One night ago, the Orioles felt like kings of the world, completing an improbable climb to the top of the AL East to overtake the once unbeatable Rays.
But momentum, as they say, is the next day’s starting pitcher, and the Rays’ Zach Eflin assured the O’s wouldn’t be alone atop the division for long. Tampa Bay answered back in game two tonight, completely shutting down the O’s offense, 3-0, to pull back into a first-place tie.
The O’s managed a grand total of three baserunners. They struck out 14 times, nine of them called, with plenty of frustration at home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez’s expansive strike zone. Despite the somewhat close final score, the Orioles were never really in the game.
But there is good news: the O’s lost so quickly — in two hours and eight minutes, their third-shortest game of the year — that viewers had plenty of time to switch over to the start of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s opening match against Vietnam. The Orioles are really thoughtful that way.
We should have known it was going to be a rough night for the offense when Eflin retired the side on just seven pitches in the first inning. The first time through the lineup, only one Oriole reached base against him (Ryan Mountcastle, who doubled in the second), and the second time through, only Ryan O’Hearn did, with a two-out single in the fourth. Guess how many Orioles reached base the third time through the lineup? Right you are. It was one (an Adley Rutschman walk in the sixth).
Eflin carved up the Orioles with a four-pitch mix — sinker, curveball, changeup, and cutter — with the sinker being particularly effective. Eflin’s first five strikeouts were all called strikes three, all on the sinker. Eflin pounded the strike zone early and often and induced plenty of weak contact. He worked inside, outside, up, and down, almost always placing the ball with pitch-perfect precision.
The way Eflin pitched tonight, he would have dominated any lineup in baseball. Bad luck for the Orioles that he was facing theirs. The O’s never had more than one baserunner in an inning and totaled just two at-bats with a runner in scoring position.
The Orioles’ starter, Kyle Bradish, would have had to be nearly perfect to keep up with his counterpart. He was not, but he pitched well, delivering his fifth consecutive quality start and striking out five. Unlike Eflin, though, he did have a couple of lapses. In the second inning, former Maryland Terrapin Brandon Lowe doubled and scored on a Harold Ramírez single, snapping Bradish’s scoreless innings streak at 16.1. And in the sixth, Bradish’s final inning, he hung a sinker that Isaac Paredes deposited into the left-field seats for his 18th home run. Still, two runs in six innings is a fine effort, and normally enough to win a game. Not on this night. Not against Zach Effin’ Eflin.
The bottom of the seventh brought some intrigue when newly acquired righty Shintaro Fujinami made his Orioles debut — and promptly coughed up a dinger on his very first pitch. Oops! The Japanese right-hander tried to blow a first-pitch fastball past Jose Siri, who instead crushed it to left for his 20th home run. OK, not the greatest first impression, Shintaro. But he recovered to retire the next three batters, fanning Wander Franco on a nasty splitter. And Cionel Pérez, for what it’s worth, looked great in a 1-2-3 eighth.
Meanwhile, the Orioles had to be delighted when Eflin departed the game after the seventh with his pitch count at 87. The right-hander had retired 21 of the 24 batters he faced, barely breaking a sweat in doing so. I’d have run him out there for another inning, but that’s generally not how the Rays do things.
It didn’t matter. The O’s were equally helpless against relievers Colin Poche and Pete Fairbanks, each of whom struck out the side. The lefty Poche rung up two his strikeouts looking; the flamethrowing righty Fairbanks froze all three. In general, I’m impressed with the plate discipline of Orioles hitters this season, but I suppose there’s such a thing as taking too many pitches sometimes. Having nine batters stare at strike three isn’t ideal.
Alas. There’s a reason the Rays boast one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. These guys are good, and they got the better of the Orioles tonight. On to the next one.