The Orioles were three outs away from being on the wrong side of baseball history, and by breaking up Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Drew Rasmussen’s perfect game bid in the ninth inning of a 4-1 loss, there still were few positives.
But inside a somber Orioles clubhouse at Tropicana Field, as players packed for a flight to Toronto and another divisional series against an American League wild-card contender, right-hander Jordan Lyles offered a vote of confidence that broke from the deflated air felt elsewhere.
“We’ve got everything we want in front of us, starting tomorrow,” Lyles said. “I think we’re in a good spot. I think we’re very confident.”
Even after two straight losses against Tampa Bay? Losses that dropped Baltimore 1 1/2 games out of the wild-card race? With a heavy dose of AL East competition on the horizon?
“We can put our stamp on things moving forward,” Lyles said. “We’re going to see a lot of guys in the division here shortly, so it’s up to us how we react and handle ourselves.”
Lyles, the veteran voice of reason in a clubhouse full of inexperienced players — whether it’s those new to the league, new to winning or both — looked around that room and felt assured. On a day executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said publicly that he believed Baltimore could reach the postseason, those inside the clubhouse agreed.
The results dampened their spirits, but it didn’t dampen their aspirations.
“It makes the game a lot more fun — you’re playing for something every single night,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “Something that, at this point in the year last year, wasn’t even really a possibility. We were so far out of it.”
When the trade deadline came Aug. 2 and the Orioles sent first baseman Trey Mancini to the Houston Astros and All-Star closer Jorge López to the Minnesota Twins, it appeared as if Elias had waved the white flag on the season. At the time, Elias acknowledged how the Orioles could secure a wild-card spot.
“But it is not a probability that we’re going to win a wild card,” Elias noted, a major factor that played into why Baltimore shipped away two of its best players. Elias valued winning next season and beyond over trying to do so this season, so he acquired six prospects with an eye on the future.
After those trades, there was a discussion in the clubhouse. They pointed out how López and Mancini might not be there, but “our record hasn’t changed,” Hays said.
“Just because we lost a couple guys,” Hays added, “we’re still here to win every single night, win every series, and we went to work.”
The Orioles are 8-4 since Mancini was traded to Houston, squarely in the hunt for a wild card spot for the first time since their last playoff season in 2016. They lost this crucial series to the Rays, who clinched the season series against Baltimore.
On top of the Rays, the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins also hold the season series advantage, which acts as the playoff tiebreaker this season. It only complicates Baltimore’s postseason path.
But during an appearance Sunday morning on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM, Elias showed more outward belief in what’s possible this season, even if he still preached the “big picture” approach that has characterized the rebuild he started in November 2018 and has led the Orioles to this point, an above .500 record with one of the best farm systems in the sport.
“I think we’re going to get into the playoffs,” Elias said. “I like where this is going. I think that this team has staying power for the next month and a half — we have a really tough schedule.”
Part of the big picture is analyzing when to promote and how to utilize several of the top prospects waiting in the wings. Left-hander DL Hall started Saturday, gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings and was promptly optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk to develop as a reliever. The plan, as of now, is to have Hall join the bullpen during the stretch run toward the playoffs.
As shortstop Gunnar Henderson — Baseball America’s top-ranked prospect — continues to excel for the Tides, Elias said he’s “on the radar screen” to join the big league club at some point in the next month and a half.
“I think we’re going to, within reason, do everything we can to enhance our playoff odds,” Elias said. “But obviously, at all times, we have to balance the overall health of the organization when we make decisions. And then we also have to balance the development of a luminary talent like that, and it would be a shame to screw that up.”
That’s all part of the calculus for Elias and the Orioles, balancing the master plan with the immediate prospect of pushing for the postseason.
But for the players in the clubhouse, there’s less to balance. There’s one goal in sight, and it’s clearer than it has been in Baltimore for some time.
“You play to win,” Hays said. “You play to win championships. You play to get to the postseason. That’s why we’re here. That’s the ultimate goal. To actually be in that position, that’s awesome. It’s what all of us want.”
What’s to come?
The Orioles won’t face the Rays again this season, but they still have four series against the Toronto Blue Jays, including three games beginning Monday in Toronto. Should that series against the AL wild-card leaders go awry, Baltimore might find itself even further out of the playoff hunt.
“We’ve fought for four and a half months, and we’ve put ourselves in position,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I’m proud of our guys for what they’ve been able to do so far. It’s a tough schedule the rest of the way. I think our guys are going to compete and try to win every night. I think we have as good a chance as anybody.”
What was good?
Shortstop Jorge Mateo broke up Rasmussen’s perfect game bid with a double down the left field line, and he did plenty more than that this week to build on his breakout July and August. There haven’t been many consistent hitters lately for Baltimore, but Mateo has rebounded to hit .309 since July 4.
That bodes well for the Orioles’ lineup, which can use Mateo’s speed on the bases to create for its offense. In the ninth inning Sunday, for example, Mateo took third on a groundout and scored on a wild pitch.
The rotation has been solid for much of the season, but there’s one major issue: The starters can’t seem to complete six innings. Last week, no starter made it through six, and the last Oriole to complete six innings was right-hander Dean Kremer on Aug. 5 in a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The shorter outings add pressure on a bullpen without the reliable arm of López, who frequently covered late-game situations longer than an inning. Félix Bautista has inherited the closer role, but moving a setup man to the ninth inning has a ripple effect, and it could lead to fatigue as Hyde is forced to go to the same arms more frequently.
On the farm
As Henderson approaches a major league debut, he continues a strong season in the minors. The 21-year-old went 3-for-6 with a double, home run and three RBIs on Sunday to improve his batting average to .293 and his OPS to .925 with the Tides.
“We’re watching him carefully and seeing how he might fit in,” Elias said.
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