You know, I’m not a fan of the Orioles’ 7:35 start times for home games this season. A sport that desperately needs to reach out to younger fans shouldn’t be pushing its start times even later than in the pre-pandemic days. Kids might not have to get up early in the morning to catch a bus, but they’ve still got school in some form. They’ve still got bedtimes. There’s no reason to be dragging out baseball games late into the night.
But tonight, the O’s did us a solid. They zipped through a quick, well-paced barnburner of a game that was over by 10:15. Oh, and they went ahead and won it, giving them a series victory over the first-place Atlanta Braves. I’d call that a pretty good night in Birdland.
Can we talk about what a joy it is to watch Keegan Akin pitch? Time will tell whether he has a successful big league career ahead of him — though performances like tonight’s are a good first step — but it’s refreshing how quickly he works when he’s on the mound, getting the ball back from the catcher and immediately being ready to throw the next pitch. He has a plan and he executes it. He attacks the strike zone. He works hitters in and out, up and down, mixing his fastball and offspeed pitches beautifully.
And frankly, that’s not what I expected from Akin, a guy who walked 4.9 batters per nine innings at Triple-A Norfolk last season. I feared he’d come to the bigs as a guy who nibbled and hemmed and hawed and walked batters left and right, like so many failed O’s pitching prospects before him. Instead, he’s flourished, allowing zero earned runs in three of his four starts for the Orioles.
Tonight, Akin was the most dominant he’s been in his brief MLB career. He set the tone by striking out Ronald Acuna Jr., one of the game’s best young hitters, to lead off the game. And though the Braves put two runners aboard in the first, Akin escaped the threat by blowing a fastball past Dansby Swanson for a strikeout.
Thus began a remarkable stretch in which Akin was flat-out unhittable. He racked up not one, not two, not three...OK, I’ll just jump ahead: he struck out six consecutive batters! That really happened! The last two strikeouts of the second inning were each on just three pitches, as was the first one of the third inning. So that doesn’t technically count as an immaculate inning, but I feel like there should be some sort of term for three straight three-pitch Ks. An immaculate hat trick?
Before Akin, the last Orioles pitcher to rack up six straight strikeouts in a game was John Wasdin in 2001. You could have given me a thousand guesses as to which Oriole last did that and I wouldn’t have landed on Wasdin, a journeyman reliever who pitched 26 unmemorable games for the Birds (well, it turns out one of them was memorable).
Akin was simply carving up a dangerous Braves lineup, perfectly spotting his fastball and knocking hitters off balance with his sharp-breaking slider. And unlike in his previous outing, Akin got some help from his defense. Shortstop Jose Iglesias made a leaping catch of a sharp liner in the fourth, and right fielder DJ Stewart ranged deep into the corner in foul territory to flag down a long fly ball in the fifth.
In all, Akin collected nine strikeouts tonight, a career high. They did ratchet up his pitch count, if you want to quibble, which forced him out of the game a bit early. He stayed in long enough to qualify for the win, stranding two runners in the fifth by retiring Acuna on a flyout. Akin finished with five shutout frames, giving up three hits and a walk while throwing 63 of his 93 pitches for strikes. I’ll take that!
Meanwhile, an Orioles’ offense that has run hot and cold (mostly cold of late) found some early success against veteran lefty Cole Hamels, who was finally making his 2020 and Braves debut after recovering from left triceps tendinitis. In the third, Austin Hays sparked a rally with a leadoff double, and Andrew Velazquez drew a walk, his fourth in his last two games (not bad for a .167 hitter).
With two on and none out, the MASN broadcast crew speculated on whether Hanser Alberto would bunt. Remember the tried-and-true motto: Never Bunt. Hit Dingers. Or if you can’t hit a dinger, hit an RBI double, which is precisely what Alberto did, giving the O’s a 1-0 lead. The O’s cashed in their two remaining runners in scoring position without the benefit of a hit, as Iglesias plated one with a groundout and Ryan Mountcastle then lofted a sac fly. Yes! Bring me all your POFOs! (That’s “productive outs for Orioles,” for the uninitiated.)
Hamels ended up working 3.1 innings before giving way to long reliever Josh Tomlin, who held the Birds in check until a Renato Nunez two-run double in the sixth. That was nice to see from Nunez, who was batting .158 with a .554 OPS in his last nine games.
The Orioles’ bullpen made the lead stand up, with four relievers — Dillon Tate, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, and Cesar Valdez — each working one inning. Their only blemish was an unearned run in the sixth, when Freddie Freeman singled, advanced to second on a passed ball, and later scored on a questionable balk call against Tate. The Braves had a chance to rally again in the eighth, when a Scott throwing error on a comebacker put Ozzie Albies at second, but then they ran the bases like a bunch of drunkards. Albies got himself hung out to dry on a Freeman tapper to the mound, eventually getting tagged out between second and third, and then Freeman was thrown out by Pedro Severino when he tried to advance to third on a wild pitch.
The delightfully soft-tossing Valdez, who seems to be the Orioles’ ninth-inning guy now, finished things off, though not in a save situation. The game clocked in at a breezy two hours and 35 minutes, the Birds’ quickest nine-inning contest of the season. Thanks, guys!
Who was the Most Birdland Player for Wednesday, September 16?
This poll is closed
Keegan Akin (5 IP, 0 ER, 9 K, first major league win)