Gunnar's leadoff jack a 'blueprint' for series win over Phils

Orioles cap playoff-type matchup with 4 HRs off Wheeler, Burnes' 10th straight quality start

June 16th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- If this weekend’s Orioles-Phillies series was really the World Series preview some predict it will be, then we can reasonably infer something about the upcoming Fall Classic already: It will feature some firepower.

All weekend, this heavyweight series was a star-studded affair, full of big performances, strong pitching and lots of slug. That was no different on Sunday afternoon, when the Orioles rode four homers as Corbin Burnes out-pitched Zack Wheeler, and a matchup of two of MLB’s top aces turned into a rout at Camden Yards.

The resulting 8-3 Father’s Day victory allowed Baltimore to head to New York -- where it’s about to face the American League’s top team by record in a three-game set with the Yankees starting on Tuesday -- having taken two of three from the team with the best record in the National League.

“It’s definitely a huge test,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said before the series began. “We’re going to face three good starters and a really good back end of the bullpen, and we’re going to have to pitch against a really tough lineup.”

Though Hyde went to lengths to avoid calling the series a measuring stick, his club largely rose to all those challenges, even as its pitching staff faced another major injury hit with the loss of Kyle Bradish on Friday.

The Orioles spent the next two days proving that, battered as it may be, their rotation is still plenty good, particularly at the top, where Grayson Rodriguez (Saturday) and then Burnes (Sunday) turned in excellent performances.

Opposing Wheeler for the first time in his career, Burnes struck out seven over six innings of two-run ball to log his 10th consecutive quality start, becoming only the sixth Orioles pitcher to produce such a streak in a single season (and the first since Jeremy Guthrie in 2007). Burnes and Wheeler, of course, will always be linked to the 2021 NL Cy Young Award, which Burnes claimed over Wheeler in an extremely close vote.

Burnes was not available to comment after Sunday’s game due to a “personal matter,” a team spokesperson said.

The Orioles ensured Burnes came out ahead again on Sunday by battering Wheeler for eight runs, matching his career high and the most he’d allowed in a start since May 4, 2018 vs. Colorado. won a nine-pitch at-bat with a leadoff homer, and Adley Rutschman launched a towering solo blast in the third.

In between, Colton Cowser cracked a 443-foot two-run homer -- tied for the longest by an Oriole this season and the longest hit off Wheeler since May 23, 2021 (Franchy Cordero, 474 feet). Jordan Westburg added a three-run opposite-field tank in the fifth.

“Gunnar’s leadoff AB gave everyone else a blueprint,” Cowser said. “It was an awesome environment here. I’ve never played in a playoff game, but it felt like a playoff game. That’s what everybody was saying.”

Was this weekend a measuring stick for the Orioles? That’s subject to opinion. What’s undeniable is that they certainly spent it making an emphatic statement.

“Those are two of the best starters in the game,” Hyde said. “Our bats have come a long, long way. Their ability to hit premier pitching is not easy to do.”

With the All-Star break a little less than a month away, only the Yankees own a better record than the Phillies and Orioles, who continue the most difficult stretch of their schedule on Tuesday in the Bronx. Taking into account the past week, the O’s will face five first- or second-place teams through the end of June. So far, they’ve gone 4-2 in that stretch against Atlanta and Philadelphia.

“I thought we left it all out on the field for these six games,” Hyde said.

What made this weekend’s matchup so intriguing was how evenly matched it appeared on paper between extremely well-rounded teams that do the same types of things well.

The O’s and Phillies both rank among MLB’s top two clubs in homers allowed, and top three in staff ERA, rotation ERA, and offensive runs per game. Both clubs are among the top four in runs scored, and the Orioles lead MLB in team homers (the Phils are tied for sixth).

Baltimore is also the only team with a better record against winning teams than Philadelphia in 2024. The O’s built on that this weekend.

“That’s a really good ballclub over there,” Cowser said. “They’re going to win a lot of games.”