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Orioles reset: Win or lose, Baltimore still has role to play in AL East playoff hunt

NEW YORK — After each home run the Orioles hit during this weekend’s visit to Yankee Stadium, whichever Yankee fan had snagged the ball hurled it back onto the field. As they tossed aside a potential keepsake, their team threw away the chance to boost its playoff hopes.

If the season ended today, the New York Yankees would be in the playoffs, but the Orioles, mathematically eliminated from that possibility before September even began, beat them consecutive games to earn a series victory in New York — their first since the opening three games of 2019.

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The two victories among three games improved Baltimore to 7-9 against the Yankees this year. That nearly matches their win total against the other three teams in the American League East, all of which are in the playoff hunt. With the season’s final month underway, the Orioles showed they can have a part to play in how those divisional foes finish this year.

“It just kind of goes back to us having faith in each other,” said center fielder Cedric Mullins, whose 25th home run help Baltimore come back for an 8-7 win Sunday. “We always felt like we were very competitive. It just didn’t show up at times. We had pretty bad stretches. At the same time, to come in, play well with the pressure on, tight games and come out on top is a great feeling.”

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They’ll get the chance to do that several more times over these next four weeks. All four of the division’s other teams are contending for playoff spots, and three of them enter this week in them. Baltimore, win or lose, can help determine which finish the job.

The Yankees will get the chance to avenge this series next week, when they visit Camden Yards to complete their season series and the Orioles’ 11-game homestand. That’s sandwiched between a home series against the Toronto Blue Jays and a visit to the Boston Red Sox. The Orioles’ final week of the regular season features the opposite pairing, both in order and location.

They have already played all 19 of their games against the Tampa Bay Rays this season, and they did not go well. The Rays, who lead the Yankees by 7 ½ games, the Red Sox by 8 and the Blue Jays by 12, went 18-1 against the Orioles.

That dominance over Baltimore could prove the difference in the division. Remove games against the Orioles, and the Yankees and Rays would be even at 18 games over .500, while Boston and Toronto’s divisional deficits would be cut in half.

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Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton (27) and Orioles catcher Pedro Severino (28) react to Stanton striking out in the fifth inning Sunday in New York.
Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton (27) and Orioles catcher Pedro Severino (28) react to Stanton striking out in the fifth inning Sunday in New York. (Adam Hunger/AP)

The Orioles’ mindset isn’t to play spoiler, though there will be plenty of opportunities to. Their goal, as it has been throughout this rebuild, is to see which pieces can be part of the future. Rookies played significant roles in each of their three wins this week — a road victory over the Blue Jays to end August snapped a 16-game losing streak to AL East opponents. This weekend alone, Chris Ellis threw five no-hit innings, Jahmai Jones hit two key doubles, and Kelvin Gutiérrez drove in a game-winning run after hustling for a crucial infield single to add to the continued impacts of fellow first-year players such as Ryan Mountcastle and Tyler Wells.

Baltimore will hope for more such performances in this final stretch.

“In this division in September, it’s an incredible evaluation and test,” manager Brandon Hyde said, “because the teams you’re playing, especially the last few years, are all loaded up after the deadline, they’re major market and they’re big-picture teams that are trying to get to the postseason, so you’re seeing the best of the best in September. When you evaluate your younger players, you’re evaluating them against teams that are at their best and loaded up and trying to win every single game. That’s not always the case in other divisions.

“I hope our players relish that moment. They’re competitors, and they want to test themselves against the best in the game, and we see that in September here.”

What’s to come?

Even what appears to be a relatively light week for the Orioles might not be. Since Aug. 2, Baltimore has played only six games against teams with losing records, going 4-21 against a bevy of teams in the playoff hunt; half of those wins came this weekend against the Yankees, and three came in their past five games. And although the Kansas City Royals’ four-game visit to Camden Yards technically counts as a reprieve, the Royals actually have a winning record since dropping the first series of the second half to the Orioles. Catcher Salvador Pérez arrives with a chance to overtake Shohei Ohtani as baseball’s home run leader.

