October came to Camden Yards early Thursday night, as the Orioles and Rays faced off with the balance of power in the AL East on the line. What didn’t come with that playoff atmosphere was an Orioles win, as the O’s fell 4-3 to Tampa.
Early on it looked like the O’s were feeding off the incredible energy that Birdland brought to the Yard. Cedric Mullins brought the crowd to their feet in the top of the 2nd inning, making a diving catch in right-center that was almost too good to be true—and he saved the O’s a run to boot. Ryan O’Hearn kept the energy high in the bottom of the 2nd as he led off the inning by launching an inside cutter out to RF giving the O’s a 1-0 lead.
The Rays briefly took the wind out of the Orioles sales, as they responded for three runs of their own in the top of the 3rd. The O’s then started the process of clawing their way back into the game. Gunnar Henderson cut the Rays’ lead in half in the bottom of the 4th when he launched his 26th HR of the season into the right field stands.
The O’s offense then proved their versatility, going from long balls to small balls in the bottom of the 5th. Mullins started the inning by laying down a perfect bunt single that hugged the grass all the way down the third base line. After Aaron Hicks worked a full count walk, Jordan Westburg looked to bunt both runners into scoring position. Westburg popped up the bunt, but the ball fell in a Bermuda triangle of the catcher, pitcher and third baseman—which allowed Westburg to reach first and loaded the bases. With no outs, Adam Frazier grounded into a fielder’s choice, allowing Mullins to score and tying the game at three. However, Adley Rutschman couldn’t keep the rally going as he grounded into an inning ending double play.
At that point it felt like the O’s were in the middle of a comeback that would see them take the win and a three-game lead in the division. Instead, it was the last rally the O’s offense could muster. As soon as Tampa Bay starter Aaron Civale left the game, the Rays bullpen silenced the Baltimore bats. Tampa’s relievers pitched four perfect innings while racking up seven Ks to close out the game. The only excitement that the Orioles hitters offered was the first MLB at-bat of Heston Kjerstad—who struck out to lead off the bottom of the 8th. Rays closer Peter Fairbanks took over in the bottom of the 9th, blowing triple-digit fastballs by Henderson, Anthony Santadner and O’Hearn to close out the game.
While the bats didn’t fully rise to the occasion, Baltimore’s pitching also had an up and down outing. For much of his start Thursday, Kyle Bradish looked like his normal ace self. His start was undone though by one bad inning and another bad pitch. The 27-year-old’s first two innings were everything you’ve come to expect from Bradish. He struck out two in a perfect 1st inning and then worked around a two-out single to pitch a scoreless second (with some help from Mullins).
The 3rd inning was when Bradish momentarily lost control of his great stuff. Tampa’s CF Luke Raley led off the inning with an infield single to the left side that skipped off of Jordan Westburg’s glove. After inducing a fly out to RF, Bradish left a curveball up to All-Star Yandy Díaz, who smoked it up the middle for a single. With two on and one out, Brandon Lowe poked a single into RF and Raley beat Aaron Hicks’ throw to the plate, tying the game at one. In the very next at-bat, Randy Arozarena lived up to his reputation as an Oriole-killer, slashing a triple into the RF corner to clear the bases and give Tampa a 3-1 lead.
Bradish settled back in after that, providing the O’s with the stability they needed to try and mount a comeback. He rebounded from his rough 3rd with a perfect 4th, picking up a pop up, strikeout and fly out to set the Rays down in order. Bradish gave up a lead off single to start the 5th, but immediately picked up a double play and then K’d Brandon Lowe to finish another scoreless frame. After the O’s tied things in the 5th, Bradish delivered his third consecutive 1-2-3 inning as he breezed through the top of the 6th.
Sitting at 87 pitches through six innings, Brandon Hyde decided to send Bradish out for the top of the 7th. Through the first two batters, the move looked like a stroke of genius as Bradish got two ground outs on four pitches. However, after falling behind Raley 3-1, Bradish left a slider up and over the plate and the CF deposited it over the CF fence to give the Rays a 4-3 lead.
The loss cuts the O’s lead in the AL East to one game, the smallest Baltimore’s lead has been since July. The fight is far from over, but it was not an encouraging first round for the Orioles in this heavyweight battle. The Baby Birds’ first exposure to a true playoff atmosphere didn’t go as planned. However, what we’ve seen time and time again from this group, a rough start often leads to tremendous results. That’s what this team and all of Birdland will be hoping for when the Orioles return to the field Friday night.