Even the Orioles fans, if they’re being truthful, will admit they came to see Shohei Ohtani — starting pitcher, leadoff hitter, once-in-a-generation talent. A player who does it all so well might never pass through Camden Yards again in their lifetime.
What they saw instead Wednesday night — the Orioles winning a baseball game — probably felt like it might require such a wait before it happened again.
In exhilarating and merciful fashion, the second-longest losing streak in Orioles history ended with a 10-6 comeback win over the Los Angeles Angels, snapping a 19-game skid that doubled as a referendum on the rebuilding plan the Orioles have wholly committed to and largely executed well.
One win won’t fully disentangle the discourse over this particular stretch of miserable losing and the three-plus seasons of it to build executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ promised “elite talent pipeline.”
But it was, at its most basic level, all these Orioles (39-86) could do to get themselves out of the crossfire. Losing is hard. Losing every night for three weeks as the baseball world criticizes the talent in your clubhouse is probably harder.
Manager Brandon Hyde said the team was tired of being surrounded by “negative things about the streak and about how bad we are.”
Said Trey Mancini: “It’s tough, but at the same time it’s up to us to go out there and win a game.”
After three weeks of trying, they finally did.
The way the game turned — a sacrifice bunt by Austin Wynns and a run-scoring groundout in the seventh inning, then an intentional walk of DJ Stewart to load the bases and unintentional free passes to Ramón Urías and Kelvin Gutiérrez to give the Orioles the lead in the eighth — wasn’t exactly memorable. But the pinch-hit, two-run double by Austin Hays to break the game open might as well have happened in October for the relative sound at Camden Yards.
Ohtani, the major league home run leader and favorite for American League Most Valuable Player, was the singular reason for more than 7,000 tickets being sold Wednesday than the night before, even if the announced crowd of 15,867 didn’t nearly fill the park. Regardless of fanbase or culture, the uniting thread among them was that they enjoy baseball, and the chance to see something special brought them to the park.
Where Camden Yards is concerned, little else has been that meaningful, on or off the field. But even though the main draw was disappointing, the energy teased what kind of atmosphere the Orioles hope to see more often in the coming years.
“Even though there’s low expectations or rebuilding or whatever you want to call it, it’s not fun to lose and it’s not fun to get beat,” Hyde said. “You want to show your fans that the big league club is going to be a fun team to watch, and we’re going to be pretty good in a couple years, and there’s some pieces that are coming, etc. That’s what’s been disappointing — you want to give the fans something to cheer about.
“There was great energy in the ballpark, from the first [inning] as soon as Cedric [Mullins] hit that homer, it was a loud crowd. There was a lot of orange out there. Our guys fed off that, too. It was a fun crowd to play in front of, and we appreciate the people coming out and appreciate the energy they brought us.”
Even Hyde, the manager whose sole purview is what happens on the field every night, struggled on the occasion of finally winning a game to extricate those results from the big-picture of what’s happening in the organization. It’s the only way to not get consumed by a losing streak that was, simply, as bad as it gets.
The Orioles went two weeks without leading a game after the fourth inning. They were outscored by 108 runs — an average of over five runs per game. Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle were hitting well, but the team’s misery even affected Cedric Mullins, their All-Star and undisputed top player this season.
It also came at a pretty awful time for an organization that has bet the house on its farm system. Over the course of the losing streak, FanGraphs elevated their prospect group to the top spot on their organization rankings, Baseball America rated them second and MLB.com had the Orioles’ farm system ranked No. 1 this week.
It’s a credit to all involved that the perception of the farm system has changed so drastically so quickly. It’s not just perception, either.
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Unfortunately for the Orioles, those accolades came in baseball’s downtime between the late-July trade deadline and the September pennant races. An organization that has clearly forsaken winning at the major league level in the short-term and then loses for three straight weeks is an easy target with little else going on — except, of course, the opening salvos of what will be contentious and newsworthy labor negotiations this winter.
Criticizing what the Orioles are doing is an easy way to score points with both MLB, which wants a competitive product to sell, and the players, who want every team to spend money the way a rebuilding club has no incentive to.
A 19-game losing streak made the Orioles fair game to be a proxy for all that’s wrong with the game, making their success drafting and developing players moot. What the Orioles found this month is what’s been true to some extent this whole time: There might not be a huge difference between being an average team and being a bad one, but there is such a thing as too much losing.
“Obviously, when there’s a streak of that many games, it’s going to be talked about, and you can’t get mad about that because that’s just the way it is,” Mancini said.
If it wore on the Orioles themselves, from the field to the front office, it certainly did the same to the fans. Those who are still invested didn’t need to be told that it was bad — they saw it every night. And yet there they were Wednesday with a reason to be at the park — albeit not entirely related to the Orioles themselves — sticking with their team and being rewarded for it.
“We went down, I think, 6-2 for a little bit there, and they were amazing through that and stuck with us and luckily, we were able to come back,” Mancini said. “But they really were behind us tonight, and I’m so thankful and we are so thankful, especially after this streak, that they’re still so supportive of us.”
The streak is over. The rebuild is far from it. Yet Wednesday showed that if there’s a reason to go to Camden Yards, the baseball fans in this town will take it. It’s on the Orioles to give it to them.