As much as Birdland will always hold plenty of disdain for the Red Sox and Yankees, this season has driven home the fact that the Blue Jays are the Orioles’ truest of rivals. After all, the last time we saw our favorite Birds in the playoffs it was the Blue Jays who launched our postseason hopes and dreams straight into the sun.
More recently, there was the Labor Day Letdown that saw the Blue Jays sweep a doubleheader in Camden Yards—and all but extinguish the Wild Card hopes that these Never Say Die Orioles had worked so hard to keep alive. In the wild, blue jays are known to swoop down and viciously attack other birds in their territory. In baseball, Blue Jays seemingly only seem to swoop in and crush the dreams of Orioles.
So the question becomes, where have the Orioles failed when it comes to their battles with their rivals from the North? Yes, the Blue Jays have established superstars like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, while the Orioles only have rising stars like Adley Rutschman and GUNNAR HENDERSON. Yes, Toronto has a $174 million payroll, while the Orioles as a team make less than the combined salaries of Kevin Gausman and George Springer. And yet, these are all easy excuses and ones that sell short an Orioles team that has repeatedly defied conventional wisdom.
At the heart of the Orioles’ struggles against Toronto is a profound inconsistency when it comes to taking on the AL East’s other birds. In the simplest terms, when things go wrong against the Blue Jays, they really go wrong. The lows of the Orioles’ losses against Toronto make it easy to forget that Baltimore is actually 7-6 in the 2022 season series. In those seven wins, the Orioles are averaging seven runs per game while giving up 3.9 runs to the Jays. In losses, those numbers do a complete 180, flipping to 7.2 runs for the Jays and 2.7 for the O’s.
Those inconsistencies rear their ugly heads all up and down this Orioles lineup. Of the Orioles’ top eight hitters, five are batting at least 100 points lower in losses to the Jays than in wins. The worst offenders are Cedric Mullins and Rougned Odor. The O’s leadoff hitter is hitting .346 in wins against Toronto, and .083 in losses. Odor is only slightly better, posting a .375 batting average in wins over the Jays and .125 in losses. Even noted Blue Jay masher Ryan Mountcastle hasn’t been immune from this roller coaster, as his batting average drops 183 points in losses compared to wins.
While hitters performing worse in losses is hardly groundbreaking analysis, it’s the volatility of these swings that are cause for concern. These games against the Jays, especially the most recent ones, represent the Orioles’ most important games of the year. The fact that we’ve seen the heart of this lineup produce such inconsistent results when it matters most speaks to a bigger problem.
Take Adley Rutschman’s splits in the same situations. The rookie catcher has actually performed better in the losses to the Jays, hitting .474 in those games, compared .231 in wins. While there’s still a large difference for Rutshcman, that low-end number still speaks to baseline performance for the O’s backstop. Rutschman is often the standard by which the rest of this lineup is judged and in this situation he holds a harsh mirror to his teammates. Even when Adley’s at his worst, the former No.1 pick has hit well enough to consistently be productive in games that matter—especially against teams like Toronto. The same cannot be said for most of his lineup mates.
That inconsistency creates a familiar pattern when it comes to the story of these losses. Of the 16 runs the Orioles have scored in their six losses to the Jays, 10 have come in innings 7-9. This speaks to a team this is constantly playing catchup, and yet doesn’t actually get their offense in gear until it is too late and there aren’t enough outs to mount a meaningful comeback.
Let’s not ignore that this tendency to save these scoring outbursts until late in the game has produced plenty of exciting moments for the Orioles this season. After all, the O’s 11 wins when trailing after six innings is one of the highest totals in the entire league. However, against a team with an offense as potent as the Blue Jays, relying on such late-inning brilliance has proven to be a losing strategy for the O’s.
The downside of this reliance on scoring late is further emphasized when you also consider how the Orioles bullpen has fared in these losses to the Blue Jays. The O’s pen has been the backbone of this surprising season. The owners of the MLB’s seventh-best bullpen ERA, this group led by the likes of Felix Bautista, Dillon Tate and Cionel Perez has undoubtedly turned the Orioles’ biggest weakness in 2021 into a legitimate strength in 2022.
Yet, this strength hasn’t always shown through against the Jays. In the six losses, the Orioles’ bullpen ERA has ballooned from their normal 3.28 mark to a grossly inflated 7.76. That number is partially skewed by extended relief outings from normal starters Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann in the most recent series, but the message is still clear. Trying to hold back the firepower of the Blue Jays offense—long enough for a heroic late-inning rally—is more likely to leave you burned than have you come out a winner.
The Orioles still have six games left against the Blue Jays this season. Win all of them and it could be the metaphorical defibrillator that shocks the Orioles' playoff hopes back to life. Looking back at this season's defeats to Toronto, it’s clear that these games will need to follow a different script if there’s any chance for this miracle. The Orioles cannot afford for their offense to shrink under the pressure of these games the way we’ve seen them do before—especially early on in the game. Equally, the O’s cannot afford to continue to stress their bullpen by asking them to be perfect in these potentially season-defining matchups.
Even if Baltimore is unable to pull off the miraculous double sweep, these games still may end up as vital evidence for the front office’s decisions this winter. Should certain members of this lineup continue to disappear in these huge AL East matchups, that might be enough for Mike Elias & Co. to consider whether their position needs to be upgraded come this offseason.