Hours before the American League’s worst and best teams played 11 innings Friday night at Minute Maid Park, an executive overseeing the former after working for the latter remarked on how hard the players on his current roster have played throughout a trying season.
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is well aware of the rebuilding effort in front of him, but games like Friday’s 4-3 loss show that even if the talent he is trying to add remains a work in progress, a competitive spirit is already developing.
At times, the Orioles looked overmatched, yet they never looked out of it. Robinson Chirinos’ walk-off double sealed their fate in the series-opening defeat. But taking 11 innings to get there on a night they struck out 17 times and managed only two hits in their final 27 at-bats shows that development is already underway.
“Obviously, we haven’t won nearly as many games as we’d like, but we will at some point,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “At some point, we’re going to get better, and I think we’re in the part of this process that we’re in right now organizationally, I think these games that we’re playing are awesome for these guys. They’re playing in tight, on-the-road, postseason-atmosphere type of games against postseason pitchers and hanging in there, and that’s just going to help them develop and help us the next three or four years.”
With Yuli Gurriel on first, Chirinos roped his two-out double down the left-field line off Branden Kline. Left fielder Stevie Wilkerson raced to the ball and fired it to shortstop Jonathan Villar, who entered in the 10th after exiting Wednesday’s game with a sore finger. He turned and threw toward home, where it met catcher Chance Sisco on a short hop before Gurriel made it to the plate.
But Sisco wasn't able to hold on as Gurriel scored the winning run. The play at the plate was reviewed and confirmed, though both Hyde and Sisco said they didn’t think Gurriel ever touched home.
“We’re still waiting to see him touch the plate,” Hyde said. “I’m waiting for us to tag him, and I’m waiting for him to touch the plate. I don’t think that’s happened yet. Maybe it is right now.”
“Just a do-or-die play there, really,” Sisco said. “It’s one of those that you have throughout the season. It’s either you pick it and you get that out, or you miss it, and unfortunately, tonight, I didn’t make that pick. Wish I could take that back.”
Although they built a 3-0 lead against the Astros (44-21) and right-hander Gerrit Cole, their bats went cold. Four days removed from the Orioles (19-44) making the first overall selection in the MLB draft, Cole showed the talent such a pick, if it goes well, can possess. He struck out 14 Orioles and walked none in his seven innings for his fourth start with double-digit strikeouts and no walks, already two shy of matching the major league record for such outings in a season.
Thanks to four walkless frames from the Astros bullpen, the Orioles endured their sixth game of that offensively ill combination; only one other team has more than three.
“Gerrit Cole’s a top-five pitcher in the game,” Hyde said. “There’s a reason why he’s pitching in All-Star Games every year and pitching in the postseason, because he throws 95-100 [mph], and he’s got secondary stuff that he can throw at any time, and he elevates his fastball so well, and it’s just tough to get on top of it at 96 right here.
“He’s a real competitive dude. He’s just good, and I’m proud of our guys for scoring three runs off him.”
Rio Ruiz, playing in Houston for the first time despite signing with the Astros as the organization’s fourth-round pick in 2012, poked a single through the left side with the bases loaded to score two unearned runs off Cole in the first.
Gabriel Ynoa made his best effort to make them stand. After walking the first batter he faced, he got Houston star Alex Bregman to ground into a double play, then retired the next four Astros.
His batterymate, Sisco, provided an extra run of support by taking advantage of the shallow Crawford Boxes in Minute Maid Park’s left-field corner in the third, hitting his first home run of the season with a projected distance of only 350 feet.
“I feel comfortable,” Sisco said. “Just trying to put together good at-bats.”
The Orioles struggled to touch Cole from there. He retired all but one of the final 14 batters he faced, an Anthony Santander single the only blip, while recording nine strikeouts. He generated 29 swings and misses, the most by any pitcher this season and the most by an Astro since pitch-tracking began in 2008.
Ynoa was not as dominant, but seemed poised to outpitch Cole, putting together his best major league start since September 2017. He cruised through four innings on 49 pitches, the only hit allowed to that point ricocheting off him, before the Astros hit two home runs in the fifth to tie the game. He completed the sixth for his first quality start.
“Every game is an opportunity to get better,” Ynoa said through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “The games that we’ve been losing are pretty close all the way to the end, so it’s just a matter of continuing to play.”
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Shawn Armstrong, Richard Bleier and Mychal Givens combined for four scoreless innings before Kline was scored upon for the fifth straight outing. He was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk after the game.