 2008, according to Statcast tracking data. Two innings later, Rutschman delivered a game-tying RBI single to send the game to the 11th.
At just 25 years old, Rutschman is one of the team’s leaders, and his debut last May is considered a turning point for the franchise. Since then, in 271 games, the Orioles are 160-111.
“Honestly, it reminds me how cool baseball is,” Rutschman said. “It’s such a team sport that the guys help each other every day when they come to the park for 162 games. The guys bring energy day in and day out.
But perhaps no one had a tougher task Sunday than Hall. Just two days earlier, the left-hander had allowed three hits and three runs without recording an out. He entered the top of the 11th with the automatic runner on second – a situation in which pitchers don’t often escape unscathed – and struck out the team for a scoreless frame.
“It’s hard for me to single anything out, but if I had to, I’m very proud of DL Hall,” said Mike Elias, executive vice president and general manager of the Orioles. “I’ve known him since he was in high school. He suffered numerous injuries. It was something [tough] throw there.
Hall’s path to becoming Sunday’s winning pitcher was a winding one. He was drafted in the first round by the previous regime and has since struck out batters at an impressive rate across the board, but injuries have delayed his rise – perhaps until now.
“It’s amazing,” said Hall, the club’s top prospect, according to Baseball America. “I’ve been through the ups and downs of this organization, and to be a part of today and to be here with this team and winning the playoffs, it’s a blessing.
“This is the moment I’ve been praying for my whole life.”
Hall and Rutschman had the opportunity to achieve additional exploits in the inning thanks to those of Adam Frazier in the ninth.
The veteran second baseman was one of several modest upgrades over the offseason, and he has been a league-average player this season. But he consistently stepped up in decisive moments, and his two-out, two-strike double down the left-field line to score Jorge Mateo from first was Frazier’s last big hit.
“You understand everything,” Frazier said when asked how to celebrate a victory like Sunday’s. “You don’t take it for granted. I was in Pittsburgh a long time, we didn’t win much there, so any time you get a chance to pop a few bottles, you don’t take it for granted.
Frazier wasn’t the only veteran in the clutch, however. Ryan O’Hearn, a Kansas City castoff, and Cedric Mullins, an outfielder who survived the rebuild, both homered in the 11th to win the game.
O’Hearn is among the Orioles’ leaders in OPS in his first season with the club after spending the last few years as a bench hitter for the lowly Royals. His turnaround this season has been one of the biggest surprises in sports, and he’s a likely candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year. As the cleanup hitter on Sunday, he took over to lead off the 11th with Rutschman as the automatic runner, and he did something he’s never done in his six-year career. He laid down a sacrifice bunt – and a nice one at that.
“I love this team,” O’Hearn said. “I want to do everything I can for this team to help us win, and if that means getting a bunt in the 11th, then [heck] Yeah.”
“There were many times when I didn’t think such a thing was possible,” he added. “I kept working and trying to improve, not knowing if I was going to get the opportunity to play for a club like this. The way things turned out is incredible. I feel so blessed.”
The bunt brought Mullins to the plate, and the center fielder who struggled mightily in 2019, became an All-Star in 2021 and is now playoff-bound in 2023, threw a ball to center field for the sacrifice fly.
“I know we saw the clinch earlier in the match,” Mullins said, “but I knew everyone on the team wanted to win. Winning is a lot more special.
As exhilarating as Sunday was, there’s still baseball to be had. The Orioles want more than just a playoff berth, including more celebrations like Sunday’s. But for at least a day, the focus should not be on the possibilities of the future or the sufferings of the past. It’s simply about the present – the victory that defined a team and a checked box worth celebrating.
“I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” Hyde told his team moments before they showered him with champagne.
What will happen?
The Orioles are two games ahead of the Rays – although that number is effectively three given Baltimore’s head-to-head tiebreaker against Tampa Bay – with 13 games remaining. Their next three won’t be much easier than their last four, as Baltimore travels to Houston to face the defending champion Astros.
If the Orioles go 7-6 to finish the season, they will win 100 games and the Rays will need to go 9-2 to move past first place in the AL East. Baltimore’s magic number to clinch an AL East title – its first since 2014 – is 10.
“We want to continue to celebrate,” Hyde said. “So to get there, we’re going to have to keep playing.”
What was good?
The determination, the celebration and the playlist.
The Orioles lost four straight games for just the second time this season last week. It was like the club was in shock. But this short slip has just tested their courage.
After Sunday’s big win, the celebration was as superb as their performance on the field. Not a single player, coach or staff member was dry from the splashes of champagne and beer. And the playlist, filled with favorites from the younger generation, highlighted the dance moves (good and bad) of several musicians.
Since the Baltimore Sun began its weekly Orioles reset in 2019, this section has been dedicated to reporting on an aspect of the club’s on-field performance that had fallen short the previous week. There are several areas to highlight this past week. But not today. After a victory like Sunday’s, nothing was going right.
At the farm
Instead of taking a look at the current farm system, let’s take this moment to take a look back at the farm system that Elias and his front office have built and developed over the past five years. Hall, Rodriguez, Rutschman, Henderson, Kjerstad and Westburg — all first- or second-round picks in the 2017-2020 drafts — are now in the major leagues.
But this pipeline has not dried up. The AL’s best team also has the top-ranked farm system in the sport.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Sam Cohn contributed to this article.
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