In 2018, on their way to 115 losses, the Orioles went 3-16 against the eventual World Series champion Red Sox. Last year, on their way to 110 defeats, Baltimore lost 18 of 19 games to the division-winning Tampa Bay Rays.
Those records highlighted just how woeful the Orioles were. They were miles behind the rest of the competition. Put them against good teams, and they were outmatched. Put them against the best teams, and they had no shot at all.
This year, Baltimore’s sitting at 21-29. That’s still nothing to write home about. At this rate, the Orioles would finish 68-94. Not exactly winning baseball.
But all it takes is a few times watching them to see how the Orioles have progressed as a competitive team.
There are numbers that show this as well. After winning once in 19 games against Tampa Bay last year, the Orioles have won twice in six games this year. They’re now 5-3 against the Red Sox - a slumping team, sure, but still a tough foe with All-Stars scattered throughout the lineup. They have been handled by the Yankees — who are on a 111-win pace — but even so, with four wins in 13 matchups, it’s not the one-sided rout it has been against top teams in years past.
More so, there are just examples where the competitiveness of the team has shown through. The comeback win in 11 innings against the Rays, two games after a walk-off victory. The rally from 8-2 down after six innings to beat Boston 12-8. The stretch of four straight series victories or ties from April 29 to May 12.
All of these showed the Orioles as being a team that fights back when trailing, and a team that has started to learn how to turn playing well into also winning games. From 2018 to 2021, excluding the COVID-shortened season, Baltimore went a combined 36-75 (a .324 winning percentage) in one-run games, creating a sense among fans watching that the game-deciding mistake was always just around the corner if the Orioles found themselves in a close game.
This year, Baltimore is 6-8 in one-run games, a winning percentage of .429. The sample is small, of course, but it also reflects the general sense that the Orioles have not only started to hang in more games, but they’ve started to make the plays that win them instead of always making the ones that lose.
Baltimore’s improved competitiveness can be attributed to two primary causes. First is the pitching, and the bullpen in particular. After ranking dead last in ERA in 2018 (5.18), ’19 (5.59) and ’21 (5.84), Baltimore is 20th out of 30 with a 4.10 mark. When it comes to the bullpen, Orioles relievers have pitched to an ERA of 3.19 - the fifth-best mark in baseball.
For whatever the reason, be it the wall in left or talented arms, Baltimore has seen the reliever production give this team a shot in the arm. New closer Jorge Lopez has an ERA of 1.16. Cionel Perez (0.60) and Dillon Tate (1.80) have been stellar. Other options like Felix Bautista (2.25), Joey Krehbiel (2.74) and recently Logan Gillaspie (1.42) have been finds.
Overnight, the bullpen for Baltimore has gone from being a raging fire to being a smothering blanket that puts them out. A team that pitches well is a match for anyone. A team that can’t pitch is a match for no one.
The other factor in Baltimore’s favor is that the players who are filling the roles, be it on the mound, in the field and in the batter’s box, are of a higher talent level. While starting its rebuild and waiting for its newly implanted prospects to rise through the system, Baltimore had to use journeymen at the major league level. So career minor leaguers or players who had rarely done more than utility roles became relied-upon players for the Orioles. It’s hard to win while leaning on another team’s rejects.
This season, the youth wave has started to reach the major league level, and as a result it’s developed prospects who are handling the load. With Adley Rutschman having joined the likes of Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, more and more of the Orioles’ lineup is being filled by players who have been groomed by the franchise for this level, and who have been regarded as future big-time contributors in the major leagues. In the bullpen, the long relief role is being filled not by a pitcher who’s spent a career hovering between Triple-A and the majors, but by Keegan Akin, a former top-10 prospect in the organization.
And there are more coming.
The rebuild is still nowhere near complete. The Orioles are still nowhere near how good they’re hoping to be once all the blue-chip prospects make their arrival. But it’s hard not to notice, even in what promises to be another losing season in Baltimore, how much tougher the team has become to play this year.
The Orioles are still bound for last place. They’re not a good team yet. But they’re also no longer a team that rolls over and hands each opponent it plays a series sweep.
The days of being a winning team aren’t here yet. But the days of being a pushover hopefully aren’t here anymore.