TORONTO — If there was ever a time for the Orioles to break out of a mold that has been cast for their offense so far in September, it was here, in the ninth inning of what felt like a must-win game against the Toronto Blue Jays. To keep even a glimmer of postseason aspirations alive — no matter how faint they might remain — Adley Rutschman’s at-bat against closer Jordan Romano felt pivotal.
Baltimore has relied upon its rookies for much of its success. Since his call-up at the end of August, Gunnar Henderson has been the brightest spark at the plate. And since Adley Rutschman’s promotion in May, Baltimore has turned into a winning ball club, one capable of competing with American League East foes.
So in stepped Rutschman with no outs and the bases loaded and the Orioles trailing 3-2. And as he has proven for this organization, the rookie catcher isn’t afraid of the moment. He poked an opposite-field single to drive in two runs, and while Toronto intentionally walked Henderson, Jesús Aguilar came up with a run-scoring single of his own to set the stage for closer Félix Bautista.
In that fashion, the Orioles pulled out a 5-4 win to avoid being swept by the Blue Jays. The win cuts Baltimore’s wild-card deficit against Toronto to six games, leaving the Orioles a sliver of playoff hope as the regular season nears its conclusion.
“We’re pushing in the race to try to make it,” Aguilar said. “We got a lot of chance. We’re gonna face a lot of really good teams, but we’ve got the tools to make it.”
There’s still a climb that more closely resembles a cliff than a slope toward postseason play. The Orioles trail the Seattle Mariners by four games for the final wild-card place, although the Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays each hold a tiebreaker on Baltimore. The difficulty of catching those teams is clear, if unspoken, within Baltimore’s clubhouse.
But the importance of taking at least one game from the Blue Jays can’t be overstated, and it featured a much-needed breakthrough from an offense that has scuffled of late.
Manager Brandon Hyde opted to introduce a pair of pinch hitters to open the ninth inning, and Kyle Stowers went from first to third on Ramón Urías’ single off Romano, the second straight. Cedric Mullins walked to load the bases for Rutschman’s go-ahead hit, and Aguilar added a cushion for Bautista to earn his 14th save of the year, working around an RBI double from George Springer.
“I hope we’re taking notice, because if you look at the ABs in that inning: Stowers the other way, Urías the other way, [Aguilar] with a line-drive-RBI single the other way,” Hyde said. “That’s how you hit with runners in scoring position. That’s how you drive in runs.”
Like so many games this season, the Orioles (76-69) held the Blue Jays (83-64) close. That’s the value of pitching, with right-hander Dean Kremer producing another quality start. And the defense behind Kremer put on a show, turning Baltimore’s first triple play in the third inning since Aug. 3, 2017.
“Huge,” Kremer said. “No outs to three outs, now I’m out of an inning after giving up a run? It turned my day into six innings instead of potentially three innings.”
But the offense didn’t awaken until late. Aguilar, a late-season addition, launched his first home run as an Oriole in the eighth inning to give Baltimore a lifeline.
Aguilar entered with just three hits in 23 at-bats for Baltimore since joining this month, but he finished 2-for-5 with two key RBIs.
“That’s what I saw him do in Milwaukee all the time,” Hyde said. “Pop a homer, runner in scoring position line drive the other way. Hopefully that gets him going a little bit.”
Without first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, whose triceps muscle near his left elbow remained sore after he was plunked by a fastball Saturday, Hyde elevated Henderson into the cleanup role. Henderson, the most consistent hitter in September with runners in scoring position, became the youngest Orioles starter to bat fourth since Andrés Mora in 1976. But even the 21-year-old, so frequently the bright spot since his promotion Aug. 31, scuffled Sunday, finishing 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a pair of walks.
In the third inning, Mullins walked and Rutschman hit a double off right-hander Alek Manoah. But Anthony Santander popped out and Henderson swung through a slider below the zone for strike three.
Jorge Mateo tied the game one inning later with an RBI double into the corner, yet with two in scoring position and one out, Robinson Chirinos and Mullins lined out.
That offered marginal support for Kremer, who — while walking a season-high five batters — limited the damage throughout. After he gave up an RBI single to Bo Bichette in the third, a liner from Matt Chapman to Mateo at shortstop began what became the 15th triple play in Orioles history. Mateo flipped to Terrin Vavra at second, and Vavra fired to Aguilar at first to get out of the inning.
“Triple plays, you don’t see them that often,” Rutschman said. “That was definitely exciting and a great defensive play.”
Added Kremer: “Buy somebody dinner, I guess. Mateo made a couple really, really good plays behind me today. He’s incredible out there.”
Beyond a solo homer from Danny Jansen in the fourth, Kremer navigated his 5 2/3 innings well, allowing those two runs on four hits with three strikeouts. In his stead, right-hander Dillon Tate allowed a solo homer to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose 29th home run of the season made it 3-1 in the eighth.
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That long ball loomed large until Aguilar cut the deficit to one, and then Baltimore loaded the bases against Romano — a pitcher who entered having thrown 14 straight scoreless innings. Rutschman and Aguilar came through, and Bautista avoided an implosion with two runners on to allow Baltimore to leave Toronto on a high note.
The Orioles could exhale Sunday, boarding a flight to Baltimore having avoided a sweep. But as is the case this time of year, the Orioles will do it all again Monday.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding,” Hyde said. “Today was a grind, tomorrow’s gonna be a grind. We have a tough time having easy wins. Makes us exciting. But there’s a lot of fight in our club, and I don’t see us stopping.”
Monday, 7:05 p.m.
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