Thursday, October 6, 2022

A little magic continues going long way for Orioles

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

The final score tweets were composed and the game stories were ready to be submitted with the Orioles about to suffer one of their most deflating losses of the season on Thursday.

After leading 2-1 for most of the night behind seven strong innings from Jordan Lyles, the Orioles had allowed runs in the seventh and eighth to fall behind 3-2 and hadn’t managed a hit since the fourth inning. Thoughts of a series loss to the Chicago White Sox to fall 3 1/2 games back of the final wild-card spot ahead of the trip to Houston to face the AL-leading Astros were sobering enough to make one wonder if this 2022 playoff dream was going to come crashing down as soon as Labor Day weekend.

A boisterous crowd trying to will the Orioles to a comeback — even loudly booing White Sox closer Liam Hendriks as he tied his shoes — gasped as left fielder and defensive replacement Adam Engel dropped struggling rookie Kyle Stowers’ foul pop that should have ended the game. It was a gift.

“I just knew I had another chance,” said Stowers, who hadn’t gotten a hit since last Friday. “That’s all you can ask for. It’s just funny how baseball works sometimes.”

Even that didn’t look like it was going to matter, however, after three-time All-Star closer Liam Hendriks overpowered Stowers with a high 96 mph fastball for the second strike. Call it a little magic with an 0-2 count, but Hendricks threw a flat curve that Stowers belted into the first row of the bleachers in center field for his first major league home run.

Two monster innings from sensational rookie closer Felix Bautista and an Anthony Santander walk-off hit later, the Orioles celebrated arguably their biggest win of the 2022 season.

With the three AL wild-card leaders — Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Seattle — 11 or more games above .500 entering Friday’s action, the Orioles will need more of what we witnessed Thursday to keep their postseason dream alive. Through their first 124 games of the season, the Orioles have scored only 12 more runs than they’ve allowed, but the dramatic win showed how a little bit goes a long way for Brandon Hyde’s club.

Anyone watching on a nightly basis can see how stretched the bullpen has become in the wake of the Jorge Lopez trade with Hyde relying heavily on Bautista and spreading the rest of the load among middle relievers now pitching in more high-leverage spots. That’s not to suggest the likes of Dillon Tate, Cionel Perez, Joey Krehbiel, and Bryan Baker haven’t had good seasons — especially relative to their expectations — but it’s a different animal appearing in the late innings of close games in a playoff race, especially for pitchers like Tate and Krehbiel who lack great swing-and-miss stuff. Legitimate concerns about the Lopez trade were always about everyone else moving up in the bullpen chain rather than concerns about Bautista stepping into the closer role.

Though he didn’t factor into Thursday’s decision, Lyles going seven innings is exactly what the Orioles needed as it was just the seventh time in August that a starter completed six or more frames. To be clear, Baltimore doesn’t ask much of its starters, but that sixth-inning bridge — and often the seventh — is growing more difficult to navigate down the stretch, meaning something will have to give if the Orioles are going to continue hanging tough.

That brings us to an offense that remains complicated in the wake of Trey Mancini’s trade to the Astros. Thanks in large part to Adley Rutschman, Cedric Mullins, and Jorge Mateo, the Orioles are having their best overall month at the plate in terms of batting average, on-base plus slugging percentage, and runs scored per game in August. But the lineup has been feast or famine, too often failing to get going until late in games and putting greater strain on a bullpen that’s been worked to the bone.

It’s why so many were clamoring for Stowers to be promoted and continue calling for top prospect Gunnar Henderson to be summoned from Triple-A Norfolk. The Orioles needed the jolt Stowers provided, and they’ll need more of that up and down the lineup the rest of the way.

But as Baltimore embarks on a daunting road trip against two of the AL’s division leaders, Thursday provided the latest example of just how thrilling meaningful baseball can be. A rookie “floating around the bases” — as Hyde described it — after hitting his first major league homer to tie a game in the ninth is special enough, but the stakes it carried gave you goosebumps. That we’re even pondering what could boost or derail the Orioles’ wild-card hopes would have sounded absurd a year ago at this time when they were licking their wounds from an embarrassing 19-game losing streak and trudging to a 110-loss season.

The Ravens are kicking off their season in two weeks with the Orioles still relevant and in the race, which says it all about the state of the local sports scene. This impossible ride continues as Thursday’s walk-off victory clinched Baltimore’s third straight winning month, the first time that’s happened since 2016.

The longer this continues, the more you imagine how exciting the future will be with the Orioles’ farm system widely regarded as baseball’s best. If the talent in the pipeline proves to be as good as advertised, Baltimore is only scratching the surface.

“Just showing up to the ballpark late in the season knowing you’re playing for something is special,” said Lyles, who’s never pitched in the postseason in his 12-year major league career. “It makes it very fun and easy to come to the ballpark every day. You can’t wait to get there. These guys are just so enjoyable to be a part of.

“It’s a good time to be an Orioles fan.”

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