Is there a bigger surprise in the American League than the Baltimore Orioles?
These O's keep forcing that question after their triumph over the Rays, 5-1, in Sunday’s matinee at Oriole Park to complete their first three-game sweep in nearly two years. Eight games into the young season, the rebuilding Orioles' record stands at 5-3; they're alone in second place in the American League East and owners of the league’s third best record.
“Morale is high,” said Tommy Milone, who struck out eight across five-plus innings of one-run ball. “It’s more fun when you’re winning, and we’re just trying to keep it going.”
Sunday’s victory came behind another airtight effort on the mound, big offensive days from Renato Núñez and Hanser Alberto, and a game-breaking three-run rally against Tampa Bay’s enviable relief corps in the seventh inning. All of this is to say, Sunday was a distillation of the whole weekend, which Baltimore spent outplaying Tampa Bay on both sides of the ball.
The sweep was the Orioles’ first since Aug. 27-29, 2018, and their first three-game sweep of the Rays since Sept. 11-13, 2012.
Milone cruised until a solo homer chased him in the sixth. He was backed only by a 401-foot Núñez homer off starter Yonny Chirinos before the O’s broke through on RBI doubles from Alberto, Núñez and José Iglesias in the seventh off reliever Chaz Roe. Pat Valaika’s solo homer an inning later then provided extra cushion for Cole Sulser’s second six-out save in the span of a week.
“I said it before the season, that I thought we were going to surprise some people,” Milone said. “I think we’re doing that right now."
It was a win as clinical as any the Orioles captured a year ago, and a happy conclusion to a week spent dealing with significant uncertainty and other challenges. But as Núñez deduced, “It’s always more fun when you’re winning.” And the Orioles, for the moment, are.
Here are a few things we’ve learned about the upstart O’s in the meantime:
Hanser was no fluke
In Iglesias (.526) and Alberto (.429), the Orioles have two of baseball's top hitters (min. 15 PA) a week and a half into play. That’s not a typo, and certainly not sustainable even during a 60-game season. But it’s particularly notable for Alberto, who seemed like a regression candidate after breaking out to hit .305 last season.
He’s done anything but regress. Alberto’s 15 hits through eight games by final out Sunday were tied for second in baseball behind Seattle’s Kyle Lewis. And they are coming in bunches, against all types of pitching, and to all parts of the field. Consider his three-hit Sunday: Alberto pulled a single off Chirinos, slashed his go-ahead double into the right-field corner off Roe -- who is usually a nightmare on righties -- and rolled another hit up the middle past the hard-throwing Alvarado.
“He just hits the ball all over the ballpark,” Milone said. “So you understand why he smiles a lot.”
Doing so mostly from the top of the lineup, Alberto has sparked an offense that’s held its own in the early going despite missing Trey Mancini and Jonathan Villar, its two top players from a year ago. By final out Sunday, Baltimore was tied for fourth in the AL in team homers and ranked third in OBP despite matching up against Gerrit Cole, Nathan Eovaldi, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow in the early going.
No problems stretching the roster
The Orioles are succeeding despite a rash of minor injuries, in large part to the depth and flexibility 30-man rosters allow. The result has been significant contributions from reserves like Valaika and Cedric Mullins, and the luxury for manager Brandon Hyde to maneuver aggressively on the pitching side of things. Milone’s outing Sunday was the latest in a line of steady starts the Orioles have gotten from veterans like Wade LeBlanc and Alex Cobb -- the kind they didn’t see much of a year ago.
But Hyde has maximized them by the way he’s utilized the depth behind those arms, never pushing any of his starters past five-plus innings. Instead, every reliever has appeared at least once, and positive contributions have come from every corner of the 'pen. On Sunday it was Evan Phillips earning his first career win with a scoreless inning behind Miguel Castro, who now owns four clean outings and is spinning near triple-digit sinkers this year. And the second-year skipper has shown no qualms about riding the hot hand, whether it’s Sulser, Tanner Scott or others.
“We’ve got 30 guys in here that are playing for each other,” Hyde said. “That was my goal coming in, to create a culture of guys playing for each other. I know what that feels like and how that really is, and there is nothing better.”
The bullpen improvement has come
By fanning 10 Rays as a group without walking a batter on Sunday, the Orioles’ pitching staff posted double-digit strikeouts for the fifth consecutive game. That’s a new club record, and it's indicative of a staff that’s missing a lot more bats and issuing a lot fewer free passes than a year ago.
Small sample size disclaimers apply, but through Sunday the O's 'pen has seen marked improvements in its strikeout rate and walk rate from 2019, as well as in its Fielding Independent Pitching. If you take out its nine-run debacle on Opening Day, the 'pen owns a 2.78 ERA.
“We’re throwing strikes and we’re letting our defense play, and our defense has done a nice job,” Hyde said. “We’ve had some really good starts, and our bullpen guys have come in and pounded the strike zone. That’s been the key for us.”