When the Orioles boarded their train home from New York on Sunday night, their 4-6 record looked a lot better than maybe any other .400 team in baseball. See, it’s how the Orioles got there that was nothing short of remarkable.
After losing two of three games to the Minnesota Twins in the season-opening series, a series in which they looked lifeless, they headed out to Houston to visit the Astros for their home opener.
As if playing the Astros early on wasn’t bad enough, they got to do it while Houston raised its World Series banner before game one, and handed out their World Series rings before game two. Not exactly smooth sailing for a team struggling to find its way after a last place finish the season before.
It was a tough series for the Orioles that sent them to New York looking up in the standings after being swept, but feeling better than a 1-5 record would indicate. Game one was a wash with Chris Tillman missing the strike zone but not many bats. Game two, however, could have been a turning point in the season.
Facing Justin Verlander and opposing him with Mike Wright, the Orioles were destined to fail, but Wright went out and out-dueled Verlander – albeit in five innings, but he out-dueled him nonetheless. In fact, the Orioles led the ballgame 4-3 when Verlander departed, and entered the home half of the seventh inning knotted up at five.
Then the wheels fell off as Buck Showalter was forced to use two Rule V picks in Pedro Araujo and Nestor Cortes, Jr. to try to set down the best offense in the American League. A grand slam and five runs later, the game was out of reach and the Orioles would eventually lose 10-6.
And while the Astros finished off the sweep with a 3-2 victory the next day–with a throwing error by another Rule V player (Anthony Santander) allowing the winning run to score–the Orioles had proven, to themselves if no one else, that they could hang with the big boys. They just didn’t have the wins to prove it.
On to New York to face the team the Astros had barely beaten in a seven-game championship series to reach the World Series back in October. With a lineup featuring the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, and Gary Sanchez, it looked to be an uphill climb for a struggling Orioles pitching staff.
In game one, Andrew Cashner shook off the rust from his first start, tossing six innings of two-hit, one-run ball to beat Masahiro Tanaka. A five-run seventh inning sparked by an Adam Jones two-run homer put the Orioles back in the win column for the first time since Opening Day, snapping a five-game losing streak in the process.
In game two, the Orioles overcame a game-tying home run from Gregorius in the eighth inning, and though it took 14 innings, a grand slam from Pedro Alvarez fueled a 7-3 victory for the Birds. Pedro Araujo, the Rule V pick who had taken the loss in Houston three nights prior by allowing four runs in 0.2 IP, picked up his first major league victory, tossing two shutout innings while navigating through the heart of that daunting New York lineup.
The bullpen as a whole was brilliant, pitching nine innings and allowing just one run on two hits. In fact, they should have been credited with two saves, though Brad Brach gets the one that goes in the scorebook.
In the 11th inning, Mychal Givens was pitching with two outs and runners on second and third when he uncorked a wild pitch. With Gregorius racing home, the ball caromed back to Caleb Joseph, who flipped the ball to Givens like a second basemen to a shortstop on a double play.
Givens, on a dead sprint, caught the ball while going into a slide–simultaneously blocking the plate–and apply the tag to Gregorious for the third and final out of the inning. The play was reviewed, and while the out call was controversial given the rules about blocking the plate, the call on the field was proven correct as the path of the thrown ball took Givens into the baseline to make the play.
Game three was tough as Tillman got the start. While he was better than his first go-round, he was still bad, and the Orioles eventually lost 8-3 and headed into Sunday needing Wright to replicate his Houston performance to take the series.
As bad as Tillman was in game three, Wright was that much worse in game four. The much-maligned starter was charged with five runs (two earned) and left the ballgame with an out still remaining in the first inning. Wright compounded his issues with a costly throwing error on a poor decision to attempt a double play, an error that opened the flood gates.
Trailing 5-0 to start the second inning, the Orioles scratched and clawed their way back into ball game and eventually took the lead, 7-6, on a Santander two-run homer in the seventh inning. Refusing to die, the Yankees tied the game in the bottom half of the seventh, and the game would go into extra innings.
In the top of the 12th, the Orioles finally broke through, using an RBI single from Craig Gentry to take an 8-7 lead. In the bottom half, Brach came on attempting to pick up his second save of the series.
Brach walked the first two hitters of the inning on nine pitches; the eight and nine-hole hitters, mind you. Brett Gardner then laid down a bunt that Brach attempted to field with his bare hand, seemingly forgetting about the glove on his left hand. It was a failed attempt and the bases were now loaded for Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
In perhaps the biggest play of the game, Brach got Judge to bounce back to the pitcher, starting a 1-2-5 double play to retire both lead runners. Now with runners on first and second and two down, Stanton stepped to the plate 0-6 with four strikeouts on the afternoon. He left the plate 0-7 with 5 strikeouts as Brach struck out the reigning National League home run champion and MVP to pick up a miraculous save and series victory for the ball club. The bullpen was stellar again, pitching 11.1 innings while allowing just two runs and striking out 11.
On a five-game losing streak and reeling after a tough series sweep at the hands of the Astros, the Orioles could have done as Brian Dozier asked earlier in the season and just rolled over and died in New York.
The Birds wouldn’t have it and took advantage of a series that saw the Yankees lose star players Gary Sanchez, C.C. Sabathia, and Brandon Drury to injuries/illness. The series-defining element was the handling of Judge and Stanton. The same duo that combined for 111 home runs in 2017 went 8-36 with one home run and 13 strikeouts in the series.
Now headed back to Baltimore riding high after taking three of four games from the Evil Empire, the Orioles will take on division rival Toronto in a three game series. Dylan Bundy will get the start in game one as perhaps the most confident .400 team in all of baseball looks to build on its recent success.