Orioles rising to the challenge in AL East
BALTIMORE -- The multi-color rotating disco lamp may have been spinning in the Orioles’ clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, but the music was turned low. Players took their time packing their bags for the upcoming three-city, 11-day road trip. It certainly wasn’t a party-like atmosphere.
Winning has become expected now in Baltimore, even against the club’s daunting rivals in the American League East. As the Orioles play some of the best baseball of any team in the Majors early this season, the quiet confidence they already had continues to grow.
With a 6-2 win in the finale vs. Boston at Camden Yards, Baltimore notched its first series victory against a division opponent in 2023, after dropping two previous sets against the Red Sox and Yankees. The O’s (16-8) have won eight of their past nine games and 12 of 15.
There may not have been any hooting or hollering as the team prepared to embark for Detroit, but the mood was surely up.
“We’re able to have a happy flight, taking this series win,” said center fielder Cedric Mullins, who knocked two singles, reached base three times and drove in a run. “Just be able to kind of reset, maybe have a nice dinner somewhere. Just get ready for the next day.”
This 24-game mark is in fact a good time to step back and reflect on the club’s early results.
The Orioles have notched five consecutive series victories. They had a seven-game winning streak snapped Tuesday, then immediately bounced back behind 5 2/3 stellar innings from right-hander Tyler Wells and another lights-out performance from one of MLB’s best bullpens.
The performance by the pitching staff has really been the biggest difference between Baltimore’s first 12 games (when it went 6-6) and the past 12 (10-2).
Early on, starters weren’t working deep into games. Manager Brandon Hyde even stated at one point how tired he was of routinely pulling them in the fifth inning or earlier. The difference of late has been stark.
Wells has been a primary reason for the turnaround. The 28-year-old has a 2.79 ERA through five outings and continues to mature in his second season as a big league starter. At the start of this 5-1 homestand, he tossed a career-high seven innings while blanking the Tigers. On Wednesday, he matched a career best with seven strikeouts and threw 102 pitches, the first time he’d exceeded the century mark in his budding MLB tenure.
When Wells takes the mound -- even against the Red Sox, who have plenty of proven hitters -- he isn’t shying away from the challenge.
“It’s always fun to compete against those guys,” Wells said. “They’ve got a very respectable lineup.”
But the Orioles’ relief corps is making those types of offenses appear much less formidable. On Wednesday, Danny Coulombe, Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista combined for 3 1/3 scoreless frames, lowering the team’s bullpen ERA to 2.78 -- third best in the Majors behind only AL East rivals New York and Tampa Bay.
Cano made Baltimore history during his 1 2/3-inning appearance. By getting Rafael Devers to ground out for the second out of the eighth inning, Cano’s streak of consecutive batters retired to begin 2023 reached 24, tying the club record to open a season held by Fred Holdsworth (1976). Cano failed to break the mark -- hitting Justin Turner with a first-pitch sinker -- but he rebounded, getting Masataka Yoshida to ground out to end the inning.
The offense has been up and down, but the lineup is capable of putting up runs in a multitude of ways. That was also evident Wednesday, when the Orioles used three sacrifice flies and two sac bunts to fuel rallies.
It’s a simple formula. An improving starting rotation plus a dominant bullpen plus a high-potential offense equals more wins than losses. But there’s one other ingredient for the O’s.
“The winning mindset that we have, I’m pretty sure, is a big cause leading to those wins,” Mullins said. “Every single day, coming in, staying relaxed, grinding at-bats out, pitching with that dog in you and getting results out of it.”
That’s why this Baltimore squad -- still filled with young players who didn’t get any taste of sustained big league success until last year’s 83-win campaign -- can show a veteran-like approach to its strong start.
“We’re doing a great job of being consistent every day, showing up at the park prepared,” Hyde said. “Our coaches are doing a great job with that, of preparing these guys. And I don’t see us too up, too down. I see us at a really even keel. ...
“I think our guys learned a lot from last year about attitude and coming to the ballpark, and they’ve carried that into this year.”