When the Orioles last swept a series, at the end of August 2018, it seemed that competitive baseball in what normally counts as baseball’s dog days might never return in Baltimore.
Two years of abundant losing since make it hard to believe this Orioles team, which just swept the Tampa Bay Rays over three games at Camden Yards thanks to a 5-1 win Sunday, is going to change that ahead of schedule.
But the way the Orioles (5-3) are playing in the first week-plus of their season, with the coronavirus pandemic serving as an ominous background to the proceedings, at least make it tempting to think otherwise.
“It’s still really early in this season, but we beat a good club,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I’m really happy with our guys. I’m happy with how we played this series. We still have a long way to go. ...
“I just want to continue to keep it going and have our guys continue to feel what this feels like, of playing in tight games, playing with a lead, being able to come in and throw strikes out of the bullpen with a lead — those type of things that we struggled with last year. I’d love to see that continue. Very happy with the sweep, for sure.”
The optimism around this team comes from the idea that this is not the kind of game the Orioles often win. Renato Núñez’s second home run in as many days gave them a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Tommy Milone, over a week after his disappointing Opening Day start, rebounded to strike out eight in five scoreless innings before allowing a game-tying home run on the first batter of the sixth inning.
Once he left, the Orioles bullpen held, and the hitters did the rest. Cedric Mullins bunted his way on to lead off the inning and stole second before scoring on a double by Hanser Alberto. Núñez singled and scored Alberto, and José Iglesias doubled to score Núñez.
“I really thought our at-bats were good again, especially the second half of the game against really good bullpen guys, putting really good at-bats together, playing team baseball — Cedric with the leadoff drag-bunt single to open it up for us, those types of things. Alberto hitting behind the runner, getting a double out of it. Those type of things [are] playing winning baseball.”
Pat Valaika homered in the eighth inning to extend the lead to 5-1, and Cole Sulser finished off his second six-out save in a week, and third save in four chances. His two perfect innings came after Miguel Castro and Evan Phillips each retired all three batters they faced as well.
“It really starts to me with Tommy Milone, being able to give us the length, pitch into the sixth inning, keeping them off balance, only giving up that one solo homer,” Hyde said. “Just really threw the ball well. He gave us a chance against a good starter and a tough bullpen, and then our bullpen just kept it right there. Just a really outstanding job of throwing strikes — no walks again today. That’s enormous. But we’re throwing strikes and we’re letting our defense play, and our defense has done a nice job.”
The series sweep was the Orioles’ first since Aug. 27-29, 2018, against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I just think we’re all playing together,” Núñez said. “Things are happening really good for us. Pitchers are throwing really good, our starters, our relievers. Everybody’s swinging the bat well, we’re bunting whenever we have to do it and we’re doing it well. I think we’re playing baseball."
Milone said: “I said ... before the season started that I think we’re going to surprise some people. I think we’re doing that right now.
The good kind of record
Just eight games into the 2020 season, the Orioles are back to setting pitching records — but this one was the good kind.
Evan Phillips’ strikeout of Willy Adames to begin the seventh inning was their 10th of the game, giving the Orioles a team-record five straight games with 10 or more strikeouts.
What could have been
The Orioles nearly manufactured a run in the sixth inning, but replay review didn’t cooperate. Anthony Santander singled to lead off the inning and went to second on a topped ground ball by Núñez.
He got an aggressive send home on a single by pinch-hitter José Iglesias and made a good headfirst slide to the back side of the plate, but was called out by home plate umpire Chad Fairchild on a close play.
Santander wagged his finger in disagreement and the Orioles challenged, but the play stood as called.
The Orioles began Sunday without veterans Chris Davis (knee) and Iglesias (quadriceps) in the lineup, and had to remove third baseman Rio Ruiz from the starting nine shortly before game time due to shoulder inflammation, Hyde said.
“It’s something he’s had in the past and we’re monitoring it, and took him out for precaution today,” he said.
Ruiz is batting .318 with three home runs.
The Orioles and Marlins will play four games at Camden Yards from Tuesday to Thursday. There will be a doubleheader one of the days. Game times have yet to be announced. Miami will be the home team for two of the games.