Saturday, July 9, 2022

Baltimore Orioles, A Playoff Contender, One Of The Best Stories Of Baseball


Trey Mancini is mobbed by his teammates after his game-winning hit on Friday night. @Orioles.

When the Yankees beat the Boston Red So, 12-5, on Friday night for their second win in a row at Fenway Park, they opened up an incredible 15 1/2 game lead in the American League East. 

The astounding thing - which shows how strong the division is despite the Yankees' mammoth lead - is that the next four teams are within five games of each other. Yes, that includes the Baltimore Orioles, who improved to 41-44 and have won six straight games through Friday's victory over the Angels.

The other three teams in the thick of the playoff race - the Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays - are no surprise. What has been surprising is how they've all underperfomed, as (through Friday, Tampa Bay is 45-38, Boston is 45-39, and Toronto is 45-40. 

Remember when everyone thought Toronto would be the ones to run away with the AL East? They have been the most disappointing of the AL East teams, as this was the year their young nucleus, which includes Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., would rise up and become a serious contender. 

Tampa Bay and Boston are about where people assumed they would be, and in Boston's case, they did not have high expectations after an underwhelming offseason in which they didn't add much to a team that made the American League Championship last season. (remember Yankees fans on your high horses the Sox beat them in the American League Wild Card game on their path there.) They started 10-19 and were the second-hottest team in June, to the Yankees of course, as they went 20-6 in the month to get back on track, and were as many as 11 games over .500 on June 26, at 42-31, when they completed a sweep of the Guardians in Cleveland.

Compared to those three teams, what the Orioles are doing is generating an excitement they haven't had since Buck Showalter managed the team. They had 27,814 at Camden Yards for Friday's game against the Angels, which was higher than Showalter's current club, the Mets, drew for their game on Friday night, 25,208.

A lot of factors made this Major League-like underdog story unlikely (the sequel was shot at Camden Yards), starting with the fact that Baltimore has lost well over 100  had the following records in the last three full, 162-game seasons: 47-115 in 2018 (Buck's last season), 54-108 in 2019 (current manager Brandon Hyde's first season), and 52-110 in 2021.

With the power of the other four teams in the division, it was assumed that Baltimore once again was on their way to another 100-plus loss season, if not test the 1962 Mets' 120-loss record.

A lot of other factors looked to go against this resurgence as well. Their payroll is one of the lowest in baseball, at around $30 million, they have an ownership dispute among longtime owner Peter Angelos (he bought the O's in 1993) and his children, to top it all off, they took a lot of flak (even from their own players) for moving back the left field fence at Camden Yards, creating what looks like their own version of the Green Monster. Guess that move looks pretty good right now.

Friday night, the Orioles fell behind the Angels when Mike Trout his a three-run home run in the third inning. Baltimore got on the board in the seven when Ramon Urias got an RBI single in the seventh, and Ryan Mountcastle had one as well in the eighth to pull Baltimore within 3-2.

The other member of the Angels' dynamic duo, Shohei Ohtani, hit a solo homer in the top of the ninth to make it 4-2, but the Orioles rallied in the bottom of the ninth against Raisel Iglesias, who just came out of the Angel bullpen. 

Rougned Odor, who has been a key component of this team after coming over from the Yankees in the offseason, got a two-out single, and then he stole second and third base. Adley Rutschman (more on him later) then doubled Odor home, and he came in to score on a single by Cedric Mullins to tie it at 4. Mullins took second base on the throw to the plate, and then he took third on a wild pitch. Trey Mencini then singled in Mullins for the 5-4 walk-off win, their third in five days. They also became the fourth team in the last 20 seasons to win three straight games in which they trailed entering the ninth inning or later.

This was the O's eighth walk-off win this season, second in Major League Baseball to the Yankees' 10. They have had three walk-off wins this week alone. 

It was pretty evident early on that the Orioles had a quality top four hitters in their lineup on any given day. In their game Friday night, Cedric Mullins led off, followed by Trey Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santhander. Their stats this season are as follows: Mullins, .265 batting average (BA), 7 home runs, 36 RBI, .324 on-base percentage (OBP), .404 slugging percentage (SLG); Mancini, .282 BA, 8 home runs, 34 RBI, .355 OBP, .423 SLG; Mountcastle, .278 BA, 14 home runs, 43 RBI, .316 OBP, .495 SLG; Hays, .264 BA, 11 home runs, 45 RBI, .321 OBP, .446 SLG; Santander, .237 BA, 15 home runs, 41 RBI, .325 OBP, .422 SLG.

What turned the Orioles' season around was the decision to call up catcher Adley Rutschman on May 21, when the Orioles were 16-24. Since then, Baltimore has gone 25-18. In 39 games (through Friday), he is hitting .218, with a .288 on-base percentage, a .407 slugging percentage, which gives him an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .696, with four home runs, 12 RBI, 12 doubles, and even a triple.

They also have a solid starting rotation, anchored by Tyler Wells, who is 7-4 with a 3.28 ERA in 17 starts. Jordan Lyles has also made 17 starts, and heis 5-7 with a 4.50 ERA. Spenser Watkins is 2-1 with a 4.15 ERA (earned run average) in 11 starts. In the bullpen, they have gotten big performances from Cionel Perez, who is 4-1 with a superb 0.96 ERA; Jorge Lopez, who has 15 saves, a 1.79 ERA, and a 3-5 record, owing to the fact that has finished 29 games; and Joey Krehbiel, who is 4-3 with a 2.40 ERA. 

It appears the three wild card spots, the first time that is the case, will all come out of the American League East, and Baltimore has now joined the conversation as to which of trio will make it. They certainly are a team to be talked about.

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