Despite bumpy start, O's ready for end-of-season sprint

September 17th, 2022

TORONTO -- This is crunch time for the Orioles.

Baltimore’s entire season has been one giant quest to defy the odds, maintain blistering winning streaks and claw back against more powerful opponents. But as the dog days of summer give way to cooler autumn weather, the stakes of each game grow larger.

For a multitude of reasons, the Orioles desperately needed a smooth start to their three-game set against the Blue Jays. The series at Rogers Centre begins a crucial -- and grueling -- stretch of 20 games in 20 days. It also gives the O’s one last shot to make up ground on the Jays, whom they’re chasing for the final AL Wild Card spot, and maintain the lead in the season series, which decides potential playoff tiebreakers in 2022.

Friday’s series opener, a 6-3 loss, did not go according to plan. But in typical Orioles fashion, the squad didn’t go down easily. In fact, the O’s kicked off their effort with a splash of chaos.

It was a bullpen game for Toronto, and when the Jays turned to Yusei Kikuchi for the fourth inning, Baltimore wasted no time. Cedric Mullins worked the count and laced a triple into right-center field, racing around the bases and sliding into third as his helmet tumbled off his head.

That at-bat set up , the brightest spark of this Orioles season and one of their hottest hitters. September has been Rutschman’s best month -- the 24-year-old entered Friday slashing .273/.373/.500 over his past 13 games. After a seven-pitch battle with Kikuchi, Rutschman put his stamp on this game early.

One grooved fastball and one big hack from the rookie sent the ball into the left-field stands on a rope. Served into the seats at 102 miles per hour with a 24-degree launch angle, Rutschman’s 11th homer of the year plated two runs and put the O’s ahead in an instant.

“Adley got a ball that he could handle with two strikes,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. “And he’s been struggling a little bit right-handed, so good to see him [break out].”

To make the moment unique, that blast was Rutschman’s first Major League homer batting right-handed. The switch hitter has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching (.158 batting average before Friday), and there’s a chance this home run could help him pick things up.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, their starting pitching faltered in a big spot. , the lone veteran in Baltimore’s rotation, looked well on his way to another typical start. He was steady -- albeit unspectacular -- until his evening hit a snag in the fifth.

The first two Blue Jays hitters reached base before Lyles recalibrated. He settled down and recorded the next two outs in order. That’s when Hyde had a decision to make. Would he let Lyles, at 71 pitches, face the order a third time through? Or would he turn to his bullpen, which houses some of the Majors’ best relievers?

Ultimately, Hyde let his 32-year-old veteran face George Springer, who was 0-for-2 at that point. That’s when the big blow came. Springer has been battling a right elbow injury that’s zapped his power of late, but he had no problem unloading on a curveball for a monstrous three-run homer.

Lyles didn’t think the breaking ball to Springer was a bad pitch.

“It wasn’t the worst location,” Lyles said. “It was on the outer third, 3-2, Vladdy [Guerrero Jr.] on deck, [I’m] trying to hold a two-run lead. A good hitter put a good swing on it. Maybe I could have went back inside hard, but then at that point you're just second guessing yourself.”

At the time, Springer’s homer gave Toronto a two-run lead. After the game, Hyde pointed to the lack of offense as a reason for why that fifth-inning moment felt larger than it should have.

“It made it a 4-2 game there in the fifth inning,” the skipper said. “We just didn't score enough runs, to be honest. We gotta be able to outscore these guys. They are a great offense; they’ve got a bunch of guys that can go deep.”

Again, though, Baltimore didn’t roll over. In the ninth inning, rookie went deep to the opposite field against the Blue Jays’ stingy reliever Yimi García.

Henderson finished the game 2-for-4, with his second career homer serving as an example of why the O’s have thrived in the underdog role. This team is rarely deterred by a setback -- and with a legitimate route to the playoffs for the first time in years, the Orioles are young, hungry and fearless, even as they sit 5 1/2 games back of Toronto.

“This is all you ask for,” said outfielder Austin Hays. “Come down to that home stretch at the end of the year and every game counts. Every game matters. We're playing for something.”