Considering the Orioles' young team, their unbalanced lineup, and the patchwork pitching staff, Wednesday's 5-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays that ended their early four-game winning streak only demonstrated how well this team had to play to accomplish that feat.
The flawless defense finally lapsed. The only three players who are hitting — Dwight Smith Jr., Jonathan Villar, and Trey Mancini — didn't until the game was out of reach, though Mancini’s three-run home run in the ninth made it close again. It wasn’t enough to erase a deficit that only grew as the game went on, and the Orioles’ successful first road trip finished with a loss, though one that didn’t dampen spirits for this upstart team that heads home 4-2 for Thursday’s opener at Camden Yards.
“We played well, and there's going to be mistakes made,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We're going to make errors, we're going to make base-running mistakes, and we're going to leave pitches up that are hit for homers. That's part of the game, and that's big league baseball. But I like the way we came back. We went down five, the wind's kind of out of our sails a little bit and all of a sudden we hit a three-run homer and we're back in the game and their closer has to get in the game. I'm really proud of our guys for the week they had.”
Since the beginning of spring training, Hyde has said not cracking on defense is just as much a way to win as it is for a team not to lose. The Orioles experienced the wrong side of that for the first time in the first inning Wednesday, when, after a one-out double off opener Nate Karns, Rio Ruiz’s throw from third base on an infield singled sailed past first baseman Chris Davis for an error, allowing a run to score.
Karns struck out four in two innings, and Jimmy Yacabonis allowed a solo home run to Randal Grichuk in his 2 1/3 innings of relief. That was all it took to build a lead over the Orioles, who had none of the timely hitting or base-running success that defined their winning streak, either.
Renato Núñez was caught stealing in the first inning, and with two on and one out in the fifth inning, Ruiz was doubled off second base after backup catcher Pedro Severino stung a line drive to third base, ending the inning. They didn't have another hit until Severino’s second single of the day in the eighth.
Wednesday’s loss showed the slim margin of error that the Orioles’ four-game winning streak was built on, which brings them back to Baltimore on Thursday with an unexpected 4-2 record.
The Orioles pitching staff, cobbling together 27 outs on a nightly basis, came close to holding the Blue Jays down again. After Yacabonis exited, Richard Bleier retired all five batters he faced, and the debuting Matt Wotherspoon pitched a scoreless seventh before allowing Grichuk’s second home run in a three-run eighth punctuated by a two-run bloop of a double. It was the bill coming due for a week of emptying the bullpen each night in the name of victory.
“I was trying to ride him out,” Hyde said of Wotherspoon, who was added to roster Wednesday and then optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk after the game. “If it got a little closer, there were a couple other guys I was going to go to, but I was trying to stay away from a majority of guys in our pen to be honest with you, because it's been a taxing week. We have one game tomorrow, then the off-day which is going to be huge. But I was trying to stay away from a group of guys. Rich did a great job, and Yac went two-plus, did a nice job, and Spoony there, just kind of an unfortunate thrown-bat double.”
It did get closer after that, thanks to the only Orioles who have hit consistently all season.
Smith, Villar, and Mancini had 23 of the Orioles’ 41 hits entering Wednesday, and no one else had more than four. A quiet day for them against Blue Jays starter Matt Shoemaker meant the Orioles didn’t have much punch offensively, with the bottom of the order still struggling badly. But a soft single by Smith, a hard single by Villar, and Mancini’s third home run of the season brought the Orioles to within 5-3. That, more than the preceding miscues, was what resonated in the Orioles’ clubhouse.
“I like the way we fought back today in the ninth inning,” Hyde said. “If we do those things, it's going to be a good year.”
“There's fight in us, and if we can continue that and keep going through the course of the season, games like this today, we'll pull out eventually,” Karns said. “It's tough to lose on the last game of the road trip, but we won both series and that's something to be proud of carrying on and going home.”
Winning a pair of road series to open the season wasn’t how many envisioned this season starting, but it allows the team to return to Camden Yards for Thursday’s home opener feeling well about how they’ve played, with a few exceptions.
“I think when you win two series in a row, you feel pretty good,” Hyde said. “You keep winning series, and good things happen. I feel really good about how our club played this week. I just like how we play. I think we're playing for each other, and that's fantastic, and I think our guys are playing to win every single night, and the effort has been awesome. Good first week of the season.”
Karns pushed back at the idea that Wednesday’s loss was a disappointing end to the trip, considering how they arrived for the getaway day game.
“We won two series,” Karns said. “If you keep winning a series, good things are going to happen in the course of the year. Sweeping a professional team right now is really hard, so to come in the first two series, take them both home and head home for the opener is a good position to be in.”
Said Yacabonis: “I think it's a great start to the year. Going 4-2 in the first two series, in two tough places to play, is a good thing. We're definitely optimistic about it.”