HOUSTON -- Cedric Mullins delivered in the clutch. Again.
“We keep the suspense going for sure,” Mullins said on the MASN broadcast postgame. “But I think we stay calm pretty well in those situations.”
After Sunday’s thrilling win, a loss in the opener in Houston would have been forgivable, especially considering the state of Baltimore’s taxed bullpen and the first celebration for clinching a postseason berth since 2016.
- Games remaining (12): at HOU (2), at CLE (4), vs. WSH (2), vs. BOS (4)
- Standings update: The Orioles (94-56) and the Rays (92-59) are in a tight race atop the AL East, with Tampa Bay 2 1/2 games back. Should that gap tighten further, Baltimore owns the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series between the two teams, 8-5. The AL East champion is likely to earn the No. 1 seed in the AL, and thus would not have to play in a best-of-three Wild Card Series and would instead head straight to a best-of-five Division Series.
- Magic number for AL East: 9
But instead, the Orioles kept plugging away, battling back on three occasions to back a strong effort from starter John Means, who allowed just one run in five innings.
“I’m extremely impressed by the grit of our team, how tough they are, how we continue to battle,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “They’re celebrating right now -- not as much as last night, but they’re celebrating. And they should, because that’s a heck of a win.”
The victory came by the slimmest of margins -- including an escape of a ninth-inning jam with a runner on third and one out.
But Mullins’ home run cleared the fence with plenty of room to spare. His Statcast-projected 425-foot shot came off a 91.1 mph Ryan Pressly slider at the bottom of the zone.
“It was a well-located pitch,” Pressly said. “I’m sure he was sitting on it. He got his pitch he wanted to hit and took advantage of it. … It’s not in the middle part of the plate. Nine out of 10 times, people roll that pitch over. He just went down and got it."
The first person to cross home after Mullins' blast was Ryan O’Hearn. The lefty slugger laid down his first career sacrifice bunt to help Baltimore in Sunday’s special win. But he swung away freely during the series opener in Houston, recording his first career five-hit game.
“It’s just one of those nights [when] I seemed to have a magic wand,” O’Hearn said. “It was awesome. … A night that I’ll remember, for sure.”
His fifth-inning single off Astros starter Justin Verlander put the Orioles ahead, 3-1, and was emblematic of a recent hot stretch that has raised O'Hearn's batting average on the season to .309.
“Guys put together good at-bats,” Verlander said. “That’s baseball sometimes. You make a good pitch, and a guy puts it in the right spot. Obviously, it’s frustrating in the moment. That's not one of those pitches when I go home tonight that will keep me up."
After a four-run sixth inning from the Astros, Adley Rutschman and Mullins contributed sharply hit doubles in the seventh to retie the game at five. Gunnar Henderson scored his third run of the night after notching his ninth triple of the year earlier (tied for most in the Majors).
The AL-Wast leading Astros didn’t make it easy, however, as José Abreu launched a go-ahead solo shot in the eighth. After running out six relievers in Sunday’s extra-inning win, Hyde was forced to return to the well and send out six again on Monday, including four working back-to-back games.
The result was a ninth-inning scramble. An error allowed a runner to get on base and advance to third on a fly ball. Houston, which entered batting .273/.340/.469 with an .809 OPS against left-handed pitching that is second best in the Majors, sent Chas McCormick (1.028 OPS vs. lefties) to the plate with two outs.
Hyde countered with a series of defensive substitutions and inserted right-hander Yennier Cano for lefty Cionel Pérez, losing his designated hitter after Aaron Hicks left with a cramp. The aggressive move included putting James McCann -- who entered with just one inning of playing time at first base this season -- at first. Most importantly though, it worked, as Cano struck out McCormick on three pitches.
“Well, I didn’t have any pitching left,” Hyde said. “I don’t think that [McCann] had any expectation of going in with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game at Minute Maid Park. But that’s how it worked out."