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Orioles-Guardians series preview: Two teams in the thick of the playoff race

The O’s are desperately trying to grab a postseason spot, while the Guardians are desperately trying to hold on to theirs.

Cleveland Guardians v Baltimore Orioles
Superstar Jose Ramirez and budding superstar Adley Rutschman will square off this week.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

There’s no rest for the weary in Birdland. The Orioles, fresh off a series win in Houston against a first-place club, now head to Cleveland to take on another first-place club. Unlike the Astros, who already have a playoff spot all but locked up, the Guardians are in a fight for their postseason lives. This promises to be a tooth-and-nail dogfight between two teams that need every win they can scrape together during the stretch run.

The Orioles enter the series two games out of a playoff spot, trailing the Blue Jays for the third wild card. The Guardians, despite leading the AL Central, are by no means comfortable. The Twins remain hot on their tail, 1.5 games back, and it’s very possible that whichever team doesn’t win the Central will miss the playoffs entirely, given the crowded field of wild card contenders.

The Guardians, at least, have been playing their best baseball of late. Just before the All-Star break, they were a sub-.500 team. Since July 14, though, Cleveland has gone 24-15 to surpass Minnesota for the division lead. The Guardians have pitched well, as is the case most seasons, but don’t overlook their dynamic offense, which now boasts above-average hitters at most positions, including the entire infield. It’s no surprise that third baseman José Ramírez is putting up yet another MVP caliber season (.283/.353/.548 with 26 homers, 106 RBIs, and an AL-leading 38 doubles). Quietly one of the game’s best players, the 29-year-old Ramírez will be staying in Cleveland through 2028 thanks to the seven-year extension he signed in April.

The Guardians have also gotten a breakout season from second baseman Andrés Giménez, who’s batting .302 with an .857 OPS, 15 home runs, and 15 stolen bases. The 23-year-old, acquired along with shortstop Amed Rosario in the Francisco Lindor trade last year, was a first-time All-Star this season. And first-year outfielder Steven Kwan has been a table-setter atop the lineup with a .372 OBP that leads all AL rookies (nine points higher than Adley Rutschman, his former Oregon State teammate).

All in all, it’s been a fun time for the club in its first year as the Guardians. And do you notice we don’t hear anyone up in arms anymore about the team’s name change? They swapped out a problematic name for a non-problematic one and — gasp! — the world didn’t end. Life went on. The team continued to win. And I never quite understood the criticism of “Guardians” as a new name, considering there are much worse monikers out there. (I mean, seriously, there are multiple MLB teams named after articles of clothing.)

While the O’s will have their hands full with a strong Cleveland team, their wild card opponents all get to play against losing clubs for the next few days. Ugh. The Orioles’ struggling offense won’t get any favors in this series, as they’ll be facing the Guardians’ three best starting pitchers by ERA+.

Game 1: Tuesday, 6:10 PM ET, MASN

RHP Spenser Watkins (4-4, 3.96) vs. RHP Cal Quantrill (10-5, 3.59)

The Orioles are coming off an incredible turn through the rotation in which each of their five starters worked at least six innings and gave up two or fewer runs. It was Watkins who began that streak with a six-inning, two-run quality start against the White Sox last Wednesday, albeit in a losing effort. The outing was just the latest in a great stretch for Watkins, who, since rejoining the O’s rotation in late June, has allowed just one or two runs in seven of his nine starts. The former 30th round pick by the Tigers, who signed a minor league deal with the Orioles last year after almost quitting baseball, has been a godsend for an O’s rotation since injuries to John Means and Tyler Wells. This will be his first career appearance against Cleveland.

Quantrill, the son of longtime MLB reliever Paul Quantrill, has followed a similar career trajectory to his father so far. Cal, age 27, is a swingman who has made 67 career starts. Paul, at age 27, was a swingman who had made 64 career starts. But where Paul moved permanently to the bullpen after that, with his final 659 appearances coming in relief, Cal still has a hold on a rotation spot as of now. It might not last forever, given his middling 5.9 K/9 rate, but he keeps the ball in the park, doesn’t walk many, and doesn’t allow particularly hard contact. Quantrill faced the Orioles twice last season, and while they torched him the first time — seven runs in 1.1 innings — he fared better nine days later, with a four-inning, one-run performance.

Game 2: Wednesday, 6:10 PM ET, MASN

RHP Jordan Lyles (9-9, 4.45) vs. RHP Triston McKenzie (9-10, 3.17)

Lyles had one of his patented Jordan Lyles outings last time out, in which he gave up a boatload of hits (nine) yet managed to limit the damage (one run). Lyles’ seven strong innings against the White Sox ultimately allowed the O’s to come back and win the game. Lyles has been the definition of durability; this will be his 27th start, tying him for the major league lead, and he’s also faced a league-high 641 batters. Of course, that batter count is inflated by the fact that he’s given up an AL-leading 168 hits, which isn’t ideal. But if he can keep stranding them, like he did against the ChiSox, then great. Lyles has faced Cleveland only twice, but Austin Hedges and Myles Straw — the two worst hitters in the Guardians’ lineup — have combined for three home runs against him.

The spindly McKenzie, who turned 25 earlier this month, is the latest starting-pitching success story to come up through the Cleveland system. A 2015 first-round pick, McKenzie is having a breakout season for the Guardians, averaging less than one baserunner per inning while posting a 3.17 ERA. Earlier this year, McKenzie held the Orioles to three hits in seven innings — yet gave up five runs and took the loss, because all three hits were home runs. That was one of just two outings this season in which McKenzie, not normally a homer-prone hurler, surrendered three gopher balls.

Game 3: Thursday, 6:10 PM ET, MASN

RHP Kyle Bradish (2-5, 5.63) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (8-7, 3.02)

OK, Kyle Bradish, we see you! The rookie right-hander, who had pitched decently but not spectacularly since returning from the IL in July, unveiled his signature moment as an Oriole with his utterly dominant masterpiece in Houston on Friday. Bradish held a powerful Astros’ lineup to just two hits and no runs while throwing a career-high eight innings, topping his previous best by a full inning. It was one of the most overpowering efforts we’ve seen from an O’s starter in quite some time. Now, can Bradish build on the momentum, or will this be akin to his excellent seven-inning gem in St. Louis on May 10 that he followed up with seven straight lousy outings?

Bradish is going to need to be on the top of his game again if he hopes to outpitch Bieber, the unanimous 2020 AL Cy Young winner. Bieber, who missed more than three months last year with a strained shoulder, hasn’t missed a beat in his return to the mound this season. Bieber’s 4.0 WAR (per FanGraphs) ties him with Shohei Ohtani as the seventh most valuable pitcher in the majors this year. He averages less than one homer per nine innings, less than two walks, and — as he’s done in all five seasons of his career — he’s striking out better than a batter per inning.

The Orioles have never had any luck against Bieber — he’s 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in three career starts against them, including a shutout — and he continued his dominance earlier this season. On June 3 at Camden Yards, Bieber stymied the O’s for 11 strikeouts and just three hits over seven strong innings in a 6-3 Guardians win.


How many games will the Orioles win in this series against the Guardians?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    3 (Orioles sweep!)
    (36 votes)
  • 54%
    (182 votes)
  • 30%
    (103 votes)
  • 4%
    0 (Orioles get swept)
    (16 votes)
337 votes total Vote Now