The Orioles’ magic number to win the AL East is down to seven. They most likely won’t clinch this weekend in Cleveland, but they have a great opportunity to whittle that magic number down a lot more against a team that’s long out of contention.
The Guardians, who captured the AL Central crown last season with the youngest roster in the majors, had plenty of reason to believe that fresh-faced core would lead them to another strong year in 2023. It just didn’t happen. While the Guardians actually sat in first place in their terrible division with just a .500 record at the All-Star break, they’ve been underwater since July 30, going 27-35 in the second half to fall out of contention. Their last-ditch effort to spark the club, claiming veterans Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, and Matt Moore off waivers from the cost-cutting Angels at the end of August, amounted to nothing. The Guardians jettisoned Moore back to the waiver wire, where the Marlins picked him up earlier this week.
Cleveland’s starting staff is nearly unrecognizable from the expected Opening Day rotation. Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill have been hurt much of the season. Zach Plesac stunk and was released. Aaron Civale was traded. Still, the rotation has been the least of the Guardians’ problems, as a group of rookies has stepped up impressively, with righties Gavin Williams and Tanner Bibee and lefty Logan Allen all posting sub-4.00 ERAs. In the bullpen, All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase leads the majors with 41 saves, though he’s also blown 11.
The Guardians’ offense isn’t much to write home about. Perpetual MVP candidate José Ramírez has put up his usual stellar numbers, and the Naylor brothers — veteran first baseman Josh and rookie catcher Bo — have been an adorably potent duo. But nearly everyone else in the Cleveland lineup has been middling or worse.
The Guardians are the first of three straight non-contenders the O’s will face to finish the regular season, in all of which they’ll be heavily favored. As always, though, be wary of the trap series. The Guardians showed surprising spunk last weekend in sweeping the Rangers, who were fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, and earlier this month they did the O’s a solid by winning a series against the Rays. And yet they also just got swept by the last-place Royals. So who even knows what to expect from this Cleveland team this weekend?
For the Orioles, the objective is clear: just win, baby. The Birds, the only team in MLB with 50 road wins this season, will finish their away schedule with a chance to add four more.
Game 1: Thursday, 7:15 PM, FOX
RHP Grayson Rodriguez (6-4, 4.53) vs. TBD
With the Orioles returning to a five-man rotation and bumping Jack Flaherty to the bullpen, Rodriguez will become the first O’s starter to pitch on just four days’ rest since Kyle Bradish on Aug. 6. No more extra rest, no more workload management; the shackles are off for Grayson. And why shouldn’t they be? Last time out he tossed the most impressive start of his big league career, a dominant, eight shutout innings against the Rays that snapped the Birds’ four-game slide and propelled them to a four-game winning streak. Good luck, Guardians. He’ll be facing Cleveland for the first time; Rodriguez was optioned to the minors just before the Birds’ previous series against them in late May.
Cleveland has not announced a Game 1 starter as of this writing. It would have been Tanner Bibee’s turn, but the Guardians just placed him on the injured list with a season-ending hip injury.
Game 2: Friday, 7:10 PM, MASN2
RHP Dean Kremer (12-5, 4.17) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (5-6, 3.77)
A familiar face returns to the mound for Cleveland as former Cy Young winner Shane Bieber will be activated from the 60-day IL to make the start. Bieber last pitched on July 9 before suffering elbow soreness that cost him more than two months. The veteran righty was not pitching particularly well before that, giving up four or more runs in four of his last five starts. The Orioles also demolished him for seven runs in four innings on May 31, his shortest outing of the year. Aaron Hicks made his O’s debut in that game and reached base three times. Look for him to be in the lineup against Bieber if he’s recovered from the cramps he suffered in Houston.
Kremer, after a brilliant August in which he threw four straight quality starts, has struggled to provide length in September. Each of his three outings this month went five innings or less, though the O’s won all three games. He still figures to be the Birds’ #3 starter in the playoffs but he’s not exactly locking down that role. Kremer last faced the Guardians on June 5, 2022, his first start of that season. Andrés Giménez tagged him for a three-run homer.
Game 3: Saturday, 6:10 PM, MASN2
LHP John Means (0-1, 3.60) vs. RHP Cal Quantrill (3-6, 5.26)
Means’s long-awaited return to the rotation hasn’t made a huge impact as yet — he’s gone five decent innings in both games, though without missing a lot of bats — but it’s just awesome to see him back at full health with no restrictions. He’s lined up for two more starts in the regular season before the O’s make a decision on whether to put him on the postseason roster. If he’s going to shake off the rust, he needs to do it fast. Working in his favor is that the Guardians struggle against lefties, with a .664 team OPS versus southpaws, compared to .710 against right-handers. Cleveland has a very lefty-heavy lineup — including Giménez, Steven Kwan, Will Brennan, and both Naylors — and the switch-hitting Ramirez is weaker from the right side.
Quantrill, one of the many Cleveland pitchers plagued by injuries this year, has spent two stints on the IL with shoulder inflammation. He returned from his second stint in September and has pitched much better since, tossing three quality starts this month. Before that, Quantrill had a 6.45 ERA in 13 starts. The O’s torched him in their previous series, tallying eight runs in 4.1 innings May 30. Anthony Santander lashed him for a double and a triple.
Game 4: Sunday, 1:40 PM, MASN2
RHP Kyle Gibson (14-9, 5.00) vs. TBD
Gibson’s solid September, with back-to-back strong outings against the Angels and Cardinals, hit a speed bump when the Astros chased him in the fifth inning on Tuesday, Gibson’s shortest start since June. His ERA sits at exactly 5.00. Will his final two starts be good enough to dip him below the pitching equivalent of the Mendoza line? And will he be part of the postseason rotation by default, with Flaherty banished to the bullpen and Means still trying to sort himself out? Gibson won his previous start against the Guardians this season, holding them to three runs in 5.2 innings.
Again, the Guardians have a TBD listed for the series finale. They could turn to one of their stud rookies, Gavin Williams or Logan Allen, but I would prefer they didn’t.
How many games will the Orioles win in this series against the Guardians?
This poll is closed
4 (Orioles sweep!)
0 (Orioles get swept)