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Playoff-bound Orioles remove all doubt with thrilling finish to weekend

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We doubted them again.  

We shouldn’t have, but we did.

Having dropped back-to-back games to Tampa Bay to lose sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time in nearly two months, the Orioles looked like they might be in trouble late Friday night. Even the very best teams go through a four-game losing streak or two — sometimes even longer than that — over the course of a six-month season, but the formidable Rays had left Baltimore so little margin for error in mid-September.

Clinching a postseason spot was never in doubt — at least for the last month or so — but even the most optimistic of fans had to wonder how such an inexperienced club would respond to a late-season slump, especially with few established veterans to reassure young players that everything would be fine. But it turns out the Orioles had all the leadership they needed within their young ranks. 

Following Thursday’s 4-3 loss, the 22-year-old Gunnar Henderson said the Orioles simply needed “one big hit” to reverse the offensive drought that had begun against St. Louis on Tuesday. The 22-year-old’s two-run homer in the second inning on Saturday certainly qualified on the way to an 8-0 win. The two youngest players on the club, Henderson and the 23-year-old Grayson Rodriguez — who looked every bit the part of a future ace with eight shutout innings — led the way for arguably the biggest victory of the season. 

After the 7-1 blowout defeat on Friday, Adley Rutschman — the 25-year-old face of the multiyear rebuild whose 2022 arrival in the majors changed everything — reminded that “every team goes through ups and downs” and “tomorrow’s a new day.” Not wanting to be outdone by the heroics of Rodriguez and Henderson the previous night, the All-Star catcher broke out of his recent skid on Sunday with a home run off flame-throwing Rays closer Pete Fairbanks to cut the deficit to 3-2 in the eighth inning and a game-tying single with two outs in the last of the 10th. 

That set the stage for the 11th inning, where it was only fitting that the Orioles found another unusual way to win. With Rutschman beginning the inning on second base, Ryan O’Hearn — one of the season’s great surprises and sporting the second-best slugging percentage on the club — led off. Facing lefty Jake Diekman and having struck out against southpaw Colin Poche earlier in the game — the left-handed hitter entered Sunday with only 24 plate appearances against lefties all year — O’Hearn was asked to bunt, something he told reporters he hadn’t done in five years. On the first pitch, the first baseman advanced Rutschman to third with a perfect sacrifice, setting the stage for the game-winning sacrifice fly off the bat of Cedric Mullins. 

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Just another day in this magical 2023 season. 

The critical four-game set with Tampa Bay began with the Orioles two games ahead. And despite deflating losses on Thursday and Friday, it ended with Baltimore two games ahead, only now with the division tiebreaker in hand and a playoff spot officially secured with 13 games to go. A two-game cushion in the AL East — three in the loss column — with two weeks to play exceeds the wildest expectations even the organization itself had entering the season. 

General manager Mike Elias admitted as much last December. 

Leading up to Sunday, there was internal debate over whether the Orioles would hold the full-blown champagne celebration for clinching a postseason berth, especially if it came in the middle of a Tampa Bay series with the division lead at stake. A Texas loss in Cleveland officially punched Baltimore’s ticket to the playoffs before the conclusion of Sunday’s game, but the 47th comeback victory of the season made for an easy decision. 

The Orioles know much work remains to secure their first division crown since 2014 and the top seed in the AL — the real prize they seek — but a full-blown clubhouse celebration was in order. After all, it was exactly two years ago to the day that the 2021 club had lost its 100th game on the way to a 52-110 finish.

No one was taking this for granted. 

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Manager Brandon Hyde and “veteran” players in their late 20s such as Mullins, Anthony Santander, and Austin Hays remember the misery of those 100-plus-loss seasons all too well. The Orioles — and their fans — deserved to enjoy the moment before turning attention to the final road trip of the season that begins with another potential playoff preview in Houston on Monday night. 

Toasting his players as Sunday’s celebration commenced, Hyde said, “This is Step 1 of many celebrations.”

After the Orioles’ thrilling finish to the weekend, no one is doubting anymore. 

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