This season the Orioles have found, maybe not a “winning” formula, but a consistent one: average-to-crappy starting pitching, tenacious at-bats against opponents’ relievers, and lockdown work by a bullpen that, measured in WAR, is actually the third best in baseball.
Well, live by the sword, die by the sword. On a nearly four-hour epic on Saturday afternoon, the Orioles fell into a four-run hole as Kyle Bradish allowed six runs on 11 hits in 4.1 calamitous innings. O’s hitters stormed back the way it feels like they’ve done again and again this season, tying the game 6-6 in the sixth inning. The bullpen, led by Keegan Akin and Nick Vespi, pitched 3.2 solid innings, but in the ninth inning, a wild Dillon Tate let the tie slip away.
A bummer of a beginning, a thriller of a middle, and a tragedy of an end.
And so, I present to you a Saturday Afternoon Contest in Three Acts.
Act One - Dr. Bradish and Mr. Kyle (or Bradish vs. Bradish)
We’ve seen this from Kyle Bradish before. When he’s good, his fastball is hitting the corners of the strike zone and the breaking stuff is crisp. When Bradish is bad, he’s getting behind hitters, hanging breaking balls, and leaving balls all over the plate.
Good Bradish threw two crisp innings, then went up in smoke in the third. Up 0-2 to Francisco Mejía, Bradish hung a lazy slider: a leadoff single. Bradish got unlucky when two consecutive batters hit balls that just dropped inside the foul ball line, scoring two runs. But then he went to pieces: a single, a hard Ji-Man Choi screamer that Jorge Mateo just reeled in with a leap, and three straight balls to Harold Ramirez followed by a predictable fastball that got blasted into the right-field corner to score two more Tampa Bay runs.
Bradish held off Tampa Bay in the fourth, but his fifth inning began and ended with two consecutive 400-plus foot blasts off of uninspired middle-middle offerings: a 409-foot Yandy Díaz double to deep center and Choi’s 417-foot shot into the bleachers. 6-2 Tampa Bay. That was it for Bradish, whose ERA is up to a season-high 7.38 and who’s gone almost a full month without completing five innings.
Why does the Good Bradish suddenly go poof and disappear? If we knew that, Bradish would be an ace right now. Fatigue doesn’t seem to be it, since Bradish had thrown just 21 pitches in the first two innings. The young righty has said before that concentration—especially following an inning where the O’s put up runs—can be an issue for him. Whatever it is, his stuff just didn’t look the same. In start after start, the opposing team doesn’t seem to beat Bradish so much as he defeats himself.
Act Two – The Catcher is on Fire
Which is how the Orioles found themselves in a 6-2 hole after four-and-a-half innings.
It felt like ancient history at that point, but the Orioles had built up a 2-0 lead back in the second inning. A Tyler Nevin looper found outfield grass with a little help from Mt. Walltimore’s new dimensions, and Ryan McKenna dropped a beautiful bunt single to second base, hustling down the line in 3.86 seconds. On any other day, Robinson Chirinos, the O’s glove-first veteran catcher, would not be the guy you want in an RBI situation, but Chirinos scorched a changeup to the deep in Elrod’s Corner, an RBI double that scored both Nevin and a headfirst sliding McKenna. “Speed can really change the game,” observed MASN’s Jim Palmer. True enough: without McKenna’s wheels, there’d have been no bunt single, no manufactured rally, and no second run scored.
The Orioles chipped away at the lead and drove Jeffrey Springs from the game in the fifth inning. A sharp Austin Hays single, a wild pitch, and Ryan Mountcastle’s second hit of the game made it 6-3. “He’s hitting pretty much anything you throw in there,” said Jim Palmer of Mountcastle, who has an eight-game hit streak and a 1.290 OPS in his last week of work.
The Rays yanked Springs after 86 pitches and summoned slider specialist Matt Whisler to face Anthony Santander. Methinks Whisler throweth the slider too much? Santander lined one to right to put Mountcastle on third. With two outs, a pinch-hitting Cedric Mullins loaded the bases, working a gutsy walk with a few hairline takes.
Chirinos already had two doubles and two RBIs on the day—but he wasn’t finished: he hit a two-run single past the infielders (his fourth RBI of the day) to bring the O’s within one run.
It was 6-5 Tampa headed into the sixth, and this game still had plenty of life left in it.
Tampa Bay turned to righty sidearmer Ryan Thompson. Thompson racked up two quick outs, but Tampa shortstop Taylor Walls booted Trey Mancini’s slow roller, Ryan Mountcastle walked—his third time on base today—and Anthony Santander delivered a game-tying single.
Act Three – The Call of the Wild, or Things Fall Apart (for Dillon Tate)
That put this game into the hands of the late innings relief, which has been so steady for Baltimore this year. It mostly continued to be steady, with one big exception.
Keegan Akin threw two innings of absurdly easy-looking relief. Another “wow” day for Akin.
Joey Krehbiel, in his first start back from injury, retired both batters he faced, with one K.
Beach bum New bullpen stalwart Nick Vespi pitched a drama-free eighth inning. You can see why his 80-mph loopy stuff never wowed the college scouts, but Tampa Bay hitters didn’t know what to do with it, either. The only hard contact Vespi allowed was a lineout right at Trey Mancini.
Unfortunately, the baton-passing stopped with Dillon Tate. Another Jekyll/Hyde guy like Bradish—so, so talented but so infuriating—Tate struck out Manuel Margot on a Pitching Ninja-worthy slider that drew a “Good grief!” from MASN’s Kevin Brown. But Tate quickly lost the zone: he allowed a one-out walk to Yandy Díaz, a single, and plunked Randy Arozarena to load the bases. All Harold Ramirez had to do was hit the ball far enough to allow Yandy Díaz to tag, and that’s what he did. Tate struck out Taylor Walls for a pointless exclamation point.
With injuries ravaging the Tampa Bay relief corps (Andrew Kittredge, J.P. Feyereisen, Ryan Yarbrough, Dusten Knight, JT Chargois are all unavailable), the Orioles were taking their hacks against a Tampa Bay B-team bullpen of Ryan Thompson, Shawn Armstrong, Calvin Faucher, and Colin Poche. But though the bats made some noise (especially Chirinos and the unlucky Trey Mancini, whose 400-foot double in the fourth and 382-foot flyout would both, respectively, have been home runs last year), they couldn’t break through.
These heroic comeback stories come to a crash landing sometimes. But in baseball, hope springs eternal—especially with all the positives the team is showing right now. Two grizzled veterans, Jordan Lyles and the Klubot, do battle on Sunday at 1:35 ET.