Oh, you thought COVID-19 was in the rearview mirror for the Baltimore Orioles? Today was a rude awakening for a lot of us. About 90 minutes before the start of a 12:10 ET game, the Orioles’ announced starter, Keegan Akin, and right fielder, Anthony Santander, were moved to the COVID-19 injured list, forcing an emergency start by Alexander Wells and DJ Stewart. It’s not clear what’s going on: the Orioles announced an 85% team vaccination rate months ago, and Santander apparently already had the virus. In his pre-game interview, manager Brandon Hyde seemed as surprised by the news as you and me.
It probably wasn’t the way Alex Wells would have scripted his very first major league start. Nor was giving up a home run to the first batter of the game, Randy Arozarena. Or walking two batters in the same inning. Or allowing a no-out, RBI triple to No. 8 hitter Joey Wendle in the second inning. Wells has the sort of stuff that needs to be commanded perfectly to succeed—and early on, he didn’t. (Command or succeed, exactly.)
But to his credit, he hung tough and did not make bad situations worse, a skill not every Orioles starter has shown, if we’re being honest. Wells escaped the first inning with two clutch strikeouts to give up just the one run. He worked out of a no-out, man-on-third situation to limit the Rays to one run in the second. And in the third, when two Orioles errors allowed Wander Franco to reach second, Wells worked a brilliant strikeout of the tough Ji-Man Choi to end the threat. (Look where that bat goes … muahahaha.)
Meanwhile, the Orioles were keeping pace against the Rays’ 6’6 righty Michael Wacha, working with a fastball-cutter-slider combo today. After the unstoppable, table-setting force that is Cedric Mullins led off the game with a slice double, his first of two hits on the day, Austin Hays cracked a double of his own that split the outfielders in center and right to score Mullins.
The Orioles turned to the long ball for a few more runs. Pat Valaika, so undeserving of his nickname “Pat the Bat” of late, cranked a home run off Wacha’s first pitch in the third inning to tie the game at 2. Déjà vu in the fourth inning, where Ryan Mountcastle was like, “Anything you can do, I can do better, bruh,” smacking his first Wacha pitch—a 92-mph fastball—into the stands to give the Orioles back the lead. Orioles 3, Rays 2.
Wells actually picked up steam in the middle innings, putting together an impressive string of eight consecutive Rays retired. But Randy Arozarena is a bad, bad man. He clobbered a Wells fastball 428 feet to deep center to tie the game up at three in the fifth inning. (Arozarena, who’s hitting .438 against the Orioles in 2021: this year’s Gleyber Torres? Discuss.)
Still the Orioles kept up the attack. Wacha was out after five and Matt Wisler was in to pitch the sixth, but the Orioles hit him, too. Trey Mancini stung a double to the gap, his first of two hits on the day. Mountcastle, so hot today, singled to left, and with the Trop’s cavernous outfield, Mancini was able to score easily. Orioles 4, Rays 3.
Wells faced two lefties in the sixth, got two outs, and handed the inning over to Cole Sulser, who dutifully struck out the next dude with a mean slider. Wells left with a final line of 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 7 SO. Clichéd but fair assessment: he wasn’t perfect today, but—say it with me—he gave his team a chance to win. Maybe today’s COVID-19 scare was a blessing in disguise: I’d rather see Wells work carefully around hitters than Keegan Akin getting bombed off the mound any day.
It was now up to the Orioles bullpen to get nine outs against the dangerous Rays with a one-run lead, a huge task. And they nearly got away it.
Sulser retired the first hitter of the seventh but allowed a triple to the cheerful Brett Phillips, 1-for-his last 10. Dillon Tate came in to face the Orioles’ nemesis, Arozarena, with a runner on third and less than two outs. After Austin Wynns took a backswing to the face and the count went to 3-2, Tate got a huge swinging strike three on a very weird backdoor changeup before retiring the next Ray on a groundout. It was one of the biggest at-bats of the game.
Dillon Tate tying up Randy Arozarena big time. pic.twitter.com/qWbha719rl— Justin Groc (@jgroc) July 21, 2021
Paul Fry was in for the eighth and he, too, managed to wriggle out of danger thanks to a Mountcastle backhander on a 100-mph liner and a second bat-throwing strikeout from Ji-Man Choi with runners on.
The Orioles’ closer du jour was Tanner Scott, facing a slew of Rays power bats: Yandy Diaz; All-Star catcher Mike Zunino, pinch hitting; the dreaded Arozarena; and Austin Meadows. What happened was not entirely Scott’s fault: he allowed a leadoff single, got a timely swinging K of Díaz, but he walked Zunino to put the winning run on for Arozarena. Scott threw a slider, drawing a little blooper, but Mountcastle and Valaika collided and nobody caught it. It felt like a big deal, and it was. The runner didn’t score, but the bases were loaded. Scott got a second strikeout for the second out, and he was one strike away from finishing this thing. But alas, another bloop single, two more Rays runs, and this one was over.
Ordinarily, for this Orioles team to put up a good fight against last year’s AL champs while managing a .500 record on a road trip would be something to be cheerful about, but gotta admit, losing this way stings a little bit.