TORONTO -- It’s taken a while, but the top of the Orioles’ lineup is finally heating up.
The third inning of Baltimore's 10-2 victory over the Blue Jays on Thursday afternoon represented perhaps the latest and greatest example of the club’s hot stretch at the plate. Lined up against one of the American League’s best in Kevin Gausman, Cedric Mullins got things started for the O’s with a single. A rare error by Santiago Espinal then allowed Austin Hays to reach base.
That’s when things got freaky. A collective groan from the Rogers Centre crowd echoed out, not just because Espinal fumbled the play, but because there were now two men on and none out for Ryan Mountcastle. The 25-year-old has played the villain nearly every time he's come to Toronto, and, after homering three times already in the series, the series finale was no different.
In yet another big spot, Mountcastle delivered a sharp line-drive single to left field, driving in two runs. At game’s end, his .696 career slugging percentage against the Blue Jays was tops among any player with a minimum of 120 plate appearances vs. Toronto.
But in the third inning, Mountcastle’s single kick-started a wicked hit parade that showed just what the O’s offense is capable of. A few hits in, Orioles batters started talking about how to map out Gausman’s deep arsenal, which includes one of baseball’s best splitters.
“Seeing guys ahead of us have success and talking to each other in the dugout [was key] … and we had a good approach that inning," said O’s left fielder Ryan McKenna, who finished 2-for-5 with a double, an RBI and a run scored. "So, [we] just executed."
Four more hits, three for extra bases, and a sacrifice fly booted Gausman from the game after just 2 1/3 innings. It came across as a shocking display of slugging firepower for Baltimore to plate seven runs against Gausman, but if you dig a little deeper, the numbers show the top of the Orioles’ order has been producing this month.
Entering Thursday’s game, the No. 1-4 hitters in Baltimore’s lineup had hacked their way to a .907 OPS in June, which is the fourth-best mark in baseball. Mountcastle is right in the thick of those inflated numbers, too -- his six homers this month are in the top five among AL hitters.
Most impressively, the Orioles scored all of their runs without Trey Mancini, who missed the final three games of the series with a right hand injury, or Anthony Santander, who was placed on the restricted list on Monday.
“Two middle-of-the-order bats [were gone] all series and we come out with a split,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. “Last night was a tough night. And the way we bounced back this afternoon [on] short rest and come back out here, I was just really impressed with how competitive we were today.”
Santander and Mancini account for around one-fourth of the club’s homers. Without those two big bats, it seemed like the Orioles were sunk; they’d probably have to squeak out wins with timely hitting. Instead, the fill-in players stepped it up in a big way.
For example, rookie catcher Adley Rutschman batted cleanup the past two games. Hyde said he didn’t want that to happen, but that he had no choice with Mancini down. So the kid moved up in the order and rewarded his skipper’s faith with some clutch hits during the road trip, including his first Major League home run on Wednesday.
Rutschman’s impact isn’t just limited to how he’s swinging the bat, though. For a catcher, the 24-year-old has hustled well on the basepaths all series. In the first inning Thursday, his sprint to first base broke up what would’ve been an inning-ending double play. That same energy applied when he raced around the horn to score on a seventh-inning triple by Rougned Odor.
That type of hustle isn’t always guaranteed in baseball these days, and Hyde liked what he saw from his young backstop.
“Really good athlete,” Hyde said of Rutschman. “Runs well for a catcher; he's a strong runner … He's got the whole package. So it’s just about playing games now.”
After notching 13 hits on Thursday, Baltimore split the four-gamer with Toronto. And by the way the Orioles have competed against teams in the AL East -- baseball’s best division -- you’d never know their record sat nine games below .500 (28-37) this season.
A 13-18 intradivisional record is obviously not ideal, but it represents a significant improvement over previous seasons, when playing the Orioles meant something close to an automatic victory for the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays.
Baltimore is hanging tough nowadays. There’s honor in that. And with how the top of the order is swinging, the O’s will have a stronger chance than usual when Tampa Bay comes to Camden Yards for a three-game series starting Friday.
“We've been doing a good job and being relentless,” McKenna said. “So I think we're just going to keep doing that going forward.”