Young O's battle back vs. Rays, stand alone atop AL East

July 21st, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Take a look at the MLB standings right now and you’ll see something that hadn’t occurred this late into a season since 2016.

The Orioles are alone in first place atop the American League East.

That’s right. The Rays -- who got off to a historic 13-0 start and stormed out of the gate with 30 wins in their first 39 games -- have fallen out of first for the first time in 2023. And it happened because of how things unfolded in a Thursday night matchup between the AL’s top two teams.

A day after moving into a first-place tie, Baltimore kept its momentum going by rallying for a 4-3, 10-inning win over Tampa Bay in the opener of a four-game series at Tropicana Field. In doing so, the Orioles (59-37) surpassed the Rays (60-40), finishing the day in sole possession of first in the division after the All-Star break for the first time since Aug. 12, 2016.

This is new territory for these O’s. Many of the youngsters who fill this roster had never before played in a game in which the outcome would determine an MLB division leader in late July.

“It definitely felt like the stakes were like playoff baseball,” said 23-year-old outfielder Colton Cowser, the club’s No. 2 prospect (per MLB Pipeline) who drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the 10th. “You know, I’ve never played playoff baseball. But it was definitely one of those games where it was like it could have gone either way.”

Before Baltimore notched its MLB-high 35th comeback victory of the season, the game went back and forth. The Orioles tagged right-hander Tyler Glasnow for three runs to take a 3-1 lead in the fourth, before the Rays’ Yandy Díaz tied the game with a two-run double in the seventh.

With how the intense contest unfolded, it was only right for an extra inning to decide the victor. Everything that transpired in the 10th showed why Baltimore is better built to win these types of games than it was for most of the previous four years of manager Brandon Hyde’s tenure.

The O’s used small ball to take a 4-3 lead. Automatic runner Aaron Hicks moved to third on a perfectly placed sacrifice bunt by Adam Frazier and then scored on a sac fly by Cowser, a rookie playing in his 11th big league game.

“That’s how you compete for a division,” said veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson, who allowed three runs and struck out eight over six-plus innings. “That’s how you put yourself in a position to make a postseason run … you do the little things really well and consistently against a really good team.”

Baltimore’s strategy to play for one run may not have worked if it didn’t have right-hander Félix Bautista -- the overpowering 6-foot-8 All-Star closer who is building a legitimate case to be in the running for the AL Cy Young Award.

After needing only nine pitches to keep the game tied with a 1-2-3 ninth, Bautista returned to the mound to finish off the victory. He hit Luke Raley with a pitch to open the 10th -- giving Tampa Bay runners on first and second -- but Bautista then struck out Randy Arozarena and got Brandon Lowe to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play.

“How about Félix Bautista?” Hyde said. “I’m so lucky to have him.”

Hyde often states how the biggest difference between guiding the Orioles the past two seasons from earlier in his time with the club is that he now has legitimate shutdown relievers at the back end of the bullpen. The best of the bunch is Bautista, who has a 0.96 ERA with 26 saves and 91 strikeouts in 47 innings over 43 games this season.

Get a lead heading to the ninth (or in extras), and Bautista does exactly what he did Thursday.

“This is something we’ve worked for all year long,” Bautista said via team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “Since the start of the season, this is what we wanted -- trying to play good games and trying to dethrone Tampa for the first spot in the division.”

The top two AL teams have been trending in opposite directions this month, which is what allowed this swap atop the East to happen. The Orioles have won 10 of their past 12 games, while the Rays have lost 12 of 15.

But Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash issued a reminder shortly after his team slipped into second: “It is July.”

“Look, they deserved to win. They beat us, and they beat us in many facets of the game today,” Cash said. “I’d like to think that we can come out and play better.”

Meanwhile, Hyde himself stated, “It’s just July.” His team didn’t win a division crown -- or secure its first postseason berth since 2016 -- with a victory in its 96th game, even if it was an impressive one.

The Orioles must continue to fare well for 2 1/2 more months to hold onto their new AL East lead, win the division title for the first time since 2014 and play deep into October. But they’ve put themselves in a great position to potentially accomplish all of those lofty objectives.

“I'm proud of our record and what these guys have accomplished so far,” Hyde said. “But we have so far to go, and our goal isn't to be in first on July 20, but to be there at the end of the season.”