A little more than halfway through their 1-0 loss to the Marlins early Wednesday evening, the Orioles’ bullpen began stirring. Wheels started turning in Brandon Hyde’s head. His starter, Alex Cobb, had just issued a two-out walk with his 81st pitch in a one-run game, forcing the manager to consider different scenarios. It was a situation that routinely plays out in the middle innings across baseball on any given night.
The difference was this transpired Wednesday in the top of the fifth inning -- the home stretch of Game 1 of the first seven-inning doubleheader in Orioles history. Everything means a little bit more in this truncated 60-game season: every win, every loss and even every out when games are being condensed like never before. Having managed seven-inning twin bills in the Minors, Hyde spoke from experience when explaining pregame, “The game kind of goes a little bit quicker.”
That dynamic then played out for the second-year manager and the Orioles as a whole. Cobb used a ground ball to escape the frame on his own accord. But an offense that was held hitless for 4 1/3 innings by Elieser Hernandez saw its two-out rally stamped out in the bottom of the frame, and two innings later, Baltimore found itself shut out for the second straight game.
“It was a tough game for us offensively,” Hyde said. “We’re just having a rough time getting it going.”
With just seven turns at bat to work with, the O's managed just three hits and stranded six runners on base in support of Cobb, who struck out seven across five innings of one-run ball. Brian Anderson’s opposite-field solo homer in the fourth accounted for the game’s only run. The back-to-back shutouts were the first for Baltimore since Sept. 19-20, 2017, against the Red Sox.
“We were playing really good baseball before this last off-day, and I don’t know what happened,” Cobb said. “We ran into some good pitching these last two games, but we have to find a way to come together as a team. If we can split the series, that would be great, but it would be tough to lose this series.”
The silver lining was Cobb, specifically the way he utilized his formerly famous split changeup. So effective it earned its own nickname (“The Thing”) years ago with Tampa Bay, the feel for the pitch has eluded Cobb as he has battled injuries since arriving in Baltimore prior to the 2017 season. Over the past 18 months, he has spoken often about how key the pitch was to refinding his old form. In Cobb’s own words Wednesday: “It’s there.”
Cobb got 13 swings-and-misses and all seven strikeouts with his split-change, his personal best since Statcast began tracking pitches in 2015. Through three starts, the veteran righty owns a 2.51 ERA.
“I liked the stuff I had today. I think that’s been a work in progress the past two to three years to get the stuff to where it is,” Cobb said. “I am able to go to [the split change] in-game in big situations and not even worry about it, know it’s going to be there. There are minor adjustments game to game that I’m doing, whereas before, there were major adjustments.”
Amid the overall gameplay adjustments facing everyone Wednesday -- where the normal pacing of a nine-inning game simply did not exist -- Cobb embraced it, even in a losing effort.
“I love the mindset of going into a seven-inning game,” he said. “I know baseball purists probably don’t like it. But as a starting pitcher, you can see the finish line, and you have a chance to get to it.”