DJ Stewart hung his head and he drifted out of the batter’s box, flipping his bat into his left hand as he walked back to the dugout. Stewart had just struck out for the second time in the Orioles’ 4-0 loss to the Marlins on Tuesday, whiffing for the eighth time in 14 tries on the season. Shuffling off second base, Austin Hays watched another chance to score dissolve. They wouldn’t see many more.
Coming off their first sweep in nearly two years last weekend against the Rays, the Orioles simply went cold in their long-awaited series opener against the Marlins, who were playing for the first time in more than a week. The upstart O’s first shutout of the season also snapped their three-game winning streak.
“We just didn’t swing the bat very well,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We didn’t hit many balls hard. We’ve been taking really good at-bats against really good pitching so far this season, and tonight it just didn’t happen for us offensively. We never got a rally going.”
There was no one culprit Tuesday for the O’s, who struggled in several areas where they largely excelled over their first eight games. An offense averaging more than five runs per game managed just two baserunners off Marlins starter Pablo López, who, pitching for the first time in weeks, struck out seven without a walk. A defense that has largely been catching the ball was hurt by Renato Núñez’s two-out error in the sixth, which let a key insurance run leak through, and their improved bullpen was outperformed by old friend Richard Bleier and three others.
“He’s got a good arm, but he hasn’t thrown this year, so we really didn’t know a whole lot of what to expect,” Hyde said of López. “Give him credit, he threw a really nice game in his first start.”
It all added up to a difficult assignment for John Means, who held the Marlins to Francisco Cervelli’s solo homer in his second outing of the year. Continuing to show increased velocity, Means retired 13 of 14 before Cervelli’s homer in the fifth, striking out four. But the Orioles continue to be cautious with Means after his bout with arm fatigue last month; Hyde removed him after 72 pitches, and Miami quickly added runs off Travis Lakins and later Thomas Eshelman. Means should be cleared to approach 100 pitches in his next start, scheduled for this weekend against the Nationals.
“I felt better this start, but I’ve got to limit the home runs,” Means said. “It gives a team so much momentum.”
That was lacking on the offensive side of things for the Orioles, despite their opponent's long layoff. The game, the Marlins’ first since experiencing a substantial COVID-19 outbreak in their clubhouse on July 26, began 41 minutes late while both clubs awaited further test results. Once cleared, the Marlins activated 12 new players yet to appear in the Majors this season, replacing 11 on the injured list and one opt-out. They then used homers from Cervelli and Jesús Aguilar and a Jon Berti RBI single to back López and Co. on the mound.
It was the Orioles showing rust, punching out 11 times against one walk. Two of their three hits came from Hays, who is emerging from a 3-for-30 slump to start the season. Still mired is Stewart, who extended his 0-for-2020. He may be losing his grasp on the left-field job with No. 5 prospect Ryan Mountcastle waiting at the O’s alternate training site.
“I think he’s pressing,” Hyde said of Stewart. “I think he’s trying a little too hard. It just seems like every swing, he’s trying to hit the baseball on top of the warehouse.”
The question now for the Orioles: Was Tuesday a blip? They should know more about themselves after the grueling stretch ahead, during which they will cram six more games into five days and sidestep the uncertainty that seems to come with every afternoon. Hays and others waited more than a week to play the Marlins, then played on Tuesday after being sent home from the field while they awaited test results. They then waited out another delay, despite clear skies.
“The way the season is going, we have to hang with it, try to stay focused and locked in,” Hays said. “Our motto this year is to have each other’s backs and pick each other up.”