“Seventh straight day that it feels like we’ve hit the postseason early,” offered MASN’s Kevin Brown in the sixth. As usual, the O’s broadcaster with the slim frame and the booming voice summed this game up perfectly. Meeting for the last time this season, the Orioles and the Houston Astros both had plenty to play for: the AL East title, for the one, and a playoff spot, period, for the other. It was tense the entire day.
Kyle Bradish loves pitching against the Astros, and that included today. In three career starts totaling 22.2 innings, he’s given up zero runs and allowed just six hits, all of them singles. Across that span, Astros hitters are 6-for-70 (.086) with a .257 OPS against Bradish.
The only thing Bradish couldn’t do is dominate Houston in the innings he didn’t pitch.
Cut to the eighth inning, with the Orioles leading the game narrowly, 1-0. Shintaro Fujinami, who’s had a solid run in September, was in. “It’s been a struggle,” said MASN broadcaster and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, referring to the righty’s unpredictable stuff. Boy, what a struggle it was: Fuji threw 12 pitches, just two for strikes. After two walks and a lineout to second snared by a diving Adam Frazier, Brandon Hyde didn’t need to see more: “You’ve got a division at stake,” said Palmer.
Saddled with the unenviable task of blanking Houston with two on and the heart of the order up, Mike Baumann valiantly tried to avoid throwing fastballs to known fastball hitter Jeremy Peña. But he threw one too many sliders, instead, and Peña tagged one for a double that missed being a home run by maybe a foot. American League RBI leader Kyle Tucker was intentionally walked to get to Alex Bregman, who has a .411 average with the bases loaded. Gulp. The gambit worked: Baumann got a huge swinging K of Bregman and José Abreu grounded out, a weird cueball off Baumann’s leg that Adam Frazier delivered another clutch play on.
It was a thrilling escape, barring the one run allowed, and with the game tied, the Orioles could have won this one against Houston closer Ryan Pressly, whom they saddled with a loss Monday night. No such luck: today, they flailed helplessly against Pressly in the ninth and left hander Danny Coulombe couldn’t preserve the tie in the bottom half. He surrendered a leadoff double to rookie catcher Yainer Díaz before centerfielder Mauricio Dubón dumped a walkoff single to right. 2-1 Astros, ballgame.
The Orioles are now 55-18 when they score first. This is still a great record, but though they struck first today, it might be best to score more runs than just the one. Credit for the early rally goes to Adley Rutschman, who doubled to right in the first inning and Anthony Santander, who singled him home to put Baltimore up 1-0. (Santa capped it off with a stolen base—his fifth of the season, I was stunned to learn).
But after that first inning, Houston’s Christian Javier looked to have recaptured his stellar 2022 form, mowing down Orioles hitters with a combo of high heat and low sliders. He struck out 11 in just five innings. “We haven’t seen so many bad swings from the Orioles probably all season,” summarized Jim Palmer. Javier was, indeed, brilliant.
The only thing that could stop the Cristian Javier demolition crew was Cristian Javier. Length has been elusive for the Astros starter, and he was out after 91 pitches in five innings. The Orioles greeted big right-hander Héctor Neris with two consecutive hits in the sixth, but they couldn’t take advantage—against him or fellow Houston relievers Kendall Graveman, Bryan Abreu, or Pressly.
It was a waste. Because their starter was basically just as good. As mentioned, Bradish thrives against the AL West (could it be because he’s a native son of Arizona?), and today was no different. His sinker looked wicked, at 95-96 mph, enough to throw off batters’ timing ahead of a brilliant slider, which counted for 50% of his pitches today, his highest rate this season. Why not? It drew 13 whiffs on 21 swings. Poor hitters.
There were some dicey moments for the budding ace, who allowed the leadoff hitter to reach four times in six innings, but he kept getting strikeouts and strong defensive plays at key moments. In the third, the speedy Chas McCormick reached on a soft ground ball single, but ran into a perfect pitchout executed by batterymates Bradish and Rutschman.
Bradish went 3-0 to José Altuve in the fourth inning, but came back to freeze the All-Star infielder with a back-door slider—a stunning pitch. “If you can make an MVP go wow, you’re doing something right,” summed up Kevin Brown. About the only hard contact Bradish allowed was also that inning, a liner back at his face by Jeremy Peña. Practicing a little self-help, Bradish pulled a Matrix and got the glove up just in time, bending his body backwards to avoid the drive.
Kyle Bradish is living in the matrix pic.twitter.com/An6JpWDhts— Dillard Barnhart (@BarnHasSpoken2) September 20, 2023
In the fifth inning, Bradish walked Bregman, seeming to lose his feel for the slider, with several thrown in the dirt, including one that bounced away from Rutschman, allowing Bregman to take second. But what did it matter? The pitch is so filthy that Abreu and Díaz both fanned on it, and a flyout ended the inning.
The sixth inning was also highly strange. Bradish let the leadoff hitter reach again, Jake Meyers, who singled to the outfield and got bunted over to set the table for the dangerous Altuve. A gigantic curveball finished off Altuve, but with two outs, Jeremy Peña delivered a hang-tough at-bat, seeing nine pitches before finally fanning on Bradish’s 95th—or wait. An indignant Peña called for catcher’s interference. The umpires clustered together, and agreed. While Peña took first, O’s manager Brandon Hyde came to the mound for a heated meating, and then unexpectedly left his starter in to face Kyle Tucker. His faith was repaid: Tucker cued Bradish’s 100th pitch of the game right at Urías at third. Shutdown inning: complete.
Too bad Bradish’s brilliance couldn’t seep by osmosis into the bullpen. Jacob Webb pitched a scoreless seventh, albeit he gave up about 750 feet of flyball in so doing. Fuji, well, he looked so bad that Brandon Hyde shut up like an oyster when asked about him after the game. Baumann was OK. But Coulombe, given a clean bill in the ninth, couldn’t keep the Astros off the board.
It is what it is. The Orioles failed to deliver the sweep, but they did take the series against the defending champs. What happens in the AL East playoff race today awaits the result of Tampa Bay’s 6:40 game against Los Angeles. Now it’s off to Cleveland for four games before the Birds return east for two games against the Nationals and four against Boston to close out the season.