They sure didn’t make it easy. But the Orioles are back in sole possession of first place.
The O’s outlasted the Rays in a chaotic game three of the series, a contest that swung from the highest of highs — an early five-run explosion to stun Orioles killer Shane McClanahan — to the lowest of lows, a late-inning bullpen collapse that cost Grayson Rodriguez a deserved win, before a dramatic top of the ninth that featured Ryan O’Hearn’s pinch-hit, go-ahead RBI single. Félix Bautista locked it down with another dominant inning, bringing the large pro-Orioles contingent of Tropicana Field to its feet and surging the O’s back to the top of the AL East standings.
Whew. If you’ll excuse me, I need to sit down.
At various points of this game, this was shaping up to be one of the most exhilarating wins of the season — or one of the most devastating losses. There was no in between. It was a tooth-and-nail grind in a playoff atmosphere, with a sellout crowd of 25,025 taking in the festivities at Tropicana.
The Orioles brought the energy to match, nobody more so than starter Grayson Rodriguez, who delivered perhaps the most dominant outing of his young major league career. Rodriguez set the tone with a perfect first inning in which he got three routine groundouts, and soared from there. Rodriguez was absolutely nails through the first five innings, facing the minimum 15 batters.
The only two hitters to reach base were Jose Siri on an infield single in the third and Brandon Lowe on a fifth-inning walk. Both were erased on double plays. Siri committed a TOOTBLAN, taking off around the bases on a routine flyout to right and getting easily doubled off, while Lowe was cut down on a spectacular play by the wunderkind Gunnar Henderson, who snared a sizzling liner to third and fired a cannon across the diamond to nip Lowe.
WHAT CAN'T GUNNAR HENDERSON DO?!? pic.twitter.com/Lvfl5GYUmb— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) July 22, 2023
Rodriguez yelled and pumped his fist in Henderson’s direction in celebration. Gunnar is pretty awesome, guys. And so was Rodriguez, who was pounding the strike zone, mixing his pitches effortlessly, and keeping Rays hitters off balance all day. He looked every bit like the #1 pitching prospect in baseball that Orioles fans have been hoping to see. If Rodriguez can keep this up going forward, the O’s are primed for even bigger things the rest of the year.
The Orioles, though, had their own impressive young hurler to contend with, namely Shane McClanahan, who leads the AL in wins (11) and ERA (2.56) and has dominated the O’s his entire career (6-0, 2.14 in eight starts). McClanahan began with three scoreless frames, whiffing four batters, and appeared well on his way to repeating Zach Eflin’s dominance of the Birds a day earlier. I was half ready to copy and paste last night’s recap and just Find and Replace every “Eflin” with “McClanahan.” I’m lazy that way.
In the top of the fourth, though, the Orioles completely flipped the script, erupting for the most impressive rally they’ve ever accomplished against the Rays ace. With one on and two outs, Gunnar Henderson smacked a liner to short left, hustling it out for a double as Ryan Mountcastle raced to third. McClanahan then got ahead in the count 1-2 to Ramón Urías but couldn’t finish him off, throwing a full count slider that Urías laid off for a walk, loading the bases.
Still, with James McCann and Jorge Mateo — the Orioles’ two worst hitters — due up next, chances of a big O’s rally seemed slim. But this team has a way of surprising us. McCann jumped on the first pitch, a changeup, and smacked it into left-center field to plate two runners, legging out a double. There we go! It’s safe to say it was McCann’s biggest hit as an Oriole, and it was the first time all year he’s driven in multiple runs on one swing.
Even Mateo got in on the action, roping a shot to the wall that was not particularly well played by left fielder Randy Arozarena. Mateo ended up at second with a double of his own, bringing in two more runs. Count “James McCann and Jorge Mateo hit back-to-back RBI doubles off Shane McClanahan” as something I did not expect to see today. Orioles Magic!
Austin Hays followed with a bloop RBI double to right, plating Mateo, and the O’s amazingly had a 5-0 lead against one of the best pitchers in baseball. McClanahan had never before allowed more than two runs against the Orioles, let alone five. What a world. He didn’t return for the fifth inning.
Up by five runs with a cruising Rodriguez on the hill, the O’s dared to dream of a comfortable win. But comfortable wins are something they just don’t do. Sure enough, the Rays began to chip away. Grayson began to tire in the sixth, allowing a walk and double to put two in scoring position with nobody out. Rodriguez very nearly escaped — getting a strikeout and grounder — but couldn’t retire Wander Franco, who poked a 2-2 pitch into left-center for a two-run single. That brought an end to Grayson’s otherwise impressive day. He was one pitch short of working six full innings for the first time, instead settling for 5.2.
Danny Coulombe got the last out of the sixth — actually McCann got it by throwing out Franco trying to steal — but allowed a pair of one-out singles in the seventh. Brandon Hyde summoned Yennier Cano to try to snuff the rally, but Isaac Paredes greeted him with an RBI single before Cano induced two groundouts. It was 5-3.
In the eighth, new acquisition Shintaro Fujinami got his first chance to pitch with a late-inning lead for the Orioles, and, um, it did not go well. Fujinami couldn’t throw strikes, issuing walks to the first two batters he faced and then uncorking a wild pitch to move them both into scoring position. Absolutely maddening. Fujinami, for his part, found a groove as the inning went on, retiring Franco on a grounder (which scored a run) and striking out Harold Ramírez.
But with the O’s one out away from escaping the inning with the lead intact, Arozarena smacked a grounder to the hole in short...and Mateo muffed it, letting it deflect into left field for a game-tying RBI single. Orioles fans everywhere cried out in frustration. For a guy whose hallmark is defense, that’s a play that Mateo has to make. Instead, the O’s had squandered the entire 5-0 lead, robbing Rodriguez of a win and bailing out McClanahan from a loss.
To their credit, the Orioles got right back on the horse. Cionel Pérez got a huge out, freezing Brandon Lowe to strand the go-ahead run at second, and the O’s got to work in the ninth. Facing the hard-throwing Pete Fairbanks, one of the best relievers in the bigs, pinch-hitter Adam Frazier flicked an outside pitch to the opposite field for a leadoff single.
McCann was asked to bunt, and he did it, somehow laying down a successful sacrifice on a pitch that would have hit him in the face. That set up another pinch-hitter, O’Hearn, who worked the count full and then dumped a single into right field to bring home Frazier. Clutch! That’s a professional hitter, folks. Against all odds, the O’s were back in front, 6-5.
All that remained was to hand the ball to Bautista, who was automatic as usual. The mountainous right-hander retired Paredes on a liner to left, then blew away both Josh Lowe and Siri on 100-mph fastballs to nail down an epic ballgame.
What a win! Let’s hear it for your never-say-die, first-place Orioles.
Who was the Most Birdland Player for Saturday, July 22?
This poll is closed
James McCann (two-run double, key sac bunt on a pitch to his face)
Ryan O’Hearn (go-ahead, pinch-hit RBI single in the ninth)
Grayson Rodriguez (5.2 IP, 2 ER, 6 K, faced the minimum through five)
Félix Bautista (ridiculous again in the ninth)