NEW YORK — When the Orioles won an early-season series in the Bronx last April, it was absolute fool's gold, mostly because it made a team that was destined for ignominy think for a weekend that the looming disaster wasn't coming.
This unforeseen series win over the New York Yankees on the season’s first weekend might be the same from a baseball standpoint.
But ask those involved what they learned about this team over three games in the Bronx after Sunday's win, and it wasn't platitudes about how they'd win the American League East or avoid the 100 losses many had penciled them in for.
It was a lot like spring training, actually. And at least for now, this is a lot of fun.
Said starting pitcher Dylan Bundy: "It's a fun team. We play with a lot of energy, I think. I think everybody can see that in the stands. We're a quicker team than we used to be. It's a fun place to be, and we're enjoying every minute of it."
Said rookie left-hander John Means: "It's a lot of fun to play for. This team, everyone's out there just having a good time, playing loose. No one is playing tight. Everyone is just really having fun."
Added designated hitter Renato Núñez: "We just want to play, man. We just want to play. Everybody here, we've got a lot of rookie guys — even me. I just got here, and we just want to play and give 100 percent on the field and hopefully, keep winning. We got a win today."
Look no further than how they commemorated these two wins. On Saturday, rookie manager Brandon Hyde was put into a laundry cart, rolled into the shower and doused with beer after his first big league win. Means got that treatment along with major league field coordinator Tim Cossins, whose 49th birthday wasn't one he much wanted to acknowledge.
The Chicago Cubs from whence Hyde came grew into a World Series champion under his old boss, Joe Maddon, with every win celebrated as if it were the one that would ultimately break that team's long championship drought.
It also came after years of losing under a progressive front office, one in which the big league team lost far more than it won with a roster of holdovers from the previous regime who ultimately didn't make the grade but helped secure the high draft picks that are now paramount for building a sustainable contender of a roster.
That the Orioles under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias have committed to building that way is ultimately far more significant on a large scale than two wins in three games in New York in March.
It has also potentially freed up a fan base that, even through some good times for the Orioles, looked at the pending exodus of all their top players through free agency in 2018 and couldn't enjoy anything because of the dark clouds that came with it.
So if a team that no one has any real expectations for wants to celebrate a pair of wins the first weekend of the season that might not mean much, it almost gets a pass because of the attention paid to things that ultimately will matter.
The baseball itself was tense, but not unbearable. Twenty-two walks in 26 innings from Orioles pitchers is a recipe for disaster. But the base-running emphasis that has borne out so far, a surprising amount of timely hitting from the likes of Dwight Smith Jr. and Rio Ruiz, and some improved defense makes for a team that I'm sure many will find easy to root for.
If that leads to more grown men in laundry carts soaked in beer, Hyde will take it. It will be how those beer-baths are earned that he'll be focused on.
"I just think this is how you grow as a team, honestly," Hyde said "Playing games like this, playing series in this environment against really good clubs, and to have guys step up. When somebody gets into trouble, have the next guy come in and help out. I just thought we did a great job with that this series."
What's to come?
The Orioles go to Toronto for three games before their home opener Thursday against these Yankees in a bit of a precarious position, pitching-wise. Hyde will be counting on a long start from right-hander David Hess on Monday and right-hander Andrew Cashner on Tuesday to help reset a bullpen that covered all nine innings Saturday in the "opener" game behind Nate Karns and began working in the fourth inning Sunday behind Dylan Bundy.
The idea that there will be one more bullpen game Wednesday could complicate things, but it's possible Hyde will have Karns and Mike Wright available Monday. Paul Fry faced one batter Sunday and should be good to go, and Richard Bleier could be back in the mix after a rough debut Saturday. Pedro Araujo didn't pitch all weekend, and it's unclear when he'll actually be used these first few weeks, so it's hard to count him as someone who Hyde will use when things are tight.
On the other end, Jimmy Yacabonis pitched three long innings Saturday, and Hyde had to extend Mychal Givens far longer than anyone would have recommended Sunday in the second of two straight games for the Orioles' top reliever.
Givens threw 16 pitches Saturday and Hyde didn't send him back out for the ninth inning under the auspices of keeping him available with a long season in mind, and the four-run lead the Orioles built ahead of that ninth inning helped.
But Givens needed 28 pitches to get through the eighth inning Sunday, and when the Orioles loaded the bases and didn't score, he came back out for the ninth. After two quick outs, he ended up loading the bases himself and giving way to Fry after a career-high 49 pitches.
"Obviously, I didn't want Givens to go like that," Hyde said. "It happened. I want to take care of guys, and that's why I was hoping we'd score in that ninth so I could give Mike a breather, but sometimes, that's the way it goes."
Hyde has said from the jump that he'd manage each game to win it with the players he had available. Because of how Sunday went, Givens might not be for a few days. His remorse for how that went makes it seem like it won't be a regular occurrence. In chasing what could be rare wins, it's going to be a very fine balance in not letting one slip away on a given night when the long-term losses might be far more significant.
What was good?
With respect to Ruiz and Smith, the former of which has been very strong at third base and the latter a productive force batting second in the lineup, Trey Mancini's first weekend has to count among the most encouraging things Hyde has seen as he flies north to Toronto on Sunday night.
He's not going to have four infield hits in many series, but his home run off J.A. Happ was emphatic, and Mancini is the type of player for whom some lucky hits can snowball into much more. Given how his first half in 2018 went the other way, the Orioles would benefit greatly from a productive Mancini to both anchor their lineup and to serve as a beacon of general positivity to the fans.
Hyde has already played him in left field, at first base and in right field over three games, but he knows where he likes Mancini best — and he's learning what he likes about him.
"I like him to hit, and we're going to fit [him in]," Hyde said. "I don't know Trey that great yet, and we're still trying to figure a lot of things out. Right now, with the way our roster is, he's going to play in multiple spots. But I love the at-bats he takes, I love how he prepares day-to-day. I love how he plays with no fear—an ultimate team guy who will play wherever, like you said. As of right now, he's going to play in a few spots, and he's going to give you some pro at-bats every night.”
Shortstop Richie Martin's one-hit weekend might have been an auspicious start to his big-league career, but he's in there to be a steady hand in the field, and that's one more hit than first baseman Chris Davis had in his two starts.
Davis' place is a well-worn topic already for these 2019 Orioles, and maybe hitting well in Toronto will carry him back to Camden Yards on Thursday with some good feelings.
Honestly, he's going to need it. It will be good for both him and the team that the worst they can return home for the opener with is a 2-4 record, because if things went badly early for the Orioles, the $161 million man would have been an easy target for vitriol coming down the orange carpet for pregame introductions.
He still might be anyway. It's his singular burden to take all the heat for this team when so few of his teammates have, one, any significant connection to this team and its fans, and two, the payroll percentage that he occupies.
But instead of just getting into the swing of things in the second series of the season, Davis has to face not only Blue Jays pitching but the idea that he probably has to have a heck of a series to be warmly welcomed back to Camden Yards on Thursday. That's not exactly the good place Hyde has tried so hard to put him in as the season gets going.