BALTIMORE — On the night when top Orioles prospect Gunnar Henderson made his Camden Yards debut, we saw a different side of manager Brandon Hyde in the thick of a playoff race.
Perceived by outsiders as much more of a caretaker than a tactician over his first 3 1/2 seasons in Baltimore, Hyde talked about the new reality of the Orioles pushing for the postseason earlier in the day and reiterated that point after Friday’s 5-2 win over Oakland. It’s not as though he didn’t have strategic in-game decisions to make in the past, of course, but the options are more appealing, the stakes are much higher, and more people are paying attention.
Any second-guessing will be louder moving forward.
“We’re playing for our lives right now and we’re playing to try to catch people,” said Hyde, who quipped before the game about finally having a bench he really wants to use. “We’re playing important games in September. That’s never happened since I’ve been here, so that’s a lot of fun just to play the games that matter and not just try to play spoiler, but play for yourself.
“Check your ego at the door. We’re trying to go win the game somehow, anyhow, any way. It’s a tough road ahead, but our guys are stepping up.”
That last point was evident in the bottom of the eighth inning when Athletics pitcher Domingo Acevedo issued an intentional walk to pinch hitter Cedric Mullins, loading the bases with one out for Austin Hays in a 2-2 ballgame. But instead of counting on one of his better players over the last couple seasons, Hyde called an unsuspecting Hays back to the dugout and sent Adley Rutschman to the plate, prompting a small but boisterous crowd of 13,558 to erupt. The rookie sensation worked a 3-2 count before taking a low fastball to draw the walk that plated Anthony Santander for the go-ahead run. Jorge Mateo followed that with a two-run single on the next pitch to provide breathing room for winning pitcher Dillon Tate — filling in for an unavailable Felix Bautista — to preserve the victory in the ninth inning.
At face value, the decision to bat Rutschman for Hays was elementary with the AL Rookie of the Year candidate leading the Orioles in free passes and the latter sporting one of the club’s lowest walk rates and batting just .210 with a .602 on-base plus slugging percentage since July 1. But, as Buck Showalter always reminded, these players are human beings, and we’re talking about removing someone who was arguably the club’s best player over the first three months of 2022 and has batted fifth or higher in the order in 85 of his 115 starts this season. It’s difficult to recall too many times — if any — when Hyde had called Hays back to the dugout for strategic purposes over the last few years, but the Orioles weren’t in a September wild-card race.
Rutschman was also coming off a 2-for-21 road trip, arguably his worst slump since his earliest weeks in the majors. That would have made it even easier for Hyde to stick with Hays in that spot and maintain that his starting catcher was getting the full night off after catching three straight games in Cleveland.
But the fourth-year manager made the right move, regardless of how Hays may have felt in the moment. No one is suggesting the group of solid-to-good young players who’ve done the heavy lifting — and endured an obscene amount of losing these last few years — to help the Orioles to this point will simply be cast aside, but Rutschman and Henderson represent a different breed of talent beginning to arrive in Baltimore.
To the delight of Orioles fans chanting his name throughout the at-bat, the 24-year-old Rutschman patiently delivered.
“He just stays within himself and lets the game come to him so well for a young player,” Hyde said. “He just doesn’t let the moment get too big, and that’s a hard thing to do. You’ve got the bases loaded, game on the line, and to be able to take that sort of at-bat, it shows you how mature he is for being such a young player.”
The moment also reflected a manager’s maturation from caretaker of a rebuild to tactician in the midst of a playoff race.
It was exactly what the contending Orioles needed.