The Orioles did it the only way they know how.
Baltimore had already clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Texas Rangers’ loss to the Cleveland Guardians on Sunday. When it happened, the club was one out away from losing a pivotal American League East game to the Tampa Bay Rays, a defeat that would have soured its first postseason berth since 2016.
But the Orioles wanted to give their playoff clinch the celebration it deserved, and the way they did it defined the type of team they are.
They rallied from behind to send the game to extras. Veteran leaders stepped up. Castoffs from other organizations came through clutch. Two former first-round draft picks delivered in crucial situations.
As they have all season, the Orioles played as a team, proving their whole is greater than the sum of perhaps any other AL club’s parts. By defeating the Rays in the 11th inning, 5-4, they sent the announced 37,297 fans at Camden Yards home happy and put a bow on a successful homestand. One celebration down and, they hope, more to go.
“This embodies how our whole season has gone,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “There’s everyone in the bullpen, everybody off the bench. Everyone refuses to make the last out, just keep fighting and keep going, and we just find a way to win, whether it’s pretty or whatever it is. We’ll just find a way to win the game.”
In a game in which manager Brandon Hyde nearly emptied both his bench and bullpen, starting pitcher Kyle Gibson was one of the few who had no chance of playing Sunday.
The 35-year-old watched from the dugout at a team filled with players a decade or more his junior match Tampa Bay serve for serve. In the clubhouse after the win, he mostly took in the celebration off to the side, collecting corks from the ground as mementos and watching the same group of youngsters go wild.
“I think that’s a perfect story right there of our season,” Gibson said of the win. “You look at who did it, when they did it, how they did it. It’s our season. It’s this team. … That’s what this team’s all about. Everybody pitches in, and everybody does it when they need to do it.
“There was never a doubt that the hit was going to happen when we needed it.”
Before the craziness of the final innings, starting pitcher Dean Kremer kept the Orioles in the game with five frames of one-run ball. He and John Means are the only members of the rotation who pitched for the team in 2021, when the Orioles finished with an AL-worst 52-110 record.
Two years later, their turnaround is on the verge of being unprecedented. Baltimore has 93 wins — tied for the largest two-year jump in MLB history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — and is on pace for 101, which would be the most the franchise has totaled since 1979.
In 2021, Kremer, the lone player remaining from the 2018 Manny Machado trade that kicked off the Orioles’ rebuild, went 0-7 with a 7.55 ERA. Now, he’s in his second straight year as one of the team’s most reliable starters, and he’s a few weeks away from pitching in the postseason.
“It means everything being able to get the ball on a day like this,” Kremer said. “It’s a testament to everything that this team has kind of been through the last two years, and previously before that. Having the lows, and now turning it around. This team is not like many others.”
Sunday’s win was possible because of Saturday’s. The Orioles’ two youngest players, shortstop Gunnar Henderson and pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, led them to an 8-0 win that ended the club’s four-game losing streak and prevented the Rays from taking the AL East lead.
On Sunday, instead of Henderson and Rodriguez, it was Adley Rutschman and DL Hall. The All-Star catcher clobbered a 401-foot home run to right-center field off Tampa Bay closer Pete Fairbanks to cut Baltimore’s deficit in half. The 100.8 mph fastball was the hardest pitch an Oriole has launched over the fence since 2008, according to Statcast tracking data. Two innings later, Rutschman delivered a game-tying RBI single to send the game to the 11th.
At just 25 years old, Rutschman is one of the team’s leaders, and his debut last May is seen as the franchise’s turning point. In the 271 games since, the Orioles are 160-111.
“Honestly it just reminds me how cool baseball is,” Rutschman said. “It’s such a team sport that guys are pulling for each other every day they’re showing up to the park for 162 games. Guys are bringing the energy day in and day out.”
Perhaps no one, though, had a more difficult task Sunday than Hall. Just two days earlier, the left-hander had allowed three hits and three runs without recording an out. He entered in the top of the 11th with the automatic runner on second — a situation in which pitchers don’t often make it out unscathed — and retired the side in order for a scoreless frame.
“It’s hard for me to single anything out, but if I had to, I’m very proud of DL Hall,” said Mike Elias, the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager. “I’ve known him since he was in high school. He’s been through a lot of injuries. That was some [tough] pitching there.”