Baltimore will complete its stretch of eight home games in seven days with four against the Blue Jays as they try to stay alive in the American League wild-card race. The series features a doubleheader Saturday to make up for a game postponed July 8 because of weather.

Orioles pitcher Tyler Wells points toward the plate against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning of a game June 19 in Baltimore.
Orioles pitcher Tyler Wells points toward the plate against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning of a game June 19 in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

What was good?

A rookie right-hander the Orioles selected with their second pick in the Rule 5 draft, Wells has been seen as Baltimore’s closer for weeks, but until Sunday’s series-clinching ninth inning, he had actually earned any saves. His two prior outings this week should’ve garnered honorary ones.

Tuesday against Toronto, with two on, two outs and young superstar Vladimir Guerrero Jr. coming up representing the go-ahead run in the seventh, Hyde brought in Wells, who on one pitch got an inning-ending lineout to center. He worked around a single in a scoreless eighth. Friday in New York, Wells came into the eighth inning of a tie game to face the middle of the Yankees’ order. The opposition went 0-for-6 against him, with Joey Gallo, Anthony Rizzo and Luke Voit striking out.

Tasked with New York’s 3-4-5 hitters in Sunday’s ninth, Wells got three flyouts from Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Rizzo to close out the game. Since the start of June, Wells has a 1.82 ERA, a 0.54 WHIP and a 17.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Given that he missed the past two seasons because of Tommy John surgery and the pandemic, the Orioles are cautious with him, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t pitch in a given game’s biggest spot for them through the end of the year.

“You really see the confidence that he shows in all of his pitches, attacks the strike zone, works ahead in the count, and it’s somebody I would love to give the ball to more,” Hyde said. “We’re really taking care of him, just because he’s a big part of our future and been a real bright spot on our team this year.”

Orioles outfielder Ryan McKenna makes an error on a ball hit by Yankees' Aaron Judge in the first inning Saturday in New York.
Orioles outfielder Ryan McKenna makes an error on a ball hit by Yankees' Aaron Judge in the first inning Saturday in New York. (Adam Hunger/AP)

What wasn’t?

When the Orioles last optioned young outfielder Ryan McKenna to Triple-A Norfolk, Hyde said he was disappointed to lose him, noting that despite their end results, he was pleased with McKenna’s at-bats, as well as his defense and baserunning.

McKenna’s performance in two weeks back with the Tides was that of a player who showed he belonged in the majors, as he reached base more than half the time and slugged five home runs in 10 games for a 1.405 OPS. The stint, his fourth this year with Norfolk, raised his Triple-A OPS to 1.106.

But in his return to the majors this week, McKenna was far from carrying that success to the Orioles. He drew three starts against left-handed pitchers, finishing those games 0-for-11 with eight strikeouts, striking out in six of seven at-bats against those starters, while making an error in left field on a dropped line drive. Although he’s a right-handed batter, his OPS against righties (.715) is actually much better than his OPS against lefties (.390) in a similar number of plate appearances, and he also had reverse splits in Triple-A, though that deviates from most previous years of his minor league career. Still, perhaps a change in usage could help McKenna end the season strong.

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On the farm

Saturday, 2021 first-rounder Colton Cowser hit his first home run for Low-A Delmarva and drove in five, but he wasn’t the Shorebirds’ star of the day. Billy Cook, a first baseman/corner outfielder selected nine rounds after Cowser, hit three home runs, including two grand slams, to finish with nine RBIs in a 21-3 victory.

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The infusion of the Orioles’ hitter-heavy 2021 draft class has pumped offense into Delmarva, with the Shorebirds averaging about nine runs per game since Cowser, Cook and several of their fellow draftees arrived three weeks ago. Delmarva’s roster features nine position players drafted in 2021; entering Sunday, only one had an OPS below .700 with the Shorebirds, while four, including Cowser, Cook and second-round pick Connor Norby, had that figure above .900.

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