Labor Day feels like the appropriate time to praise the work of the AL-leading Orioles on the way to their first postseason berth since 2016.
Brandon Hyde’s club has sustained prosperity and minimized the tough times, evident by a historic run of not being swept in 83 consecutive series dating back to May of 2022.
Remember how the season was falling apart after a sixth loss in seven games on the Fourth of July? They’ve gone an outstanding 36-16 since then.
The Orioles have lost only 13 series all season and have won five straight series to maintain a 2 1/2-game lead in the AL East despite Tampa Bay going a robust 22-12 since Baltimore took three out of four at Tropicana Field in late July. No, the Rays aren’t going away as we count down to next week’s critical four-game showdown at Camden Yards, but taking it one series victory at a time has allowed the Orioles to maintain sole possession of first place since July 22 despite never leading by more than three games in the division.
Entering Monday a season-high 34 games over .500 at 85-51, the Orioles are only a 15-11 finish away from winning 100 games for the first time since 1980. Even going .500 the rest of the way would mean a 98-64 finish, which would be Baltimore’s best record since 1997.
Of course, winning the division remains paramount with the American League’s top seed and a first-round bye at stake. The benefit of avoiding the volatility of a three-game wild-card series is obvious, but Hyde being able to optimize his starting rotation would be critical for a club still determining who will fill it out. Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, and Dean Kremer are the most deserving, but all three have already set career highs in innings with four weeks to go in the regular season.
In other words, the Orioles can’t assume anything with the injury to All-Star closer Felix Bautista and the second half of Tyler Wells — who’s now dealing with a tired arm in his attempt to transition to a relief role — being painful reminders. That’s why finding some more upside down the stretch — on the pitching or offensive side — could do wonders for a club with goals that extend beyond simply getting to the playoffs.
Hyde confirmed Sunday that John Means will make another start for Triple-A Norfolk, which will bring him to the end of a 30-day rehab assignment that began Aug. 10. Expectations should remain tempered for someone who hasn’t pitched in the majors in nearly 17 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but the 30-year-old lefty doesn’t exactly have a high bar to clear to be a possible factor for October. Neither Kyle Gibson nor Jack Flaherty is pitching well of late and lefty Cole Irvin is far from a rotation mainstay, leaving the door open for Means to stake his claim for a postseason rotation spot in the coming weeks.
Questions about the bullpen are even more pressing in the wake of Bautista suffering “some degree of injury” to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on Aug. 25. Updates have been few and far between — the latest is that the organization is still waiting for the inflammation to subside before further testing — but no one is counting on Bautista jogging out of the bullpen next month at this point. And with Wells having not pitched since recording the save for Triple-A Norfolk on the same night Bautista hurt his elbow, visions of him being a high-leverage bullpen arm for the stretch run look less likely by the day.
Claiming 2022 All-Star reliever Jorge Lopez off waivers could help for the remainder of the regular season and in 2024, but the 30-year-old has struggled this season and won’t be eligible for the playoffs anyway since he arrived after Aug. 31. In other words, the Orioles will need to go with what they already have and hope that All-Star setup man Yennier Cano can handle the ninth inning while others step into more high-leverage situations to bridge that gap.
Still, it’s worth noting the Orioles have gone 5-3 since the night of Bautista’s injury, a winning percentage perfectly in line with what they’ve done all season. Absolutely nothing has made the Orioles blink as they simply continue to go to work — and win.
With the Orioles entering Monday tied for sixth in the majors in runs scored per game, ninth in runs allowed per game, and eighth in defensive runs saved, it’s not as though they’re phenomenal in any one statistical category other than a league-leading 24-12 record in one-run games, a reflection of doing the little things well — and having some good fortune. And while they have plenty of players having good or surprising seasons — headlined by AL Rookie of the Year favorite Gunnar Henderson — the only one who was having a campaign shaping up to be historic in a league-wide sense was Bautista, who leads the majors in win probability added by a pitcher and has struck out an absurd 16.2 batters per nine innings. That’s why he was garnering Cy Young Award consideration and there’s no sugarcoating how much it hurts to lose him.
But the Orioles will keep going because that’s what they’ve done all season, answering every challenge and ignoring every naysayer along the way. Aside from a few veteran role players, this is a young and talented club that doesn’t know any better but to continue winning.
Exactly two years removed from being 50 games under .500 entering the home stretch of a horrendous 2021 season, the Orioles have come such a long way in a short period of time. And they’re not slowing down — even on Labor Day.