Rutschman hits 1st grand slam as 'relentless' O's fall short

April 20th, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- One swing of the bat can greatly change a baseball game. nearly did that Friday at Kauffman Stadium, where the Orioles' catcher added another first to his lengthy, growing list of career milestones.

Facing a six-run deficit in the seventh inning, Rutschman belted a grand slam -- his first in 285 MLB games -- off Kansas City left-hander Will Smith, getting Baltimore back into the series opener. However, the O’s couldn’t capitalize on the momentum on a night in which their bullpen yielded six runs in a 9-4 loss.

Eight of the Orioles’ first 12 wins have been in comeback fashion. So when Rutschman cut the Royals’ lead to 6-4 with a slam, it started to feel like things could shift in Baltimore’s favor.

“I think our team doesn’t feel like we’re out of any game at any given point,” Rutschman said. “I think that’s what makes this such a special group -- is we’ve got a lot of guys who are committed to our process and who are relentless.”

After the O’s couldn’t score in 5 2/3 innings against right-hander Alec Marsh -- who previously threw seven innings of one-run ball against them on April 2 -- they mounted a rally off Smith with three consecutive singles to open the seventh from Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Jordan Westburg.

When Rutschman stepped to the plate with two outs, the 26-year-old waited for a 1-1 inside fastball from Smith that caught too much of the plate. Rutschman jolted it a Statcast-projected 398 feet over the left-center-field wall for the Orioles’ MLB-high 31st home run of the year.

It is only the second time in franchise history that Baltimore has hit 31 homers over the first 19 games of a season, as it also had that many at this point in its World Series-winning 1966 campaign. But the O’s couldn’t extend their streak of consecutive games with three-plus homers, which ended at five.

Fortunately for Rutschman, the game wasn’t being played at Camden Yards, because his grand slam would have been a homer at 29 of the 30 big league ballparks, according to Statcast -- all but the Orioles’ home field.

Rutschman was met with high-fives. He, Mullins, Hays and Westburg simultaneously took drinks of water from the celebratory “hydration station” in the dugout. Baltimore was suddenly within striking distance.

“Other than maybe like a blowout game, I think we always have a chance, as long as we’re within a few runs,” said starter Dean Kremer, who allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings. “Things can change fairly quickly.”

The next half-inning, one swing by Kansas City swung the momentum back in its favor. MJ Melendez crushed a three-run homer off right-hander Dillon Tate to push the score to 9-4.

It wasn’t a great night for Tate or lefty Keegan Akin, two of Baltimore’s best relievers early in 2024. Each allowed three runs after strong starts to the season -- Tate allowed only one earned run in seven innings over his first six appearances, while Akin had given up only two earned runs in 8 2/3 innings over his eight previous outings.

All nine of the Royals’ runs were scored with two outs, with five plated in the sixth, when Kremer exited with two runners on base -- both eventually coming home vs. Akin.

“We’ve got to do a better job of shutting the door for [Kremer] there. Big hit by Adley to get us back in it, but we just didn’t pitch great out of the ‘pen,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Just had a tough time getting that third out.”

Games like this are bound to happen over the course of a 162-game season. They even occurred for the Orioles in 2023, when they went 101-61 and won the AL East.

The team is confident it will bounce back -- possibly as soon as Saturday, when ace Corbin Burnes will take the mound -- and it will trust leverage relievers such as Akin and Tate to get on track next time out.

“That’s the thing about baseball, is sometimes it happens,” Rutschman said. “I think everyone’s got complete faith in them, and they’re phenomenal pitchers, so I don’t think anyone’s worried at all.”