Eliminated from the playoffs a full month ago, the Orioles’ season-ending meetings with the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays guarantee them a hand in the playoff fates of five American League clubs and brings the watchful gaze of a baseball world that has grown accustomed to expecting the worst from them.
They responded, at least Tuesday, with a performance worthy of the circumstances in a tidy 4-2 win over Boston before 8,098 fans at Camden Yards, thanks to an encouraging return from rookie left-hander Bruce Zimmermann (Loyola Blakefield) and some timely late hitting.
For Zimmermann, who was in high school when the Orioles spoiled Boston’s playoff chances on the final day of the season 10 years ago Tuesday in what’s now known as the Robert Andino Game, there was a little more to it than just playing well.
“I was a kid watching that game, and it definitely is a lot of fun to be able to do that on the anniversary of that game,” he said.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde took a simpler view of it. The Orioles will have played more than 100 games against teams that entered this week with a chance at playoff baseball, and this win fulfilled his basic desire to give those teams an honest contest despite his team’s inexperience.
“We’re facing good teams that put themselves in a great position to play in October, and hopefully someday, we’re going to be in that spot,” Hyde said. “But up until that point, just want to stay competitive, try to give everybody a good game and give us a chance to win every single night. Fortunately, our pitching and our defense did that tonight.”
The Orioles (51-106) were down two runs without much prospect of a turnaround against imposing left-handed ace Chris Sale when their offensive breakthrough came from an unlikely source.
Kelvin Gutiérrez, whose bat is coming around, singled off Sale to turn the lineup over a third time. Two batters later, Ryan Mountcastle crushed his team-high 32nd home run to tie the game. No rookie has more in all of baseball.
The Orioles took the lead that same inning when Austin Hays singled to chase Sale, went to second on a single by Trey Mancini, and scored on a single by Pedro Severino. That same bunch gave the Orioles a bit of breathing room in the ninth when Mancini, Severino, and Ryan McKenna all singled with two outs to score their fourth run.
“That was a huge hit for us obviously to tie it,” Hyde said of Mountcastle’s home run. “I thought Trey took really good at-bats all night long. I liked Severino’s at-bats. Haysy with some good at-bats, so our middle of our order did a really good job of taking some at-bats and using the whole field. Gutierrez continues to battle at the plate, infield single and a walk, so I thought we did some good things offensively against one of the elite starters in this game.”
That was plenty for a pitching staff buoyed by the return of Zimmermann, who hadn’t pitched since June 13 with arm and ankle injuries. He didn’t have many innings to give the Orioles after only pitching four in his final rehab outing. He more than made them count, though, continuing his success against Boston this year.
Slugger Kyle Schwarber hit a solo home run in the second inning, and Zimmermann allowed just an infield single the rest of the way, striking out two and walking two before giving way to the Orioles’ bullpen to start the fifth.
“I’m very pleased,” Hyde said. “I thought he did a great job mixing his pitches, just left that one mistake to Schwarber there in the middle part of the plate, but besides that, did a nice job of changing speeds, only had a couple punch-outs, but I thought he pitched extremely well. Got a lot of early contact.”
Zimmermann, who sprained his ankle exercising on his initial rehab assignment at Triple-A Norfolk last month and had to rush back for this start and one more to end the season in the majors, said he “couldn’t ask for more.”
He was the most effective of the Orioles’ rookie starters before his arm troubles began in June, and is glad for the chance to build some momentum toward a better 2022.
“If I wasn’t able to come back, I knew I would be able to a have a full offseason to attack it and make improvements on things I needed,” Zimmermann said. “But being able to come back and have a start like this, and get one more, hopefully I’ll go into the offseason riding a little bit higher and just really confident.”
Marcos Diplán pitched a scoreless fifth before allowing a home run to Hunter Renfroe in the sixth, though Boston managed nothing else the rest of the way. Reliever Joey Krehbiel, an impressive waiver claim from the Tampa Bay Rays, needed just 12 pitches for two perfect innings before another former Rays right-hander, Cole Sulser, picked up the save in the ninth.
Boston began Monday in the second wild-card spot, a game behind the New York Yankees and a game ahead of Toronto with the Seattle Mariners 1 ½ games out and the Oakland Athletics 3 ½ games out.
The Orioles are the only team with six games remaining against playoff-chasing clubs, and manager Brandon Hyde has spoken often of the stakes of those games being useful learning and evaluation tools for his inexperienced club as they eventually prepare to play for such stakes.
Boston got swept last weekend by the Yankees to make their week facing the Orioles and Washington Nationals more urgent, and Sale summed up Tuesday’s loss succinctly.
“That [explitive] sucked,” he told reporters.
Santander’s season done
Outfielder Anthony Santander, the reigning Most Valuable Oriole, was limited for most of the season by an ankle injury and recently dealt with a sore hamstring as well. He was pulled from Sunday’s matinee loss to the Texas Rangers with leg soreness, and landed on the injured list Tuesday with a right knee sprain, ending his season.
Santander hit .241 with a .720 OPS and 18 home runs in 110 games.
“Talking to him, I think it’s a strange year for him in that he was never fully healthy and tried to play the best he could with some limitations,” Hyde said. “Felt good some days, didn’t feel good some others, so I give him a lot of credit for hanging in there and trying to help out the team. When he’s right, he’s a difference-maker in the middle of our order. Kind of an up-and-down year for him. Hopefully, he gets healthy and expecting a good year next year.”
Santander was placed on the injured list along with right-hander Chris Ellis, whose impressive stint in the rotation the last two months came to an end due to right shoulder soreness. They were replaced on the 40-man roster by Zimmermann and infielder/outfielder Tyler Nevin, with left-hander Keegan Akin transferred to the 60-day injured list.
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With Ellis out, the Orioles will need a starter to slot into the rotation this weekend in Toronto.