'Weird' but 'special': Resilient O's regain AL East lead

July 23rd, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Brandon Hyde walked out of the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field on Saturday evening and toward the group of reporters awaiting his latest postgame debriefing.

“Another easy one, right guys?” the Orioles’ manager quipped.

It was, of course, not an easy win for Baltimore, much like many of the 59 that came before it.

Even if the O’s didn’t take the most direct route to victory, it was another win nonetheless. After blowing a five-run lead, Baltimore withstood Tampa Bay’s comeback and won, 6-5, as  delivered a go-ahead pinch-hit RBI single off right-hander Pete Fairbanks in the ninth inning.

The Orioles (60-38) moved into sole possession of first place in the American League East for the second time in three days while becoming the third MLB team to reach 60 wins, joining the Rays (61-41) and the Majors-best Braves (63-34).

“The division’s tight. Every game matters, obviously,” O’Hearn said. “To be able to pull this one out is huge.”

Here are three key takeaways from what Hyde called a “weird game” and O’Hearn referred to as a “special win.”

1.  is providing the boost the rotation needs
The Orioles might not go out and acquire a starting pitcher ahead of the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline, and Rodriguez’s recent performance could be a reason for that. The 23-year-old right-hander, who was recalled Tuesday after a nearly two-month stint back at Triple-A Norfolk, has looked electric since rejoining Baltimore’s rotation.

Saturday’s outing vs. the Rays may have been Rodriguez’s best of his 12 big league starts. He allowed three hits and two walks while striking out six over a career-high-tying 5 2/3 innings. His only two runs allowed came on his 93rd and final pitch, which resulted in a two-out single by Wander Franco in the sixth.

“I feel like a totally different pitcher,” said Rodriguez, who had a 7.35 ERA in 10 starts at the time of his demotion. “Back to what I know, I guess, and that’s just being able to go out and get outs.”

Rodriguez generated a career-high 17 whiffs (per Statcast), eight of which came via his four-seam fastball, which averaged 97.3 mph and touched 99.4.

"I see what his numbers are, and I'm kind of amazed. Like, who's hitting him?” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Because it's pretty good stuff -- really good stuff. He's got 20 mph of separation between the fastball and the changeup. He's going to be really good.”

2. Hyde hasn’t lost faith in recent trade acquisition
Fujinami was traded from Oakland to Baltimore on Wednesday, joined the Orioles on Friday and has immediately been thrust into high-leverage situations. After allowing one run (via a first-pitch leadoff homer) while working the seventh inning Friday, the 6-foot-6 Japanese right-hander was inserted into Saturday’s game when the Orioles had a 5-3 lead in the eighth.

Immediately, Fujinami struggled with his command, walking Manuel Margot and Yandy Díaz to open the inning. Both came around to score, and Fujinami exited after allowing a game-tying two-out RBI single to Randy Arozarena.

Still, Hyde doesn’t plan on shying away from using Fujinami in the near future.

“His stuff is great,” Hyde said of the 29-year-old, whose fastball averaged 100.1 mph and touched 101.5. “He’s going to be a huge help for us.”

But Baltimore’s primary Trade Deadline objective might still be to add another high-leverage arm to its bullpen to give it more depth, and as added insurance in case Fujinami continues to struggle in late-inning situations.

3. The O’s continued their uncanny ability to pull out gritty wins
Good teams win close games. That’s what the Orioles have done all year -- they’re now 18-9 in one-run contests -- and have continued to do this week in St. Petersburg.

On Thursday, Baltimore manufactured a run without getting a hit in the top of the 10th. It then turned a one-run lead over to All-Star closer Félix Bautista, who finished off a 4-3 victory.

Similar events unfolded Saturday, when the Orioles came to the plate with the game tied in the ninth. Adam Frazier led off with a pinch-hit single off Fairbanks, then advanced to second on an unreal sacrifice bunt by James McCann, who somehow got wood on a 98.6 mph fastball coming toward his face.

O’Hearn put Baltimore ahead with his knock, and then Bautista worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 27th save.

“I’ve got Bautista coming in the game, so I’m just trying to score somehow,” Hyde said. “And I’m pinch-hitting O’Hearn behind [McCann] there and, for me, that’s one of our better matchups against Fairbanks. Just try to score a run any way we can sometimes.”

The Orioles did so even after their 5-0 lead -- which they built by tagging Rays ace Shane McClanahan for a career-high-tying five runs with a rally in the fourth -- had vanished only a half-inning earlier.

“That’s a good team over there,” McCann said. “When we put up that five-spot, by no means did we think that they were just going to lay over and give us the game. Give them credit for coming back and fighting the way they did. But this team knows that we’re going to grind until the last pitch as well.”