Hall’s path to become Sunday’s winning pitcher was winding. He was drafted in the first round by the previous regime and has struck batters out at impressive rates at every level since, but injuries have delayed his ascent — perhaps until now.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Hall, the club’s top pitching prospect, according to Baseball America. “I’ve been through the ups and downs of this organization, and to be a part of today and be here with this team and clinch playoffs, it’s a blessing.
“This is the times that I’ve prayed for my whole life.”
Hall and Rutschman had the opportunities for extra-inning heroics thanks to those in the ninth from Adam Frazier.
The veteran second baseman was one of several modest upgrades in the offseason, and he’s been a league-average player this season. But he’s consistently stepped up in clutch moments, and his two-out, two-strike double down the left field line to score Jorge Mateo from first was Frazier’s latest big hit.
“You take it all in,” Frazier said when asked how to celebrate a win like Sunday’s. “You don’t take it for granted. I was in Pittsburgh a long time, we didn’t win much there, so anytime you get a chance to pop some bottles, you don’t take it for granted.”
Frazier wasn’t the only clutch veteran, though. Ryan O’Hearn, a castoff from Kansas City, and Cedric Mullins, an outfielder who survived the rebuild, both came through in the 11th to win the game.
O’Hearn is among the Orioles’ leaders in OPS in his first season with the club after spending the past few as a bench bat for the lowly Royals. His turnaround this season has been one of the biggest surprises in the sport, and he’s a likely candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year. As the cleanup hitter Sunday, he stepped to the plate to lead off the 11th with Rutschman as the automatic runner, and he did something he’s never done in his six-year career. He laid down a sacrifice bunt — and a beautiful one at that.
“I love this team,” O’Hearn said. “I want to do whatever I can for this team to help us win, and if that means getting a bunt down in the 11th, then [heck] yeah.”
“There’s been a lot of times when I didn’t think something like this was possible,” he added. “I’ve continued to work and try to get better and better myself, not knowing if I was going have an opportunity to play for a club like this. Just the way things have turned out has been unbelievable. I feel so blessed.”
The bunt brought Mullins to the plate, and the center fielder who struggled mightily in 2019, emerged in 2021 as an All-Star and is now playoff-bound in 2023, lofted a fly ball to center field for the walk-off sacrifice fly.
“I know we saw the clinch earlier during the game,” Mullins said, “but I knew everybody on the team wanted to win. To get the win, it feels way more special.”
As elating as Sunday was, there’s more baseball left. The Orioles want more than just a playoff berth, including more celebrations like Sunday’s. But the focus, for at least one day, should neither be on the possibilities of the future, nor the pain of the past. It’s just about the present — the win that defined a team, and a checked box worth celebrating.
“Wouldn’t have done it any other way,” Hyde said to his team moments before they doused him with champagne.
What’s to come?
The Orioles are two games up on the Rays — although, that number is effectively three given Baltimore’s head-to-head tiebreaker over Tampa Bay — with 13 games remaining. Their next three won’t be much easier than their past four, as Baltimore travels to Houston to take on the defending champion Astros.
If the Orioles go 7-6 to end the season, they’ll win 100 games, and the Rays would need to go 9-2 to overtake the AL East’s top spot. Baltimore’s magic number to clinch an AL East title — its first since 2014 — is 10.
“We want to keep celebrating,” Hyde said. “So to do that, we’re going to have to continue to play.”
What was good?
The resolve, the celebration and the playlist.
The Orioles lost four straight games for just the second time this season last week. It felt as if the club was reeling. But that short skid just tested their mettle.
After the big win Sunday, the celebration was as superb as their on-field performance. Not a single player, coach or staff member was dry from the spraying of champagne and beer. And the playlist, filled with the younger generation’s favorites, brought out the dance moves (both good and bad) from several players.
Since The Baltimore Sun began its weekly Orioles reset in 2019, this section has been dedicated to accounting for an aspect of the club’s on-field performance that hadn’t been up to snuff in the previous week. There are multiple areas to point to last week. But not today. After a win like Sunday’s, nothing wasn’t good.
On the farm
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Instead of taking a look at the current farm system, let’s use this moment to take a look back at the farm system Elias and his front office built and developed over the past five years. Hall, Rodriguez, Rutschman, Henderson, Kjerstad and Westburg — all first- or second-round picks from the 2017 to 2020 drafts — are in the major leagues now.
But that pipeline isn’t dried up. The AL’s best team also has the sport’s top-ranked farm system.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Sam Cohn contributed to this article.
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