ANAHEIM -- A big separator between the good and great teams is finding success on the margins. Over the last two seasons, the Orioles have become one of baseball’s best teams in acquiring players on the fringes and turning them into useful MLB options.
Their foundation starts with their young core of star players. Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez are great building blocks. What puts them in that next tier are the role players who have found success since coming to Baltimore.
That was evident again in Tuesday’s thrilling 5-4 win over the Angels in 10 innings at Angel Stadium. Backed by a solid start from Dean Kremer, late-game heroics from the offense and a dynamic save from Shintaro Fujinami, the Orioles completed their 44th comeback win of the season, tied with the Reds for the most in the Majors.
• Games remaining: at LAA (1), at BOS (3), vs. STL (3), vs. TB (4), at HOU (3), at CLE (4), vs. WSH (2), vs. BOS (4)
• Standings update: The Orioles (87-51) are 3 1/2 games up in the American League East over the second-place Rays (84-55), who won vs. Red Sox. Baltimore currently has the best record in the AL, meaning it would not have to play a Wild Card Series and would head to the AL Division Series as the No. 1 seed.
• Magic number: 21
For Baltimore, each game can have different contributors. On Monday, it was three rookies -- Rodriguez, Henderson and Jordan Westburg -- who led the way in their series-opening win. On Tuesday, that group was Kremer, Fujinami, Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O'Hearn. This demonstrates why the Orioles are such a complete team.
Tuesday’s game was the perfect example. While Kremer didn’t have his best stuff or command -- and ultimately saw his outing end before reaching five innings -- he still threw 4 2/3 scoreless frames. With his start, he lowered his second-half ERA to 2.86 in 56 2/3 innings.
“It was a bit of a grind,” Kremer said following his start. “But the team won, and that’s what matters.”
Kremer has blossomed over the past two seasons. He had a strong 2022 campaign, when he posted a 3.23 ERA across 125 1/3 innings. Following a down first half this season -- a 4.78 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 98 innings -- Kremer has flipped the script since the All-Star break.
When Kremer left the game with two outs in the fifth, Baltimore held a 2-0 lead that they kept through the end of the sixth inning. Once the seventh-inning stretch hit, the game took a different direction. After tying the game in the bottom of the seventh, the Angels took a 3-2 lead in the eighth.
That one-run deficit was hardly insurmountable for this comeback team. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde went to his bench in the ninth inning, utilizing two veteran left-handed hitters who didn’t start either of the first two games.
Adam Frazier doubled in his pinch-hit appearance, which was immediately followed by a game-tying, pinch-hit RBI single from O’Hearn. Two batters later, Mountcastle’s third hit of the night was an RBI single that drove O’Hearn in and put the Orioles back on top.
“It was another example of how we approach the game. That never-say-die attitude,” O’Hearn said about the late-game heroics. “Taking every at-bat one pitch at a time, not trying to get ahead of ourselves.”
O’Hearn has been one another example of a player finding new success in Baltimore. Across 342 games with the Royals from 2018-22, he had a .683 OPS. Acquired by the Orioles for cash considerations this past January, O’Hearn has an .834 OPS across 90 games with the O’s.
When DL Hall couldn’t hold the 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, the game went to extra innings. A groundout from Westburg put the Orioles back on top, and Hyde turned the game over to Fujinami.
The 29-year-old righty has also seen more success in Baltimore. Following a lengthy and successful career in Japan, Fujinami signed with the A’s this past winter but struggled in his first MLB stint with them. He posted an 8.57 ERA in 34 games and was traded to the Orioles on July 19.
On Tuesday, Hyde trusted in Fujinami to close the game out in the 10th inning. That decision paid off when the righty threw a 1-2-3 frame and punched out two hitters, including the final at-bat that ended on a nasty 93.8 mph splitter.
“Each outing, I feel like I get better,” Fujinami said through an interpreter after recording his second MLB save. “Especially after tonight’s outing, I gained more confidence.”
If Fujinami starts to harness his command and locate his electric stuff, great results could follow. With the Orioles’ recent track record, it’d hardly be surprising if this was their latest player they helped turn around.
“The stuff is there. The splitter to punch out the final batter? That was not normal,” Hyde said about Fujinami’s outing. “The ability to do that is special.”