Last year, the World Series champions and next-to-worst team in baseball resided not 40 miles apart, a mere hour-long drive up or down I-95 from one another. Major League Baseball’s reimagined Interleague schedule this season ensured they’d both make that commute more than ever in 2020, a wrinkle that, on paper, seemed to make life even more difficult for the rebuilding Orioles. In practice, it’s worked out in exactly the opposite way.
The latest example came on Saturday, when the O’s rebounded from Friday’s blowout loss with a fundamentally sound, drama-free 7-3 win over the Nationals at Oriole Park, their fourth in five tries this season against the defending champs. Even including Friday’s clunker, the O’s have been the Beltway’s clear top team one-third of the way through the schedule, both in the standings and in a head-to-head sense.
“I am not surprised in how we’re playing,” winning pitcher Asher Wojciechowski said. “We know what we have here. We’re going to push each other and keep getting better each day. That’s the goal: Don’t listen to any of the outside noise.”
Saturday’s victory came as part of a team-wide effort, with Pedro Severino, Andrew Velazquez and Rio Ruiz providing run-scoring hits as Wojciechowski outpitched Patrick Corbin over five-plus innings. The O’s new-look bullpen then largely breezed through the final 12 outs, while Velazquez, Hanser Alberto and José Iglesias teamed up to manufacture two additional insurance runs. The Orioles have now won seven of eight and are 12-8 -- alone in second place in the American League East.
“Our guys are playing with an attitude where they don’t care what people think, and they are playing like they have nothing to lose,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I hope that continues for the next six weeks.”
Meanwhile, the sample size of their success keeps building. Here are four things we’ve learned about these Orioles that Saturday’s win hammered home:
Backstops who rake
Searching for another 2020 surprise? Look behind the plate in Baltimore. That’s where the most productive backstops in baseball reside. Not Milwaukee or Minnesota, who had the best backstops by WAR last year. Not Philadelphia, where perhaps the best all-around catcher in baseball gears up every day.
It’s in Charm City with the Orioles, whose catchers ranked 24th in MLB last year in cumulative fWAR. This year, that same tandem ranks first in baseball, as well as second in OPS and wRC+, thanks to the growth Severino and Chance Sisco seem to be experiencing simultaneously. Severino took the stage on Saturday, lining a two-run first-inning double off Corbin to put the O’s ahead early. The result was his 14th and 15th RBIs and his seventh extra-base hit, good for second and third among MLB backstops by final out on Saturday, respectively. Meanwhile, Sisco is slashing .333/.515/.667 in 33 plate appearances.
“I feel like I’m stronger this year,” Severino explained. “I am trying to swing at more pitches over the plate and be more selective, try to stay more middle of the field.”
Rio still ripping
Since 2020 began, the transformation of Ruiz has been a common theme. There is the power. There is the defense. There is the hair. Now another element is emerging.
It came into focus when Ruiz deposited a 1-1 Corbin slider just over the right-field wall in Saturday’s fourth inning, connecting for his sixth homer of the season. Of those, it was his second in 11 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, which Ruiz was often shielded from a year ago. He went deep just once in 74 chances off southpaws in 2019.
“I’m seeing better at-bats from Rio against left-handed pitching,” Hyde said. “I think that when you’re a left-handed hitter, facing left-handers can help you out. You really have to focus on staying closed with your front shoulder and think about the big part of the field. Rio is doing that and staying on the ball nicely.”
Beating Corbin was the latest dismantling of an elite-caliber pitcher for the Orioles, who are turning such things into sort of a habit. They’ve now faced Gerrit Cole, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin over their first 20 games -- a group with two Cy Young Awards and more than $1.06 billion in guaranteed contracts among them.
They also have a collective 6.75 ERA against the Orioles in 2020. Baltimore is 6-2 in those games.
“We have faced some tough starters, there is no doubt, and it’s going to continue,” Hyde said. “It’s not going to get any easier the rest of the way. … We’re a bunch of grinders and guys are doing a good job of competing on a nightly basis.”
About that bullpen
For the first time in his managerial tenure, Hyde has the luxury of relief options he trusts. He’s using them early and often, and roles are taking shape. The result is a vastly improved ‘pen full of young pitchers breaking out, from Tanner Scott to Miguel Castro, overnight closer Cole Sulserand others.
Throwing 15 strikes in 21 pitches Saturday, Scott again looked like the dominant lefty option many have long dreamt he can be. Mychal Givens registered his eighth scoreless appearance in eight tries. And Sulser secured the final four outs for his sixth save, three of those being inning-plus efforts. How sustainable is it? That remains to be seen. But it’s already leaps and bounds better than last year, when Baltimore’s bullpen was the worst in baseball by ERA.