After a back-and-forth game that was at times exhilarating and about as often agonizing, the Orioles entered the bottom of the ninth needing just three outs to beat the Guardians. They got one out before it all went wrong and they ended up losing in walkoff fashion in Cleveland, a 9-8 defeat that wasted the two-run rally the Orioles mustered in the top of the ninth, to say nothing of all of the other offense.
Let’s get one important piece of consolation out of the way before delving into this mess any further. The Rays also lost on Friday night, dropping a 6-2 game to the Blue Jays that saw the Rays lose multiple key players to injuries. The magic number for the Orioles to clinch the AL East is down to six. I’ve been saying all week that there are no bad days in which the number goes down. The Orioles were really determined to test whether this theory is actually true in playing this game tonight.
At the end, it comes down to this: Yennier Cano isn’t Félix Bautista. When he comes into the game, it is not a near-certainty that he will strike out one and often two batters. The math of preventing one or more runs from scoring is much easier when this happens. Cano got a 1-2 count on his first batter, Andres Gimenez, before a changeup at the bottom of the zone was hit into the right field corner. The tying run was at second, just like that... and quickly at third, since Cano didn’t strike out the next guy, instead having the runner advance on a groundout.
Cano followed by putting a 2-0 count on Cleveland’s right fielder, Will Brennan. The Orioles made the decision to intentionally walk Brennan the rest of the way, putting the winning run on base rather than having Cano pitch in pitcher’s counts to Brennan, and setting up a double play for the usually ground ball heavy Cano. The Guardian due up was David Fry, who cracked a sinker that didn’t sink enough off the fence in left-center field. Cedric Mullins bobbled the ricochet and Brennan scored from first for the walkoff loss. Ouch.
All of this was set in motion and kept in motion by a night of poor defense by the Orioles. You get the feeling that it’s not just the performance of the bullpen where you can tell they’ve played 15 games in 15 days. It’s wearing in the field too. Two errors were charged to the defense and several more could have been, including one occasion where Anthony Santander literally slipped and fell over in the grass. (He did this a second time and was charged with an error that time.)
Gunnar Henderson had a bad botch that cost the Orioles, and Jordan Westburg made a play where he showed solid range to field a grounder but couldn’t pick the ball up and get the out. Aaron Hicks has statue-like range in whatever outfield spot he’s placed in any given game, in tonight’s case all three outfield positions at different times. It is probably not a complete list.
This is to say that the defense did Dean Kremer no favors. Having said that, Kremer did the Orioles no favors. An absolutely gassed bullpen was in desperate need of, if not a deep start by Kremer, one that lasted at least six innings. That’s what they needed. They got barely more than half of this, with Kremer laboring through a mere 3.1 innings on 91 pitches, allowing seven hits and a pair of walks, charged with six runs (three earned).
Kremer failed in a way that hurt them tonight, with six Orioles relievers needing to be used once again, and that is failure that will make it more challenging to get a victory in tomorrow’s game as well. The tired bullpen is still tired. Not many guys got a rest. The day’s fresh callup, Tyler Wells, pitched two innings, which he had not done in the minors for more than a month. All of Wells, Danny Coulombe, Jorge López, and DL Hall threw at least 17 pitches; Coulombe and Hall didn’t even finish a full inning.
This was a game that the Orioles led 2-0 after their half of the first inning, as Henderson’s leadoff single and Santander’s one-out double produced one run, and after Santander made it to third on a Ryan O’Hearn groundout, he scored on a wild pitch by Cleveland starter Shane Bieber. Kremer gave this lead back in the span of his first five batters.
After falling behind 3-2, the Orioles reclaimed the lead at 5-3, taking advantage of some rockets hit by Ramón Urías and Henderson, as well as some poor defense by Cleveland, to get the lead back. This inning could have seen them score more runs, except with three runs already in and men on first and second with none out, Hicks grounded into a double play to make the rest of the rally a challenge. Austin Hays struck out to end it.
This lead did not last the next inning either. Kremer walked the first guy he saw after being staked to that lead, before what should have been a fairly routine line drive out to Santander turned into a two-base error as Santander slipped and fell while trying to come in to make the catch. Later in this same inning was a hard shot off the bat of Josh Naylor that could have been an inning-ending double play ball, except it ate up Henderson and kicked off his glove into the outfield. This tied the game at 5-5, and a sacrifice fly gave Cleveland a 6-5 lead.
That’s where things stood for a while, until the top of the seventh, when the top of the lineup came through: Henderson walked, Adley Rutschman singled, and Santander drove in Henderson to tie the game at 6-6 with his own single. Did this tie survive the next half inning? No. Coulombe faced his minimum three batters and in this time managed to give up a hit and a walk and throw a wild pitch. López was called in with the task of trying to prevent a man on third from getting home with one out. He didn’t.
Then, the ninth. Down to their last out against Cleveland’s save leader (and also blown save leader) Emmanuel Clase, a rally started as Santander was hit by a pitch. O’Hearn singled. The two runners advanced on a wild pitch. Hicks had the chance to be clutch and he did just that, bouncing a ball down the left field line out of the reach of Cleveland’s José Ramirez.
This dramatic hit that had me pounding on the coffee table in an empty house scored both runners and gave the Orioles an 8-7 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. They did not win the game. They could have brought their division lead back up to 2.5 games and their magic number down to 5. Cano could not get them there.
Perhaps tomorrow, the 16th game in 16 days for the Orioles, will somehow go better. John Means is set to make his third start since returning from Tommy John surgery. This is a lot to ask of him with the bullpen as tired as it is, but it does at least seem like current long man Jack Flaherty should be available for a few innings if necessary. The Cleveland starter is Cal Quantrill. Let’s hope the Orioles offense makes him look like the 5.26 ERA pitcher that he is this year.
Tampa and Toronto will be playing a 4:10 game. The Orioles and Guardians get under way at 6:10. It will be day after day of scoreboard watching until somebody clinches this thing.