On October 15, 1997, Baltimore closer Armando Benítez gave up a solo home run in the eleventh inning to Cleveland’s Tony Fernandez to give the Indians a 1-0 win in Game Six of the American League Championship Series. Like that, the 1997 ALCS was over, and so was the Orioles’ season. I still remember that moment vividly. An overexcited kid who loved baseball, I was crushed, and went to go cry in the shower.
There’s few things quite as sad as a little kid crying when their baseball team gets kicked out of the playoffs… although just short of 26 years later, the 2023 Orioles have crashed out of the playoffs, and I haven’t been that much more composed about it.
This series was horrible. The quick downshift from euphoria —> gloom. The crushing disappointment at our starting rotation, which had carried us in September, imploding under the pressure. Feeling the hope dwindle as you waited for the bats to show… but of course, they never did.
Everybody has their coping mechanisms. Me, I took a few days off from sports, period, did a digital detox, went to the gym, did some cooking. I came back to the grind just yesterday, in time to watch snippets of Mike Elias’s 30-minute press conference. In truth, it made me feel better. So did a few other bits and bobs from this week. So I figured I’d share.
1. Austin Hays kept it real
MASN beat reporter Roch Kubatko described an almost spooky scene when he went into the visitors’ locker room at Globe Field on Tuesday evening to get his postgame quotes:
Everyone looked like they were in a haze.
I could carry away so many images from the 2023 season, but I may be stuck with the sight of players sitting in front of their lockers after the media entered. Pretty much a full room, which is highly unusual. It actually was jarring. And not a sound made. Just blank stares.
It felt more appropriate to tiptoe inside.
I don’t know who finally broke the silence, but for me the quote of the series came from outfielder Austin Hays. “There’s no other way to put it, they kicked our ass.”
I don’t know why, but this instantly made me feel better. The non-sugarcoating. Knowing that as much anger as I was feeling, the players were feeling it, too. “It sucks,” said Hays. “Just couldn’t really get anything going, couldn’t get any momentum on our side to get things going. It hurts. It really hurts.” Misery loves company? Yeah, it’s true. Sue me.
2. So did Brandon Hyde
Ballots for Manager of the Year were in before the playoffs, so no one got to reward Bruce Bochy for his shenanigans in pasting together a decimated rotation. Brandon Hyde remains the favorite to be named AL Manager of the Year, and the beat told him so:
“That’s nice,” Hyde responded. “I’m still pissed, to be honest with you.”
I love this. See above.
3. Some Orioles actually played well in the postseason
The Orioles were not the worst-hitting team in the postseason. That honor belonged to Miami, who hit .194 in two games. The Orioles were middle-of-the-pack, sixth of twelve teams in average and OPS. Surprise, surprise—the teams who hit well, Philly, Arizona, Texas and Houston, are still in the playoffs. Cool beans.
There were few offensive bright spots, but Gunnar Henderson was one. The presumptive Rookie of the Year started bad but finished strong, with six hits, including a home run, in 12 at-bats. He played most of the last game with a laceration under his right eye from a slide into home plate. It just made him look like more of a badass. Jorge Mateo went 4-for-5. Knew we should have given him more playing time. Kidding. Anthony Santander and Austin Hays both hit .273. Not enough, but not terrible.
Despite the blah starting pitching, two true pitching standouts for me were Tyler Wells and DL Hall. The big guy, Wells, really came on strong at the end of the season in late relief, and he fully kept it up in the ALDS, with 3.1 scoreless innings and three K’s. The lefty Hall was even better: he also threw 3.1 scoreless innings, allowed a hit and a walk, and struck out six.
I’m excited to see more from this pair next year. And we probably will, because…
4. A lot of these faces are coming back next year
On Thursday, in his opening remarks Mike Elias told the players how great it’d been to work with them this year, and “luckily we’re going to be working with many, many, many of them going forward.” Oh?
There are four pending free agents on the roster: Kyle Gibson, Jack Flaherty, Adam Frazier and Aaron Hicks, five if you count Shintaro Fujinami. The Orioles also have 16 arbitration eligible players, so there will be decisions to make.
But the good news is, this is a young, cheap roster with many quality players under team control for several years. If the Orioles resign Kyle Gibson on the strength of his clubhouse leadership and 17 quality starts, great, and they can still dive into the starter market with some urgency.
5. Mike Elias has gotten the message
Elias understandably wouldn’t offer specifics on specific areas of improvement, payroll, or things like that on Thursday. But he said one really important thing: “We asked a lot of [this team] and they delivered, so, any shortcomings that anyone perceives with the 2023 campaign should be directed towards me.”
He also said this:
“There are players and trade targets that we have pursued in the last 12 months and we didn’t get them. … I lament that our outcomes at the trade deadline, I guess, didn’t propel us through the ALDS. … We had all kinds of things going on at the trade deadline that just didn’t happen.”
Translation: We failed to sign a top-shelf starter in the offseason, and failed again at the trade deadline, and this mistake really screwed us. My bad. But we won’t repeat it.
Look, the front office made some attempts in the offseason to sign a starter, but probably not the most earnest ones. Why would they? Not even the fans expected the Orioles to be competing this quickly. Instead, they signed Gibson to a $10 million contract and traded for left-hander Cole Irvin. Irvin didn’t pan out, and Gibson was exactly what you expected: endearing, reliable, crafty, a great teammate, not an ace. The less said about the Flaherty and Fujinami acquisitions, the better.
Can the team aim higher in free agency? Yes, obviously. And I think they will. As early in the offseason as it is, Elias reported that this team already has “people upstairs right now cranking on it.”
What about extensions, will they actually sign some? Confronted with CEO John Angelos’ unspeakably lame comments in August that the Orioles would be “financially underwater” if they tried to retain their stars, Elias responded, “Look, speaking from personal experience, I think sometimes you talk to the media and try to say things and have them be interesting for 40 minutes, things don’t come out exactly how you meant them, or especially little snippets of what you said.”
Translation: Look, the ownership isn’t THAT cheap. We can spend on extensions, if they’re worth it.
This is exactly what Elias’s Houston Astros did in 2013 when they signed budding star José Altuve to a 4-year, $12.5 million contract. Pennies on the dollar? Considering Altuve blossomed into a franchise player, this was a steal.
Elias added on Thursday, “A big part of the calculus of keeping this franchise healthy is pursuing or examining opportunities to possibly keep some of these guys longer.” Hopefully that’s not just noise. I’m inclined to think it’s not.
6. This team will come back with experience
Asked what he took away from the ALDS, Gunnar Henderson, with all of his 22 years of wisdom, said: “Just go out there and be yourself, don’t try to do too much,” he said. “Just go out there and try to do your job and try to pass the baton to your teammates.”
Brandon Hyde told his players—and I know he and they believe it—that they’ll be back in the playoffs, and the next steps will be taken to win a championship.
Yes, the AL East never really gets easier, but this team has already found a winning formula and now just needs to plug holes to supplement their organizational depth and push it over the top. The offseason, unfortunately, starts now. Let’s see what happens.