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Orioles-Rays series preview: Four games for first place in AL East

For the first time since Opening Day, the O’s are perched above the Rays in the standings. Win this series in the Trop and they’ll officially control their destiny in the AL East.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s July 20th and the Orioles are about to take on their most important series of the season. For some that might sound a bit dramatic; after all, there are still 67 games left in the season. But those who have lived and died with every Orioles game of this season know what’s riding on this series with the Rays. For the first time since the second day of the season, the Orioles enter a series in first place in the AL East. Across the field for them is the Tampa Bay Rays—the Orioles’ biggest competitor for the division crown and potentially home field advantage in the playoffs.

In their first five meetings this year, the Orioles came out ahead three times, including a series win in Baltimore back at the beginning of May. There have been high scoring affairs, shutouts and plenty of close games between these two AL frontrunners. This weekend’s four-game series is also the longest the O’s and Rays have played this season, as the last meeting in Tampa was just two games and the only meeting in Baltimore was a three-game set.

The good news for Orioles fans is that Baltimore is absolutely catching the Rays at the best time. Since the calendar turned to July, Tampa Bay is only 3-11, including starting the month on a seven-game losing streak. During this rough stretch, offense has become a big problem for this Rays. On the season the Rays are averaging 5.31 runs per game, but that number has dropped to 4.27 since the start of July. During that span the Rays have also been held to exactly one run on five different occasions.

The Orioles have had an almost polar opposite month of July. There have been plenty of offensive outbursts for the O’s—including a 14-spot in the Bronx and a 15-spot in Minnesota—and overall Baltimore is averaging 5.6 runs per game this month. When things have gone wrong recently for the Orioles, it’s usually because of their pitching. In the Orioles’ five losses this month, opponents are averaging 6.2 runs per game.

This matchup therefore sets up as one of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. The Rays and their excellent rotation—which ranks sixth in baseball in Wins Above Average—will look to slow down a scorching hot Orioles offense. Meanwhile, the Rays will look to ignite their slumping bats against an inconsistent Orioles pitching staff—especially the middle relief corps.

Game 1: Thursday, 6:40pm ET, MASN

Probable pitchers: Kyle Gibson (9-6, 4.77 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) vs. Tyler Glasnow (3-3, 3.78 ERA, 1.24 WHIP)

Over his first 12 starts, Gibson was everything the Orioles could have asked for when they signed him in the offseason. He ate innings, provided the O’s a chance to win in almost every start and now and then would put together a truly dominant performance. His last eight starts, however, have told a much different story. In June and July, the 12-year veteran has labored to a 6.23 ERA while allowing opponents to hit .269.

It’s not that opponents have been hitting the normally ground-ball-heavy Gibson particularly hard. Over his last 43.1 innings, he’s allowed only 15 extra-base hits and four HRs. Instead, Gibson has seen his walk rate rise from 2.9 BB/9 to 3.1 BB/9 and seems to constantly suffer from a barrage of seeing-eye singles. Gibson will have to be particularly careful with Rays’ All-Star Randy Arozarena, as the heavy-hitting outfielder is .313 with a .516 SLG against sinkers this season.

Opposing him is the towering Tyler Glasnow. The 29-year-old righty is making only his 10th start of the season after missing the beginning of the year due to an oblique strain. Unlike Gibson with the Rays, Glasnow has faced the O’s once this season, giving up six runs over 4.1 innings in a 8-6 Baltimore victory at the Trop. The 6’8” Glasnow relies heavily on his upper 90s fastball, which should be good news for outfielder Austin Hays. The All-Star starter comes into the matchup hitting .407 and slugging .728 off fastballs this season—and went 3-4 for two doubles the last time he faced Glasnow.

Game 2: Friday, 6:40pm ET, MASN

Probable pitchers: Kyle Bradish (6-4, 3.05 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) vs. Zach Eflin (10-5, 3.59 ERA, 1.03 WHIP)

If the Orioles are going to feel the most confident about any of these pitching matchups, it’s going to be the one that includes Kyle Bradish. That’s how hot the second-year right hander has been for the O’s of late. Bradish comes into the series against Tampa riding a 15.2 scoreless innings streak. That streak includes Bradish exorcising some AL East demons over six shutout innings in the Bronx, as well as his best start of the season last time out against Miami. Unlike Gibson, Bradish has seen this Tampa Bay team this season, going five innings, allowing two runs and striking out eight in the same game where Baltimore pounced on Glasnow.

A lot of Bradish’s success recently has come from using his slider and fastball to get ahead in counts, before turning to his curveball and sinker to put hitters away. Bradish should continue to find success with those two breaking balls against the scuffling Rays lineup, be will have to be careful with All-Star first baseman Yandy Díaz. The 31-year-old from Cuba has demolished breaking balls all season, hitting .545 against curveballs and .306 against sliders, with a Hard-Hit rate of at least 50% against both pitches.

Eflin has largely enjoyed a successful first season with the Rays, but has definitely struggled more of late. Over his last seven starts, his ERA has jumped up to 4.66—though his defense seems to be letting him down as he’s posted a 2.83 FIP in that stretch of starts. He is, however, coming off his worst start of the season, allowing five runs over three innings without striking out a single batter Sunday vs. KC.

