Entering Sunday, the Orioles had gone 75-179 over their last two seasons. That sad stretch had included pretty much every kind of loss you could draw up. Routs, shutouts, blown leads, extra-inning heartbreakers. You name it.
There was one kind of defeat, though, that hadn’t been pulled off in that time. The Orioles, for all their woes, hadn’t been no-hit. And with one inning to go on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays, they were staring down the barrel of that exact shame - and a perfect game, to boot.
Just in time, however, the Orioles escaped that narrative. Hanser Alberto’s single broke up the Rays’ attempt at a combined perfect game, the very first in major league history, and subsequent singles by Stevie Wilkerson and Anthony Santander had the Orioles in a sudden rally before Tampa Bay finished off a 4-1 victory, their third in the four-game set.
The afternoon was dominated by Rays pitchers Ryne Stanek, who pitched the first two innings as the game’s opener, and Ryan Yarbrough, who took over in the third. The two used different approaches; while Stanek (two strikeouts) used high-90s power to overwhelm Oriole hitters, Yarbrough used pinpoint command and his breaking pitches to keep the O’s off-balance.
Both approaches yielded the same results, as the Orioles mustered only weak grounders, pop-ups and strikeouts as Yarbrough cruised toward history. The no-hitter became a real thought once he made it through the sixth without allowing a baserunner. Then Jonathan Villar struck out, Anthony Santander popped up and Trey Mancini flew to right in the seventh. And Renato Nunez popped to center, Pedro Severino grounded to short and Chris Davis grounded to second in the eighth.
In the ninth, the breakthrough came on a batted ball that looked no more impressive than any of the groundouts that had come before it. Alberto bounced the first pitch of the inning to right, but with the infield shifted over, there was a gaping hole where the ball was rolling. Spared a degree of embarrassment, Orioles fans roared - pretty loudly, for a crowd near 14,000 people - as Alberto pulled up to first with his team’s first hit of the game.
And then, out of seemingly nowhere and after having no answers at all for eight innings, the Orioles went about trying to win the game. Wilkerson followed with a single, putting runners at first and second. Chance Sisco then struck out, but Villar hit into a fielder’s choice that put runners at the corners. Santander, batting against former Oriole Oliver Drake, then hit a single to right field, scoring Alberto, sending Villar to third base and bringing up Trey Mancini as, suddenly, the tying run.
Emilio Pagan then came in and issued a wild pitch that sent Santander to second, but he bounced back to strike out Mancini and end the threat and the game.
The Orioles’ attempt to avoid being a victim of perfection overshadowed a surprisingly strong outing from Tom Eshelman, who was making only his second career major league start. The 25-year-old’s line isn’t all that good - he went 5.2 innings, and allowed four runs, all earned.
But make no mistake, he was impressive, and he gave the Orioles every chance to win the game. He pitched tough, working his way out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the second by striking out Willy Adames after falling behind 3-1, then getting a flyout from Joey Wendle and striking out Mike Zunino to escape with only a 1-0 deficit.
He did, however, make a couple of mistakes, and the Rays made him pay. The first was a 2-0 pitch in the third that Eshelman left over the plate and that Austin Meadows hit about 860 feet - a slight exaggeration - to right field for a solo home run to make it 2-0.
The second, though, really stung. Eshelman was one out away from a clean sixth inning when he slipped, giving up a single to Nate Lowe (8-for-17 for the series) and then hanging a breaking ball to Mike Brosseau that he hit the other way for a two-run homer and a far more daunting 4-0 lead.
All in all, however, the Orioles pitching - which also included 3.1 scoreless innings of relief from Paul Fry, Richard Bleier and Shawn Armstrong - was solid on Sunday. Baltimore hurlers walked four and allowed only five hits, and made it so that even an Orioles offense that was having trouble just getting someone on base had a chance to win the game.
It wasn’t to be, however. The Orioles found life, but found it too late. But at least they spared themselves some guffaws from fans of the other 29 teams. Someday, some team will be on the wrong end of a combined no-hitter. But on Sunday, it wasn’t going to be the O’s.