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Cedric Mullins hits a grand slam, but the O’s lose a battle of the bullpens, 5-4

Against the Brewers’ Eric Lauer and a stable of All-Star relievers, the O’s struck out 14 times. Not quite a recipe for success.

Milwaukee Brewers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Do you remember those Bill Hader Stefon segments on SNL where he’d recommend really inappropriate places, say, to take your mom on Mother’s Day? Well, as Stefon would say, this game had everything: catcher’s interference, a balk, four errors, four unearned runs, a couple of late-inning rallies, and a Cedric Mullins grand slam.

Then again, if you saw the O’s roll out a lineup featuring Chris Owings, Kélvin Gutiérrez, Robinson Chirinos and starting pitcher Spenser Watkins and concluded, This one is over before it even begins, I can’t blame you. I had the same reaction. Give it to the Orioles, though, they made it close.

Off the bat the merry ragtag band looked better than expected when Spenser Watkins’ first pitch of the game was a 94-mph fastball painted on the corner. The MASN booth was stunned. Spenser Watkins, an extra 3 mph of velo in the offseason? Driveline Baseball, where Watkins worked out in the offseason, couldn’t ask for a better promo. Kevin Brown recovered first, offering, “Spenser Watkins does appear to have dipped into some magical waters this offseason.”

If Watkins’ stuff continues to look this way, this bodes really good things for Orioles pitching this season. Unfortunately, tonight the results could have been better than four Brewers runs in three innings. Three were unearned, however, so lay this one partly on the defense.

In the first, after Watkins got Kolten Wong whiffing, Chris Owings dropped a pickoff throw to erase a gimme caught-stealing. (Note: not a great look for a replacement shortstop.) The extra out hurt: Watkins narrowly walked the 2018 NL MVP, Christian Yelich, then tried to sneak a cutter by Andrew McCutchen, but the Brewers’ DH was all over it. McCutchen’s double down the line put the O’s down in a 2-0 hole.

Meanwhile, the Brewers’ Eric Lauer was hitting 96 with his heater and dealing fluently in big, loopy lefty curveballs—just the sort of combo that gives Orioles hitters conniption fits. But Lauer’s impressive-looking stuff started to miss in the second: two walks and a catcher’s interference later and the O’s had a two-out, bases-loaded scenario for Cedric Mullins. On the year, the O’s were 3-for-34 with RISP. One of those hits was Mullins’ clutch two-run single on Monday. Could he do it again?

ROGER. AFFIRMATIVE. YES, HE COULD. Eric Lauer was a strike away from ending the inning, having painted a pair of 96-mph heaters on the corner. For his encore, however, Lauer lobbed a big, fat flabby curveball right down the middle. The O’s reigning Silver Slugger creamed it into the bleachers. What a moment for Cedric Mullins’ first career grand slam.

But a 4-2 lead against last season’s NL Central champions is no safe bet, and by the third inning, this one was tied again. Watkins surrendered a leadoff walk, dispatched Yelich and McCutchen in order, and got a weak comebacker from Rowdy Tellez. End of the threat? Nope. Watkins muffed the throw to Mancini, and the E1 led to a third, unearned run for the Brewers. The dreaded extra out: Hunter Renfroe hit a ground-rule double to tie up the game.

Watkins would exit with this stat line: 3 IP, 4 R, 1 ER, 4 H, 2 BB. Oh? You’re not wowed? Well, Watkins looked much better than this line. As in, with this new fastball, he could be part of a competent pitching staff this year. He still doesn’t seem to quite trust the pitch yet, and indeed, the MASN booth was jawing about Watkins’ pitch selection all game (honestly, I could listen to this trio talk all day). “You’d think with an uptick in velo, he would have more confidence in that fastball,” offered Ben McDonald. Jim Palmer agreed: with a fastball so improved, why feed hitters middle-middle cutters at 87? The cutter was Watkins’ best pitch last season, but it was his worst one tonight. There’s still work to do. But all I know is, I am looking forward to Watkins’ next appearance. And I’m not sure I’ve ever said that.

From there, however, the Orioles squandered the tie. Perhaps it was foreseeable.

Blame Félix Bautista, who hit 99 today but caught a lot of plate with a slider to Willy Adames, who turned it into a one-out double. Cionel Pérez and his 0.00 ERA had to face Christian Yelich and McCutchen, and he almost got away with it, too, but McCutchen singled with two outs to bring home Adames. Brewers 5, Orioles 4.

Blame the Wall, which ate a 358-foot Trey Mancini bomb and turned it into a double. Mancini was left stranded on third base. Wall!!!! [shakes fist]

Blame the Brewers bullpen—Jake Cousins (owner of a wicked slider), lefty sidearmer Hoby Milner, All-Star Brad Boxburger, 2020 NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams, who hasn’t allowed a run in 28 of his last 29 appearances, and All-Star closer Josh Hader. OK, the Brewers’ bullpen is just unfair.

Blame the early defensive miscues, because it’s never necessary to give last year’s NL Central Champs three extra runs.

Still, mostly blame more uselessness by the Orioles with RISP, like three straight outs to douse a no outs, two-on rally in the sixth. Or a painful eighth, when a wild-looking Williams loaded the bases with nobody out, and the O’s still scored none. Williams embarrassed Birds hitters with three swinging strikeouts of Chris Owings, Jorge Mateo, and Ryan McKenna. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Cedric Mullins even led off the ninth with a double that just missed the bleachers, and the Birds still couldn’t bring him home.

Look, if you’re a glass half-full type, there was some good contact tonight and more unexpected competence, overall, from the bullpen (Keegan Akin and Joey Krehbiel looked especially good). Overall, this team just looks better than it did in the doldrums of 2021. Unfortunately, the good teams are, like, really good. And it doesn’t get any easier tomorrow in the rubber match, when the Birds have to face the 2021 NL Cy Young winner in Corbin Burnes. First pitch is at 7:05 ET. Hope springs eternal, right?