In the long grind of a baseball season, even for the very best teams, there will be those games that make you scratch your head and wonder, “Wait...are these guys actually any good?”
The Orioles, by all accounts, are still pretty good. But you wouldn’t know it from the debacle that unfolded in Milwaukee tonight. The O’s, as a lineup, struck out 16 times, walked once, and went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Orioles pitchers, despite a season-best 16 strikeouts of their own, let a late lead slip away by walking a .136 hitter, giving up the game-tying hit to a .198 hitter, and serving up the walkoff to a .214 hitter. Something stunk in Milwaukee tonight, and it wasn’t the cheese.
No inning better encapsulated the Orioles’ futility than the 10th, which began with a 3-3 tie. The O’s left their free baserunner stranded, first when Jorge Mateo twice failed to lay down a bunt and then struck out, and ultimately when pinch-hitter Josh Lester, after pulling a potential go-ahead homer a few feet foul, hacked helplessly at an up-and-in fastball for the Orioles’ 16th strikeout of the game.
Minutes later, against Austin Voth, the Brewers made their free baserunner count, winning the game on Joey Wiemer’s walkoff single into the left-field corner. Voth had gotten two outs and two strikes on the light-hitting Wiemer, but on one hanging curveball, it was all over.
A lot happened before that, so let’s start at the beginning. Early on, it did not look like Kyle Gibson was long for this game. Heck, it looked like he wasn’t long for the first inning. The Brewers, not exactly a potent offense, ambushed him right out of the gate, starting with a Christian Yelich opposite-field double to left. With two outs, the assault continued. Brian Anderson laced a single to left, scoring Yelich. Abraham Toro roped a base hit to right, bringing home another. Gibson then drilled Luis Urías, who just yesterday returned from a 60-day IL stint. Kyle, please don’t re-injure Ramón’s brother! Rude.
With the bases loaded and already eight batters into the inning, Gibson finally ended it on a Brice Turang strikeout. But he’d put the Orioles in a 2-0 hole and had thrown 35 pitches in the first. The Orioles appeared to be in for an ugly night at the ballpark.
It was, as it turned out, an ugly night at the ballpark, but Gibson turned out to be the least of their problems. He turned things around quite nicely after the first, tossing four consecutive scoreless innings while keeping his pitch count manageable.
The fifth inning was Gibson’s most dominant. Three Brewers batters came to the plate. All three returned swiftly to the dugout as hapless strikeout victims, Gibson’s fifth, sixth, and seventh of the game. It was Gibson’s second-highest strikeout total of the season, behind only his 11-K domination of Detroit on April 22. It’s hard to believe this was the same pitcher who was getting thwacked in the first inning.
Gibson walked the leadoff man in the sixth inning and exited the game, but the fact that he got to the sixth at all after that 35-pitch first was an accomplishment in itself. He ended up with 96 pitches in a five-inning no-decision.
As previously mentioned, though, there were many infuriating aspects of this game that had nothing to do with Gibson. For one, the Orioles didn’t exactly put on an offensive clinic, unless it was a clinic designed to teach how to swing and miss all the time, in which case they did a great job. Brewers right-hander Freddy Peralta, who entered the game with a 4.62 ERA, flashed his 2021 All-Star form on this night, racking up nine strikeouts in five innings. Seven of those came in his final three innings of work, all but one of them swinging.
But as Orioles fans have always said, thank goodness for Aaron Hicks. (I’m pretty sure we’ve always said that. Don’t fact-check me.) The red-hot center fielder, in his fifth game with the Birds, continued to swing a rejuvenated bat. He accounted for the Orioles’ only runs against Peralta, following up a Hays second-inning double by waiting patiently on a curveball and yanking it over the right-field wall for his first homer as an Oriole. The score was all even, 2-2.
At that point, Hicks had reached base in nine of his first 15 plate appearances as an Oriole. And that streak would have continued if not for some outstanding Brewers defense. In the third, with two on and two out, Hicks smoked a shot to deep right-center field that looked off the bat like sure extra bases, but the center fielder Wiemer made a superb running catch on the warning track before banging into the wall, taking away at least one and probably two runs in what would turn out to be a pivotal turning point for the Brewers. Later in the game, Hicks rocketed another scalding liner, only for the second baseman Urías to snare it with a leaping grab.
The 2-2 tie continued into the seventh, when Ryan O’Hearn (temporarily) played the hero, lifting an opposite-field homer to left off reliever Joel Payamps. Nice! O’Hearn, for a bench guy with an unremarkable career, sure has a knack for coming up with some big hits. This would have registered as one of his biggest of the season if only the O’s had held the lead.
They did not. Danny Coulombe labored in the seventh, getting two outs but putting two on, before Yennier Cano stranded his runners. Cano, though, couldn’t work out of his own jam in the eighth. He committed the cardinal sin of walking the leadoff hitter, made all the sin-nier by the fact that it was the .136-hitting backup outfielder Blake Perkins. Yennier, my man, what are you doing? Perkins promptly stole second, then scored on an RBI single by Turang, a .198 hitter himself. These are not the hitters who should be beating you!
It continued an unfortunate trend of hittability for Cano, who has permitted 18 baserunners in his last 10.2 innings. He wasn’t going to remain superhuman forever, of course, but the O’s desperately need another halfway reliable setup man to take some of the burden off of Yennier’s shoulders. They have yet to find one, and it’s putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the rookie right-hander.
Each team’s closer worked a perfect ninth inning — Devin Williams for the Brewers, Félix Bautista for the Orioles — to send the game to extras, where it all fell apart for the O’s.
Better luck tomorrow, Birds. It would be hard to be worse.