Of the many ways that the 2022 Orioles have been more fun to watch than woeful O’s teams of the recent past, they generally don’t have heartbreaking losses.
They’ve had some dumb losses, sure. Some blowout losses, of course. But thanks to their shutdown bullpen, they haven’t suffered many of those last at-bat, shoulda-had-it defeats where they let a late lead slip away.
On the rare occasion that it does happen, though, it really sucks.
Byron Buxton’s walkoff, two-run homer against closer Jorge Lopez — turning a 2-1 ninth-inning O’s lead into an instant 3-2 defeat in Minnesota — washed away what had been one of the most sensational pitching efforts of the season. After the Twins scored a run in the first, starter Spenser Watkins and relievers Cionel Perez and Felix Bautista combined not just for seven straight scoreless innings, but seven straight perfect innings, retiring 21 Twins batters in a row, handing over a slim lead to their All-Star caliber closer.
In a flash, it all dissolved in the unlikeliest of ways. Not unlikely because of Buxton, a spectacular player who already has 21 homers this year, but because of Lopez, who had been darn near unhittable all season long. He hadn’t allowed an earned run since May. He hadn’t allowed a home run all year. The Orioles had been a perfect 29-0 when leading after eight innings. But Buxton’s 1-2 blast over the left-field wall, following Luis Arraez’s nine-pitch single, changed all that in one fell swoop.
Before that, though, it was quite a game, even if it didn’t get off to the best start. Early on, the pitching matchup of Watkins vs. Joe Ryan seemed like it would be decidedly one-sided. While Ryan breezed through two perfect innings on 25 pitches, Watkins labored through 30 just to get out of the first. The whole inning was a struggle for Watkins, who gave up a leadoff double to AL batting average and OBP leader Arraez, a single to Carlos Correa, and a walk to Max Kepler to load the bases with one out.
The Twins were threatening to build a big early lead. But Watkins rebounded to strike out Jorge Polanco for the second out. Jose Miranda followed with a sharp single to left that scored Arraez, but Ryan McKenna unfurled a beautiful throw from left field to cut down Correa at the plate. “Call him Ryan McCannon!” proclaimed MASN broadcaster Kevin Brown. It was a game-changing defensive play; instead of the Twins having two runs on the board and still rallying, Watkins was out of the inning with just one run of damage.
It’s as if that play flipped a switch for Watkins, who pitched with extreme confidence — and dominance — for the remainder of his night. He followed up his 30-pitch first inning with just six pitches in a perfect second and was off to the races. That Miranda single, as it turned out, was the last time the Twins would reach base against Watkins. The 29-year-old righty tossed five consecutive perfect innings — that’s 15 straight batters retired, in case you’re bad at math — and carved up Twins hitters with a sharp-breaking cutter at which they repeatedly flailed. He added another six-pitch inning in the fifth.
Watkins finished his outstanding night’s work in the sixth by setting down the Twins’ best three hitters, Arraez, Buxton, and Correa. It was as easy as A-B-C. (Get it? Arraez, Buxton, Correa? Wordplay, folks!) The first of those outs came on another great defensive play by McKenna, who made a sprawling, head-long catch in left to rob Arraez of a hit.
What an incredible performance by Watkins, especially after that laborious first inning in which it looked like he wasn’t long for this game. He ended up with a quality start: six innings, one run, three hits, five strikeouts. Watkins has now thrown 11 innings of one-run ball since his latest promotion to the majors.
Watkins, though, wasn’t rewarded with a win, because Ryan was equally excellent for the Twins. The O’s did manage to tie the game in the third when Jorge Mateo walked and scored on a Cedric Mullins double, but that was the only blemish on Ryan’s record. He overpowered the Orioles bats in seven strong innings, with doubles by Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle the only hits he allowed.
If you asked the Orioles, they might tell you that Ryan had a little bit of help from home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus, who rang up strikes throughout the night on pitches that appeared to be several inches off the plate. A Brandon Hyde eruption at De Jesus in the middle of the third inning got the Orioles manager ejected for the eighth time in his career. Wide zone or not, though, Ryan was on his game. Still, he left with a no-decision, just as Watkins did.
Once it became a battle of the bullpens, the Orioles had to like their chances. Their relief crew entered the night with a 3.16 ERA — third best in the majors — while the undermanned Twins corps had blown leads in the eighth inning or later in five of Minnesota’s last six losses.
And, indeed, the Twins’ pen was the first to falter. Lefty Caleb Thielbar served up a first-pitch double in the eighth to McKenna, who advanced to third on pinch-hitter Trey Mancini’s groundout. With the infield in, Mateo smacked a sharp grounder to the second baseman Polanco, who tried to get the out at home but threw wildly as McKenna slid home with the go-ahead run.
The O’s were up, 2-1, but in retrospect they probably regret not padding their lead against Thielbar or right-hander Juan Minaya, who had just been called up from Triple-A. Minaya, who sported an 8.53 ERA in four games in the bigs this year, tossed 1.1 scoreless innings against the Orioles tonight.
It almost didn’t matter, as Perez (four outs) and Bautista (two outs) did their jobs perfectly in the seventh and eighth, setting things up for Lopez. Another win was in the Orioles’ sights. Unfortunately, Buxton had other plans.
Time to wash this one away and try again tomorrow.