A pair of plays that felt conjured up from recent baseball history tilted the game away from the Baltimore Orioles Friday night.
The Orioles fought but couldn’t find a finishing touch until it was too late, dropping the opener of their series with the Washington Nationals 4-2. They got a solid start from Jorge Lopez, one that helped keep them in striking distance throughout the night, but a couple of plays perhaps made the difference between a win - one the O’s could really use right about now - and the loss it ended up being.
Start with the first play. Lopez had made it through four shutout innings, even wiggling out of a bases loaded jam in the fourth, but he was in trouble again in the fifth. Lopez got two of the National League’s most dangerous hitters, Trey Turner and Juan Soto, to start the inning, but Josh Bell doubled down the right field line, Kyle Schwarber hit another to pretty much the same blade of grass, and the Nationals took a 1-0 lead.
The damage seemed like it was going to be limited to the one run when Starlin Castro hit a slow roller to third and Maikel Franco fielded it, faked the off-balance throw to first, and instead threw back to third with Schwarber caught too far off the bag. If it looked familiar, it’s because it was. It was pretty much the same exact play that Manny Machado pulled off in his rookie year, one that caused Gary Thorne to go wild on the air and Orioles fans to marvel that the talented prodigy they had just called up was as good mentally as he was physically.
Of course, the Orioles made the play on that night in 2012. Different story on Friday. Shortstop Freddy Galvis had Franco’s throw in his glove, but lost control of it while trying to make the tag on Schwarber. Instead of being the end of the inning, everyone was safe, and 1-0 became 2-0 when Josh Harrison hit a single to center to score Schwarber.
The history book struck again in the sixth. Austin Hays drew a one-out walk, and Trey Mancini drilled a line drive over Soto’s head in right field. Soto’s throw sailed over cut-off man Harrison’s head into the infield, Hays took off for home after slowing at third, and Bell had to chase it down and throw home.
The play wasn’t a replica, but was reminiscent of the Derek Jeter flip play in the 2001 ALDS, when he too raced to an overthrow and got it home to try to get a runner. This time, the end results matched. Jeter’s toss was in time, and so was Bell’s, and Hays was out at the plate to take a run off the board. Mancini went to second, but Anthony Santander struck out to end the inning.
A game that could easily have been 1-1 was instead 2-0, and those runs loomed large when Yadiel Hernandez singled and scored on a Soto single in the sixth - again with two outs - and Ryan Zimmermann singled and scored on a Bell single in the eighth - again with two outs.
Had it been 3-1 instead of 4-0 going into the ninth, the Orioles’ rally would have carried a lot more weight. Mancini hit his second double of the game with one out, and two batters later Galvis got ahold of a Brad Hand pitch and hit it 392 feet for a two-run home run. Baltimore came “thisclose” to making things really interesting when Franco grounded deep into the shortstop-third base hole for what seemed to be a sure single, but Turner made a great play to end the game and deny the Orioles a chance to get the tying run to the plate.
The Orioles were given a good shot at the win by their starting pitcher. Lopez made some big pitches when he had to to sidestep trouble, and finished with seven hits allowed and eight strikeouts in five innings. This one goes in the “tough loss” category; the Orioles simply couldn’t generate the offense to take advantage. Stephen Strasburg allowed only a Santander single through 5.1 innings, and even with the two hits in the ninth the O’s finished with only four hits for the night.
Four hits tonight, two hits last night, and 11 losses in 13 games. It’s a swoon, no doubt. It’s not exclusively a hitting problem, or a pitching problem, or a fundamentals problem. It’s an “everything working at the same time” problem. It’s frustrating to see, but hopefully the O’s will have some answers soon enough.