Over the first 13 games of the Orioles’ schedule, a trend developed. In the nine games they hit at least one home run, they’ve averaged nearly six runs per game. In the four games they haven’t, they’ve averaged just two runs per game. Much of this arithmetic is simple -- being the most efficient way to score, home runs typically lead to better offensive output. But the distinction with Baltimore is stark. When it clears the fence, its offense is elite. When the O's don’t, it's anemic.
And so it was at different points in Saturday’s come-from-behind 5-3 win over the Nationals when the Orioles' bats were sound asleep right until the point they weren’t. Held to three singles and no runs for seven innings by Austin Voth and two relievers, the O’s used three swings to climb back into the game and then jump ahead for good: back-to-back pinch-hit homers from Pat Valaika and Pedro Severino, and a go-ahead opposite-field three-run tater from Anthony Santander. All came in the eighth, guaranteeing the O’s a series win against the defending champs in the Nationals Park leg of the Battle of the Beltways.
“I was ecstatic in the clubhouse,” said Thomas Eshelman, who, starting for inactive John Means, held Washington to two runs over four innings in his first start of the season. “This season we have a mentality of, 'We know we can.’ We have a different outlook on certain situations. A lot of guys were new last year. Everyone has [comfort] with each other now.”
For the Orioles, the victory came a night after claiming one of the more lopsided wins of the MLB season. And it was the kind that’s becoming indicative of an offense whose identity and style are beginning to round into form. As of final out Saturday, the O’s had hit 21 homers as a team, more than all but three American League clubs. They rank fourth in the AL in team on-base percentage and third in slugging. Yet they rank merely middle of the pack in runs, largely because they’ve come in bunches.
The homers they hit Saturday were notable in a historical sense, too. When Valaika and Severino went back to back off Sean Doolittle, the O’s became the first team with consecutive pinch-hit homers since the Giants did so Sept. 3, 2018. It was only the third time in franchise history they’ve accomplished the feat, and the first since Larry Sheets and Wayne Gross did it against the Indians on Aug. 12, 1985.
“I was screaming for [Santander’s homer] to get up and stay fair,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “I was trying to get that ball to stretch.”
Postgame, Hyde mentioned Severino, Hanser Alberto, Rio Ruiz, Renato Núñez and the bullpen as a whole as pieces who’ve gotten better since last season. It’s hard to argue with him. Severino’s homer was his third, as many as all but two AL catchers. Alberto is hitting .333, again. Núñez has five homers, tied with Mike Trout and two others for second in the AL. The relief work improvement is plain to see, from Tanner Scott to Shawn Armstrong and Cole Sulser and Miguel Castro -- all of whom recorded key outs Saturday.
Baltimore’s best reliever so far, Castro was given the save chance over Mychal Givens and struck out two in a scoreless ninth. Compared to 2019, the difference is night and day.
“We fight all the way through,” Santander said. “It’s outstanding the way we fight.”
Hays' magic act back in business
Austin Hays may have put together the most important at-bat of the game in the eighth when, after Chris Davis struck out, he worked an 11-pitch walk off Nats closer Daniel Hudson to set up Santander’s heroics. He also may have completed the defensive play of the Orioles’ season to date, diving to steal a hit from Eric Thames in the second inning.
By covering 67 feet in 4.1 seconds, Hays recorded his second four-star catch of the year, per Statcast. He made multiple five-star plays last September, including arguably the best home run robbery of 2019, when he stole a round-tripper from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. His several contributions on Saturday were a reminder of the dynamic two-way potential the 25-year-old has despite starting lagging at the plate to start the season; he’s hitting just .188 through 14 games and has been moved from leadoff to the No. 9 hole in the order recently. But on Saturday, he still made an impact from that spot.
Davis still working through it
The fastballs hovering around 90 mph poured into the top-half of the strike zone, two in a row from Voth, both blowing past the barrel of Davis’ bat. Davis had been ahead 3-0 in the count, took a curveball for strike one, then swung through the heaters -- the last one on the inside corner just below the belt. Davis flung his bat away afterwards in frustration, having stranded two runners to end the fifth inning.
It was a microcosm of how things have gone so far this year for Davis, whose 0-for-4 Saturday dropped his 2020 average to .125. He is 4-for-32 with nine strikeouts over his first nine games, having walked twice and hit three doubles. The former two-time home run champion has yet to put a ball over the wall, while his teammates continue to perform quite well in that category.