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ALDS Game 2 Turning Point: The Orioles’ early lead quickly evaporates

Second inning struggles from starter Grayson Rodriguez extinguished the good vibes at Camden Yards early on.

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
  • The score: Orioles lead Rangers 2-0 in the top of the second inning.
  • The setup: Nathaniel Lowe walked and Josh Jung singled to start the inning, representing the tying runs after the Rangers had gone down early.
  • The moment: Leody Taveras doubles to deep left-center field, Cedric Mullins dives in vain, both Lowe and Jung score while Taveras trots into second base for a game-tying double
  • Before: 56.9% Orioles win expectancy
  • After: 43.6% Orioles WE
  • The shift: -13.3%
  • The runner up: Mitch Garver third inning grand slam off of Jacob Webb (-10.6%)

The first inning of Sunday’s loss had some “Orioles Magic” vibes about it. Grayson Rodriguez had fought his way through a difficult frame in which he faced six batters, loaded the bases, and escaped unscathed. Perhaps he just needed to get the nerves out?

Better yet, the Orioles lineup came out swinging in the bottom of the inning. They scored twice to grab an early lead and put themselves in the driver’s seat. Tying the series at a game each was well within reach. In fact, it was the likely outcome. The O’s win expectancy immediately following Aaron Hicks’s two RBI single in the first inning was a whopping 73.8%.

Rodriguez came back out in the second looking for the revered “shutdown inning.” That is the ever-elusive accomplishment in which a pitcher follows up a good offensive inning by his team with a shutout inning of his own. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be a zero on the board. Instead, he a different direction.

Lowe opened the inning with a walk, already the third worked by a Rangers hitter in a game that would have many, many more. Rodriguez had walked three hitters just once in a game since being recalled from Triple-A Norfolk in mid-July. He would end his day with four over just 1.2 innings of work.

Something he did do well in the first inning was starting the at-bat with a strike. Five of the six batters he faced in the first went down 0-1. The opposite happened in the second. Lowe got a ball to open his at-bat, and so did Josh Jung.

In fact, Jung went down 2-0. Having already walked Lowe ahead of him, Rodriguez knew he needed to throw a strike, and he did. But it was an elevated fastball that Jung smacked up the middle at 109 mph, the second-hardest hit ball by a Ranger all day. Lowe was able to go from first to third, and Rodriguez was in trouble.

Rodriguez started Leody Taveras with another ball, a high fastball. He threw two more fastballs to get back ahead 1-2, the first a whiff on a ball up in the zone and the second a called strike at the bottom of the zone. He was changing eye levels, often a good strategy, but it had all been with the same pitch type.

It seemed that for the 1-2 pitch the catcher Adley Rutschman wanted to go back upstairs. When Rodriguez was set, the backstop set up down at the knees, but then moved his glove towards the top of zone as the delivery started. The pitch ended up low, close to where the pitch before it had been thrown. This time, Taveras was all over it.

The ball was swatted to deep left-center, perhaps a home run with Camden Yards’ former dimensions. The yard contained it here, but plenty of damage was done as both Lowe and Jung scored to tie things back up at two runs apiece. The inning would only get worse from there, but we won’t get into all of that here.

Credit is due to Texas. Their patience to get favorable counts, and what they did in those counts, is worthy of praise. But it’s possible Rodriguez also got too predictable to start the game.

The 23-year-old is a fastball-first kind of pitcher, and for good reason. He’s capable of touching triple digits, as he did on Sunday. And it’s not uncommon for him to lean on that pitch in his first time through a batting order. But the end of his (admittedly short) game he had thrown 75% four-seam fastballs, a big leap from his season average of 49.6%.

Now, much of that is because Rodriguez wasn’t in the game long enough to move to his late game strategy in which he mixes in more off-speed and breaking balls to retire hitters that have already seen the gas earlier in the game. But that could be where the learning experience needs to develop. The playoffs and the regular season are not the same. Rodriguez was unlikely to be asked to go as deep as he normally would be. There was less of a need to “save” anything for later. Put it all out there now and see what happens.

One thing we can certainly say is that the rookie was not tired or worn down as we may have expected from the longest season of his career. The fastball was torqued up an extra notch. But it wasn’t getting the sorts of whiffs it normal does, and he wasn’t putting himself in enough favorable counts in that second inning.

As it turned out, Rodriguez’s performance alone would not sink the Orioles. It was a combination of poor work on the mound that did that. But it did force Brandon Hyde to turn to the middle of the bullpen far earlier than he would have liked. The real disaster happened from there.