If this Orioles season is about players getting better and doing the little things right more than it is about wins and losses, then Monday's fourth inning in the club’s blowout loss to the Chicago White Sox was a snapshot of the work the Orioles have done — and how much more there is to do.
That fourth inning, which took place with game still scoreless, featured a successful bunt for a hit, a failed sacrifice bunt attempt and a pulled-back bunt that partially caused an out on the bases as the Orioles failed to score in the inning.
And it didn’t exactly come out of thin air.
Before the team took full batting practice ahead of Monday's series opener, a group of hitters — including Joey Rickard, Hanser Alberto, Rio Ruiz and Richie Martin — all did extra bunting work with major league field coordinator Tim Cossins. They honed their technique, went through different scenarios and got a feel for something that manager Brandon Hyde said before the game that the Orioles "could do more."
Monday's fourth inning featured the exact type of opportunities Hyde said he was seeking to use a small-ball tactic.
"I think there's times when we could definitely get better at executing drag bunts or bunting against the shift to start rallies or keeping rallies going," Hyde said before the game. "We've bunted quite a few times early. We identify guys, and there's always something to work on."
One of the players he identified seems to be Alberto, who bunted for a single once entering Monday and had one successful sacrifice, even if it wasn't credited as such, while laying down four bunts. Recently demoted outfielder Cedric Mullins has the club’s two credited sacrifice bunts this season.
After Renato Núñez walked to open the fourth, Alberto bunted for a hit down the third-base line. Newcomer Stevie Wilkerson couldn’t lay down a bunt to advance them and eventually popped out to first base.
Both Núñez and Alberto advanced on a single by Ruiz, one Hyde described as a “base-hit to center that we don't get a good read on, so we have bases loaded, one-out.”
Catcher Pedro Severino squared to bunt on a 1-1 pitch and Núñez took a few steps toward home, perhaps as a result of the bunt attempt. But Severino pulled back and James McCann back-picked Núñez for the second out of the inning. Two called strikes later, Severino struck out and the rally was over.
"[Severino] is the ultimate team guy," Hyde said. "This guy is a warrior-type guy. I love everything about his makeup and he's trying to do the right thing and score a run, then we make a poor base-running mistake at third base and the momentum switches there.
“Sevvy's done it a couple times, and he's not going to do it anymore. He's trying to be a team player. He saw [first baseman José] Abreu back, wanted to try and score a run for the club, get an RBI, get a 1-0 lead. But we talked about it. I want him to do what he did his last at-bat [and hit a home run]."
The ineffective inning proved costly when McCann hit a three-run home run in the fifth inning. Jonathan Villar singled with two outs and scored on a double by Trey Mancini in the bottom of the fifth, and the Orioles bullpen allowed eight runs to turn it into a laugher.