In many ways, Eflin’s arsenal is similar to that of Kyle Gibson—relying on a low 90s sinker that’s complemented by a curveball and cutter. That should be great news for Anthony Santander, who’s feasted on sinkers and curveballs all season. Tony Taters comes into the matchup hitting .462 with a .885 slugging% against curveballs, and .378 vs. sinkers. Then there’s Adley Rutschman, who doesn’t particularly excel against either of those pitches, but took Eflin deep the last time he faced the O’s.

Game 3: Saturday, 4:10pm, MASN

Probable pitchers: Grayson Rodriguez (2-2, 7.33 ERA, 1.75 WHIP) vs. Shane McClanahan (11-1, 2.56 ERA, 1.13 WHIP)

If the Game 2 pitching matchup fills Birdland with confidence, the Game 3 matchup might fill a fair few fans with dread. If we’re being honest, Grayson Rodriguez was not bad in his return to the big leagues against the Dodgers. Through five innings, he’d allowed only one run and five hits while striking out four. The fastball-changeup combo that’s supposed to be his calling card looked devastating at times. But then he gave up a triple and an RBI single to lead off the sixth, walked the next batter and was charged an additional two earned runs when Bryan Baker later gave up a game-winning grand slam.

The good news for G-Rod is that one of his better starts as an Oriole came against this Tampa Bay team. Back in May, Rodriguez delivered his longest start of the season against the Rays, going 5.2 innings while allowing only two runs in a 4-2 Orioles win. In that start, Rodriguez found success throwing his fastball up to set up his change up low. However, this is a Rays team that often feasts on changeups, as hitters like Arozarena, Luke Raley and Josh Lowe all hit .370+ against pitchers offspeed offerings. This will definitely be a matchup where Rodriguez will need to have his best stuff.

As for the Rays’ flame-throwing ace, McClanahan has once again been his dominant self in 2023. Perhaps the AL Cy Young frontrunner at this point, the lefty strikeout artist leads the American League in wins and ERA. For someone who grew up idolizing Cal Ripken Jr., McClanahan has made an odd habit of terrorizing Cal’s old team. In eight starts against the O’s, the former Baltimore native is 6-0 with a 2.14 ERA and 52 Ks in 46.1 innings.

Like Rodriguez, McClanahan’s go-to putaway pitch this year has been his changeup. With Cedric Mullins—the Orioles’ best changeup hitter—on the IL, Adley will have to lead the charge against the lefty. Rutschman is hitting .299 against changes this year, but will have to battle against the memory of going 0-3 with 2 Ks against McClanahan the last time he faced him.

Game 4: Sunday, 1:40pm, MASN

Probable pitcher: Tyler Wells (7-5, 3.54 ERA, 0.98 WHIP) vs. Taj Bradley (5-6, 5.29 ERA, 1.39 WHIP)

Tyler Wells will have some demons of his own to exorcise as he starts in Tropicana Field for the second time this season. The last time he faced the Rays, it was the stereotypical bad Tyler Wells start. He gave up multiple HRs and the Orioles fell behind early in an eventual 7-2 loss.

However, unlike the Tyler Wells we had seen all season—the one who bounces back from those rough outings with a string of excellent starts—that loss to Tampa seems to have put Wells in a bit of a tailspin. In his four starts since, Wells is sporting a 4.95 ERA, an uncharacteristically high (for Wells) 1.20 WHIP and has allowed four more home runs. The Orioles are 1-3 in those starts and Wells now goes into the Trop coming off an upsetting two-inning, five runs allowed start vs. the Dodgers.

The good news for the homer-happy Wells is that many of Tampa Bay’s best power hitters currently find themselves in ruts at the plate. This month, Arozarena has only two HRs and his slugging is 72 points lower than his season average. Similarly, club HR leader Jose Siri is stuck on two long balls in July, while his slugging has dropped to .323. Díaz’s power numbers are also down slightly this month, as he has only one long ball and his slugging is 33 points lower than his season-long number. All of this to say, home runs aren’t exactly flying off the Rays’ bats at the moment, which hopefully bodes well for Wells.

The Orioles will also look to reverse their luck as a team when it comes to Rays’ rookie Taj Bradley. While Bradley hasn’t been a roaring success in his rookie season, his best start of the year came in the same game where Wells got shelled. The 22-year-old put up six innings of one-run ball while striking out eight. The hope will be that this retooled Orioles lineup will be able to put up a much better effort than that come Sunday.


The math on this series is simple. If the O’s take at three of four or better, they walk out of St. Petersburg with a division lead. A split still leaves them in first by percentage points, but with a feeling like they missed a big opportunity. Anything less and it’ll be back to chasing the Rays.


How many games will the Orioles win against the Rays?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    4 (sweeping to the top)
    (43 votes)
  • 30%
    (163 votes)
  • 56%
    2 (nobody wins)
    (299 votes)
  • 4%
    (22 votes)
  • 0%
    0 (swept back into second)
    (1 vote)
528 votes total Vote Now