It took 10 innings for the Orioles to claim sole possession of first place in the AL East, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 at Tropicana Field on Thursday night.
Baltimore had their veteran leader Kyle Gibson on the mound in what was arguably the single most important game of the season to this point. He did his job, the bullpen (largely) backed him up, and the offense squeaked out just enough against some fine opposition.
It was Tampa that opened the scoring in the second inning. With two outs and runners on first and second, Francisco Mejía singled into center field to drive in Josh Lowe and put the hosts up 1-0.
That felt like it might be enough for Rays’ starter Tyler Glasnow. He had his best stuff in this game, and some of the hacks that Orioles’ hitters took against him made that quite evident. But as has become customary for this team, they battled and scratched their way through anyway.
After retiring the first nine Orioles he faced, Glasnow hit a snag to start the fourth inning. Gunnar Henderson led off with a double to left field that he turned into a triple when Randy Arozarena lobbed his throw back into the dirt. Taylor Walls had to jog towards the throw to gather it, leaving Henderson room to sneak into third.
Adley Rutschman immediately made that hurt with a single into right to score Henderson. A single from Anthony Santander moved Rutschman to second, and they both moved up a base on a Glasnow wild pitch. Ryan O’Hearn gave the Orioles the lead with a sac fly to left field, and Aaron Hicks capped the scoring with a single to left field to bring Santander home. The throw beat Santander by some distance, but he was able to jar the ball loose from Francisco Mejía’s glove when sliding across the plate.
That would end up being all they could do against Glasnow. In fact, they had only two more baserunners with the starter in the game. Over seven innings the big righty allowed the three runs on six hits, no walks, and nine strikeouts.
Meanwhile, the O’s starter Gibson was keeping pace with him, seemingly out-pitching him for stretches of the game. Although the veteran had runners on in nearly every inning, he had also held the Rays to just one run through his first six innings.
But the decision to send him back out for the seventh would come back to bite. He allowed back-to-back hits to the eighth and ninth hitters in the Tampa lineup to begin the frame. That ended his day, and Yennier Cano was summoned from the ‘pen. The first batter he faced, Yandy Diaz, laced a double in the right-center gap to score both runners, tying things at 3-3.
That closed the book on Gibson. His season ERA won’t improve much for this “quality start” in which he allowed three runs over six innings while striking out eight and walking two. But this was an improvement for Gibson. His sweeper was very good, and he got a handful of whiffs on both his curveball and changeup. This is a situation where the final line is less kind to him than reality.
Cano finished up the seventh, struck out Arozarena to begin the eighth, and was then removed in favor of Bryan Baker. Baker immediately got into trouble with a walk and a single, but he wiggled out of it with a strikeout of Josh Lowe, followed by some nice glove work from second baseman Ramón Urías, who made a diving stop on a ground ball that touched the outfield grass and fed it to first base for the final out of the inning.
Although they got Glasnow out of the game, the Orioles offense remained stagnant against the back of the Rays bullpen. Jason Adam struck out two in a scoreless eighth, and Pete Fairbanks did the same in the ninth.
Félix Bautista came on to send the game to extras in the bottom of the ninth, and he did just that, retiring the side in order.
The top of the 10th started with Hicks at second as the Manfred runner. A sac bunt from pinch hitter Adam Frazier moved him over, which allowed Cowser to drive him home with a sac fly to left field. Disaster had almost struck before that when Hicks was nearly picked off by a nice Christian Bethancourt throw from behind the plate, but he got back in time and went on to score.
Bautista returned to the mound with a one-run lead in the bottom of the 10th. He plunked Luke Raley with the first pitch out of his hand, but then struck out Arozarena and induced a double play off the bat of Brandon Lowe to wrap up the game and give the Orioles sole possession of first place in the AL East. Let’s go!
There are things to pick at in this game. Gibson stayed in just a little too long. Cano immediately allowed his inherited runners to score. The offense had a single inning of productivity. But they did what it took to win, and the Orioles sit atop the best division in baseball with the trade deadline looming. Who cares about the box score. This was beautiful.
The lineup that Brandon Hyde deployed was defense-focused. It paid off with the aforementioned play from Urías, plus an earlier charging play from Henderson at third base. It’s possible—likely even—that without those two contributions the Orioles lose this game.
Jorge Mateo was a worthy inclusion in the starting nine for that reason as well. But he went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, bringing his season OPS to .610. Although a stellar fielder and speedy on the bases, Mateo’s bat is nearly unplayable, which caused Hyde to pull him for a pinch hitter late in the game. The way in which his contributions and playing time are balanced from here on out will be fascinating to watch.
Other things worth noting: Bautista did throw two innings, but it was only 15 pitches. He might be available in a close game on Friday. Cowser had some nice at bats, including a hit to snap his 0-for-15 drought. Henderson’s triple was the Orioles’ only extra-base hit. They struck out 14 times and did not work any walks. It’s semi-incredible they won with that sort of game.
This series is just getting started. Game two is a matchup between Kyle Bradish (6-4, 3.05 ERA) and Zach Eflin (10-5, 3.59 ERA). First pitch is 6:40.
Who was the Most Birdland Player for July 20, 2023?
This poll is closed
Kyle Gibson (ND, solid start)
Félix Bautista (two-inning save)
Gunnar Henderson (hustle triple, defense)
Colton Cowser (go-ahead RBI)
Ramón Urías (run-saving defensive play)