The Orioles have spent much of Brandon Hyde’s tenure being looked down upon. They’ve spent almost six months craning necks upward.
Sunday, the Orioles clinched their first playoff berth since 2016, the culmination of a rebuilding process that fully launched in the winter of 2018 when Mike Elias was brought in as executive vice president and general manager and hired Hyde as manager to steward a club designed to struggle.
“Just really happy for the players that are in that clubhouse,” Hyde said. “These guys have earned [the right] to celebrate. This is just the first step, and hopefully, we have a few more celebrations the rest of the way.”
They inherited the worst team in the majors, an organization with bad contracts and bad infrastructure. In each of Hyde’s first three years, Baltimore finished with one of baseball’s five worst records, twice losing at least 108 games as his lineups and pitching staffs were littered with overmatched players. Two seasons ago, they lost 110 games, twice losing at least 14 games in a row, and finished as the worst team in the American League. These Orioles have won 41 more games than that team, tying the sport’s record for improvement in a two-year span.
“We just try to stay process-oriented, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop and smell the roses tonight because these guys earned it,” Elias said. “This is really, really, really hard in our division and where we started from.”
The tide unexpectedly began to turn in 2022, when a team projected for another year as a bottom-feeder instead finished as the best team in the AL to miss the playoffs. With the Texas Rangers’ loss Sunday, the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays both became the first AL teams to lock up postseason spots in 2023 amid their series finale at Camden Yards, with Baltimore adding an exclamation to the day with a 5-4 walk-off victory in 11 innings on Cedric Mullins’ sacrifice fly. The win gave the Orioles (93-56) a two-game lead in the AL East.
Mullins took the Orioles’ first at-bat under Hyde on opening day of 2019, then finalized the biggest victory of his five seasons. Dean Kremer, the only player left from the July 2018 Manny Machado trade that sparked the Orioles’ rebuild, pitched five innings of one-run ball as Sunday’s starter. Adley Rutschman, the club’s first overall draft pick in 2019 whose arrival in Baltimore three years later coincided with the major league team’s improvement, provided a deficit-narrowing home run in the eighth and game-tying single in the 10th. Between, Adam Frazier — one of a handful of veterans brought in over the past year to supplement the Orioles’ core — delivered a game-tying double with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth minutes after Baltimore clinched.
“That’s what you play for,” Frazier said. “You’re trying to go to the playoffs, win a World Series. Pretty excited to make it to the playoffs, but we know the job’s not done. We’ve got a division we’re chasing after.”
After the Orioles won 83 games in 2022, a quiet offseason and a roster built on youth left many projection systems and sportsbooks forecasting them to take a step back. Even before a playoff berth was secured, Hyde acknowledged that those outside expectations did not go unnoticed in Baltimore’s clubhouse.
“We were disrespected, honestly, going into this year,” Hyde said Sunday morning. “Just from where we were from projections, smart people thinking they know what the records are gonna be at the end of the year, casinos, et cetera. I thought we were underappreciated. Everybody thought we were going to have a setback this year. I wanted our players to be offended by that a little bit, the guys that were here last year. I thought that wasn’t accurate.
“I thought we were going to be better than everybody thought.”
They quickly established that to be the case, playing with a level of consistency atypical of a club lacking experience. The Orioles have posted a winning record every month of the season. Their longest losing streak of the year is four games. They have not been swept in a multi-game series since May 2022, an AL-record streak that began shortly before they promoted Rutschman, a catcher selected with the first overall pick in 2019 that was awarded to Baltimore for its 115 losses the year before.
The only players who have been more valuable to this year’s club than Rutschman are also a pair who arrived in the majors last season in infielder Gunnar Henderson — drafted 41 picks after Rutschman and the favorite to be AL Rookie of the Year — and right-hander Kyle Bradish, the club’s top starter who joins Kremer among the players who joined the organization via trades of veterans during the preceding years.
After enduring odysseys to reach Baltimore, two other second-year pitchers, All-Stars Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano, have anchored Hyde’s bullpen, a particular point of weakness on the Orioles’ rebuilding teams; before Sunday’s game, Bautista threw his first bullpen since suffering an elbow injury last month, progress toward a possible postseason return. More products of Baltimore’s top-ranked minor league system, built not only from early draft choices but also investments in technology and development practices, have contributed to its success, with rookie right-hander Grayson Rodriguez pitching eight scoreless innings Saturday to position the Orioles to clinch Sunday. Left-hander DL Hall worked a scoreless top of the 11th to set up Sunday’s walk off.
But the players who weathered Hyde’s early seasons are the team’s core. Outfielders Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Mullins; infielders Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías; and starters John Means and Kremer arrived on bad baseball teams, their inexperience at times contributing to the team’s struggles. Each has said that what they endured in those seasons has made the club’s tastes of success all the sweeter.
“This is the greatest day of my life,” Mountcastle said Sunday inside an Orioles’ clubhouse drenched in champagne and beer. “I never would have thought we’d be here.”
Hays on Sunday recalled a game in Double-A where Santander admired the outfield he shared with Hays and Mullins and declared, “This is the future.” The trio, as has been the case for much of the season, patrolled the Camden Yards grass in Sunday’s clincher.
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“It’s just crazy to look back at how long ago that really was,” Hays said. “We all got to experience this together.”
The club’s modest additions leading into and during the season have paid off in the form of veteran presences and occasional impact performances. In Kyle Gibson, Danny Coulombe, James McCann, Frazier and Aaron Hicks, the Orioles added experience to their rotation, bullpen, catching group, infield and outfield. Left-handed slugger Ryan O’Hearn has emerged as one of their top hitters after the Kansas City Royals — now in Baltimore’s former position as one of the major’s worst teams — designated him for assignment and traded him to Baltimore for cash; he executed his first career sacrifice bunt to set up Mullins’ game-winning sacrifice fly.
“I love this team,” O’Hearn said. “I want to do whatever I can for this team to help us win, and if that means getting a bunt down in the 11th, then [heck] yeah.”
Such a mindset permeates these Orioles. That mix, of top prospects and castoffs, of rebuild endurers and fresh faces, is heading to playoffs. Few aren’t looking up at them now.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jacob Calvin Meyer contributed to this article.