On August 30, it’s too early to classify any game as a must-win. But it certainly would have behooved the Orioles to pick up a W in Cleveland tonight, knowing that all their wild card competitors, facing patsy opponents, were likely to make their move in the postseason race.
Instead, the Orioles gave one of their most listless performances in the past few weeks, getting thumped by the Guardians, 5-1. Their pitching success from the Houston series didn’t continue, but their inability to score runs sure did, an ugly all-around combination that kicked off their three-game series with a whimper.
My goodness, was this ever a game of extremes for Orioles starter Spenser Watkins. For 3.2 innings, he was absolutely brilliant, retiring the first 11 batters he faced. And then, as if a switch flipped, Watkins couldn’t get anyone out. He allowed six of the last nine batters he faced to reach base. It went south in a hurry. He turned from Greg Maddux to Greg Bad-dux. From Clayton Kershaw to Clayton Kersh-awful. From Christy Mathewson to Christy, uh, Bad-News-Son. (I’m running out of steam here, people.)
The out-of-nowhere collapse was a bummer for Watkins, who at first seemed well on his way to delivering the Orioles’ sixth consecutive quality start. Heck, for a while he seemed on his way to making history. He retired the Guardians in perfect order in the first. And the second. And the third. At that point he’d thrown 27 of 37 pitches for strikes, had allowed just one ball out of the infield, and was having his way with Cleveland hitters. He quickly set down the first two hitters of the fourth on grounders, too, before José Ramírez ruined his modest bid for history with a two-out, opposite-field single.
Ah well, it’s just a single. It can’t do too much damage, unlike, say, a home run...which is what Josh Naylor delivered three pitches later on a booming fly to straightaway center. He really Nayled it! In quick succession, Watkins had lost his perfecto, his shutout, and put the Orioles behind.
From there, it all unraveled. Watkins finished the fourth but got only one out in the fifth before the Guardians ambushed him for four straight hits — three singles and a Steven Kwan two-run double — to extend their run total to four. An Amed Rosario sacrifice fly brought home the fifth run and ended Watkins’ night. Spenser was tagged for five runs and six hits in 4.2 innings, with the entirety of that damage coming in the final 1.1 frames. Not great.
Of course, the odds were stacked against Watkins to begin with, considering that the woeful O’s offense once again provided their pitcher no support. Despite what happened in the Houston series, scoring three or fewer runs in a game is generally not a viable long-term recipe for success. Guardians right-hander Cal Quantrill, a good but by no means overpowering pitcher, became the latest opposing hurler to utterly stymie the Birds’ floundering bats. In six innings, he held the Orioles to one hit — one hit! — and one run. Come on! It’s supposed to be the Orioles’ no-name pitchers doing this to other teams, not vice versa.
Brandon Hyde’s mild lineup shakeup, moving Ramón Urías up to the cleanup spot and Ryan Mountcastle down to seventh, did little to jolt life into the struggling offense (though that duo did produce the only run off Quantrill in the second, with Urías singling and scoring on a Mountcastle sac fly). Hyde can only do so much with the personnel on hand, though it’d be nice to see to him get Terrin Vavra back into the mix, despite his current 1-for-18 slump.
The multi-run deficit allowed Hyde to give some of his low-leverage relievers their token appearances, and to their credit, they held the line. Nick Vespi, Rico Garcia, and Keegan Akin combined for 3.1 scoreless innings to assure the Guardians wouldn’t add to their lead.
But at four runs, the O’s deficit proved insurmountable. Cleveland relievers Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak, and closer Emmanuel Clase each worked a scoreless inning of relief to finish off the Birds in a combined one-hitter. (For the record, that’s fewer hits than Gunnar Henderson himself has collected in tonight’s Triple-A Norfolk game. Oh, no reason I’m bringing that up.)
As of this writing, the Orioles are set to lose ground to both the Rays (currently up 6-0 on the Marlins) and the Mariners (currently walloping the Tigers, 9-0) in the wild card race, and possibly also the Blue Jays (currently trailing the Cubs, but only 2-1). It was a bad night for the Orioles to have a bad night.