ST. PETERSBURG -- The phrase “playoff-like atmosphere” was uttered by numerous Orioles players in the visitors’ clubhouse at Tropicana Field in recent days. The veterans who have experienced the postseason know this four-game series vs. the Rays has been similar to what October feels like. The youngsters couldn’t be quite as certain, but they can imagine it.
If this was an audition for how an up-and-coming Baltimore squad might handle playoff baseball, consider it a rousing success.
The Orioles again took down the Rays on Sunday afternoon, notching a 5-3 victory to seal a series win. Baltimore won three of the four contests against Tampa Bay, each of which was decided by three runs or fewer and had a large, vocal crowd with a ton of O’s fans in attendance.
Entering Thursday, the division rivals were tied atop the American League East. Now, the AL-best Orioles (61-38, a season-high 23 games above .500) have a two-game lead over the Rays (61-42), who had been in first place every day of the season until after the series opener.
“For some of the guys that don’t have playoff experience, like myself, it felt like a playoff game,” rookie infielder Gunnar Henderson said. “Just really getting that and getting a sense of what it would feel like is just going to help us down the road.”
Ryan O'Hearn, who delivered a go-ahead RBI single in the ninth inning of Saturday’s win, came through with another big blow in Sunday’s finale. The 29-year-old first baseman gave Baltimore a 4-3 lead in the sixth with a Statcast-projected 331-foot solo home run vs. left-hander Colin Poche that clanged off the left-field foul pole, the shortest homer by an Orioles player this year.
It was only the fourth of O’Hearn’s 46 career big league home runs to come against a lefty, and the first since June 11, 2019. There have been some unexpected contributors for Baltimore this season, and perhaps none is playing better than O’Hearn, who is slashing .313/.358/.528 with eight homers and 32 RBIs over 55 games in his first year with the Orioles.
“I’ve said many times how special it is to me to be a part of this team. I’m enjoying every day I get to show up,” O’Hearn said. “When you contribute, it makes it that much sweeter.”
The Orioles’ offense also included a first-inning RBI double by Adley Rutschman, a Statcast-projected 446-foot two-run homer from Henderson in the second -- which hit the D-ring catwalk high above the rays tank in right-center field -- and an RBI single by Anthony Santander in the seventh.
After starter Tyler Wells allowed three runs in 4 1/3 innings, Baltimore’s bullpen combined for 4 2/3 scoreless frames, with Mike Baumann (2 2/3), Yennier Cano (one) and closer Félix Bautista (one) shutting down Tampa Bay’s lineup. The Rays finished with three hits -- a two-run homer by Yandy Díaz in the fifth and singles by Manuel Margot and Díaz in the ninth.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Orioles had won only one four-game series at Tropicana Field. They also took three of four against the Rays from April 10-13, 2006.
Baltimore hadn’t had much success at The Trop in recent years, losing 17 of the 21 games it played at the domed ballpark from 2020-22. This season, the Orioles have won four of six in St. Petersburg, and they have a 6-3 lead in their series against the Rays.
“Tough place to play, trouble playing here in the past, and we just played four really good games against a really good team. And [I’m] just really proud of all of our guys’ efforts,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Everybody contributed. We did a lot of things well this series, and hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”
With only four meetings remaining between these AL East rivals (Sept. 14-17 at Camden Yards), Tampa Bay would need to sweep Baltimore then to take the season series, which has been won by the Rays every year from 2017-22. Division tiebreakers are determined by head-to-head record, so the Orioles are in a great spot.
However, Baltimore still has 63 games to play -- a fact that was verbalized by members of the Orioles throughout the weekend. They know they’re on a good track to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016 -- and maybe even win the AL East for the first time since ‘14 -- but they can’t get complacent with a little more than two months to go in the regular season.
Nonetheless, it was a statement for Baltimore to topple Tampa Bay in the most high-stakes series of the season thus far, continuing to prove it’s equipped for playoff-style baseball.
“Two really good teams going at it. It was a grinder every game,” O’Hearn said. “They’ve got a really good team over there, and so do we. Every pitch matters, every inning matters, every hit. So [we’re] just trying to take it one pitch at a time and play as hard as we can, and [I’m] glad we came out on top.
“Also, yeah, it’s only July, we’ve got a long way to go. But [we’ll] definitely take a win here on the road against these guys and feel good about ourselves.”