Gunnar, Grayson put O's alone atop AL East again

Henderson homers while Rodriguez throws 8 scoreless to clinch crucial tiebreaker

September 17th, 2023

BALTIMORE -- and may be rookies, but they’ve each shown a veteran-like poise during the second half of the 2023 season. No moment has been too big for this talented duo, the two youngest players on the Orioles’ roster.

Not even a mid-September battle for first place in the American League East on Saturday night at Camden Yards.

“They’re high-character, ultra-competitive guys. They have no fear,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “They think they belong, and they think they should succeed.”

Baltimore picked up its most important win of the year thus far by defeating Tampa Bay, 8-0, behind a gem from the 23-year-old Rodriguez (a career-high eight dominant innings) and a huge showing for the 22-year-old Henderson (3-for-5, a homer, three RBIs and two runs scored). With the victory, the Orioles secured the season series against the Rays -- the O’s lead, 7-5, with one final meeting Sunday -- ensuring they’d win a potential division tiebreaker.

A day after Tampa Bay grabbed a share of the AL East lead, Baltimore took back sole possession of first place. The O’s also snapped their season-long-tying four-game losing streak and lowered their magic number to clinch a postseason berth to one.

  • Games remaining (14): vs. TB (1), at HOU (3), at CLE (4), vs. WSH (2), vs. BOS (4)
  • Standings update: The Orioles (92-56) lead the second-place Rays (92-58) by one game in the AL East. However, Baltimore’s advantage is essentially two games, because it owns the tiebreaker over Tampa Bay by virtue of winning the season series. The AL East champion is likely to earn the No. 1 seed in the AL, not having to play in a best-of-three Wild Card Series and heading straight to a best-of-five Division Series.
  • Magic number: 1 for postseason berth

When Rodriguez and catcher Adley Rutschman walked out of the bullpen and through the gate before stepping onto the field Saturday evening, they soaked in the atmosphere around them.

“We were saying, ‘Let’s have some fun. There’s 35,000-40,000 of our best friends here tonight,’” Rodriguez said.

Then, Rodriguez took the mound and spent the next two hours orchestrating the best outing of his 21-start big league career in front of the raucous crowd of 38,432 at Camden Yards. And the former top pitching prospect was in control the entire way.

Rodriguez retired Tampa Bay’s first nine batters. He worked out of numerous jams in the middle innings, stranding six baserunners across the fourth, fifth and sixth. Then, he retired all six batters he faced over his final two frames, recording his seventh strikeout by getting Brandon Lowe to fan at his 95th and final pitch of the night.

At 23 years and 304 days, Rodriguez became the youngest Baltimore pitcher to work eight or more scoreless innings since Zack Britton (23 years and 141 days) blanked Seattle for nine on May 12, 2011.

“That’s the most in command I’ve seen him with all of his pitches,” Hyde said. “Just absolutely outstanding.”

Rodriguez, who used his four-seam fastball for 66 of his 95 pitches, did not let the magnitude of the mid-September stage get to him.

“It was just another game,” said Rodriguez, who didn’t issue a walk for the first time in the Majors. “Just another regular-season game.”

“He fed off that energy in the crowd,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Sometimes, young pitchers, they get a little amped up and they start spraying balls all over. He did not do that.”

Rodriguez outdueled Tampa Bay righty Tyler Glasnow, who yielded six runs in four innings and allowed Baltimore’s bats to break out of their recent funk. Entering Saturday, the Orioles had only nine hits in their previous 96 at-bats, having scored six runs over their four-game skid.

The O’s took the lead on a Ryan O’Hearn RBI single in the first, then pushed across three more runs in the second via a two-out rally featuring an Adam Frazier RBI knock and a Henderson two-run homer (his team-high-tying 27th of the year).

“It was a matter of time,” Henderson said. “I mean, every team goes through this at some point throughout the season, and I felt like we haven’t really gotten on ourselves about it. Just got to play through it.”

The thing is, Baltimore hasn’t really gone through it this year. That’s why it hasn’t lost more than four consecutive games (which has happened only twice) or been swept in 87 consecutive multigame series.

Given the importance of this weekend’s four-game set against the Rays -- and how the Orioles started it, having dropped the first two -- the pressure could have weighed greater on the O’s amid one of their rare rough patches. They just didn’t allow that to be the case.

“Everybody just wants to go out there and compete and win no matter how many we’ve lost or how many runs we put up days before,” Henderson said. “We don’t hang our hats on that, we just go out there and play the game hard the next day.”

Soon, the Orioles’ mostly young, inexperienced core will experience an even larger stage: October.

On Sunday, Baltimore has an opportunity to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2016. Even if it loses to Tampa Bay, it could still do so (if the Rangers lose to the Guardians or the Mariners lose to the Dodgers). But the simplest way for the O’s to punch their ticket is by winning the finale vs. the Rays.

Rodriguez, Henderson and the rest of the Orioles’ clubhouse aren’t thinking about it. And Hyde definitely isn’t thinking about the P-word that defines what comes after the regular season.

“I’m not talking about it,” Hyde said. “I’m not saying the word.”