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BALTIMORE — That the Baltimore Orioles will not lose 100 games for a third consecutive season was initially a matter of course. You can’t lose 100, after all, if you only play 60.
So, this pandemic-shortened season seemed almost a merciful offering to a franchise that made no significant upgrades after losing a staggering 115 games in 2018, followed by 108 more losses in 2019.
Yet among the more unscripted elements of this strange Major League Baseball season is that a nearly identical group of itinerant castoffs that made Camden Yards a hospitable place for visitors in recent years has suddenly learned how to stop the bleeding.
And, more often than not, punch back.
“We have a lot of guys who have come here from other places and been taken off 40-man rosters,” Brandon Hyde, the Orioles’ second-year manager, said on a video call this week. “That’s a tough pill to swallow for a major league player, when a team removes you from the roster and start all over and hopefully get claimed. A lot of our lineup and a lot of our bullpen, that’s happened to, and I think that makes them tough.
“I think a lot of these guys grew a lot last year.”
Certainly, the Orioles’ rebuild has a long way to go; heck, the teardown still isn’t complete. Through two dozen games this year, though, the Orioles have shown that misery doesn’t have to be permanent, that situations can change quickly even without material improvements to the core.
Thursday, they will wake up nursing the hangover of a four-game losing streak after a sweep by the Toronto Blue Jays, and sit at 12-12, in third place in the AL East. Yet as they welcome the Boston Red Sox to Camden Yards for a four-game series, their vital signs relative to recent years are notable.
The 2018 edition was under .500 for good after the third game of the season; last year’s Orioles were permanently underwater after 11.
Two years ago, the Orioles lost 16 of 19 games to the Boston Red Sox, their 115 losses plastered on Fenway Park’s Green Monster as the Red Sox rolled to a World Series title.
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Thursday, it is the Red Sox who arrive at Camden Yards in a 7-18 hole, awaiting a re-tooling of their own that may begin at this year’s trade deadline.
In 2019, Baltimore went 2-17 against the New York Yankees, a mark that ultimately showed how far they had to go. Even more humbling: Thirty-five of their games – or exactly a quarter of their season – ended in blowout losses of at least five runs.
That can create a certain fog of war for a first-year manager like Hyde, who could only push the buttons he was handed on a pitching staff that broke the single-season home runs allowed record by Aug. 22, yielding 305 homers in all.
While the moral victories this season – such as erasing a 5-1 deficit against three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, only to lose 6-5 – won’t get the Orioles closer to one of eight AL playoff berths, they do indicate that the focus has shifted beyond mere survival.
“It’s a case study in, whether a season is 60 games or 162 games, there will be ups and downs. Don’t let the sinking prolong,” says lefty starter Wade LeBlanc. “There’s no quit in these guys.”
Of greater import to the bigger picture: The Orioles may have unearthed more than a few keepers for the long rebuild ahead.
Former general manager Dan Duquette’s mild obsession with the Rule 5 draft often hamstrung Orioles rosters, since draftees must remain with the big league club all season or be offered back to the original franchise.
Consider Anthony Santander a beautiful parting gift from Duquette, who along with manager Buck Showalter were deposed after the 2018 season.
A shoulder injury enabled the club to stash Santander on the injured list most of 2017. He did not get back to the big leagues until late last year, when he hit 19 home runs that didn’t necessarily seem like a harbinger of greatness.
But look at him now.
The 25-year-old Venezuelan leads the major leagues in extra-base hits and his nine home runs trail only Mike Trout in the American League. A switch-hitting right fielder, he’s currently on a 14-game hitting streak and has a 1.047 OPS.
His gap-to-gap power could lengthen into even more home run productivity as he matures as a hitter.
“The important thing is to control the emotions, come to the ballpark ready to help us win,” he said languidly through an interpreter after a two-homer game this week.
“You see a guy,” says LeBlanc, “who knows who he is as a ballplayer.”
Were it not for COVID-19, that likely would mean halfway to an All-Star this season. His 26 RBI lead the AL and his 10 doubles are second to teammate Hanser Alberto.
Alberto, slugging first baseman Renato Nunez and third baseman Rio Ruiz are among at least three players claimed off waivers who now are regulars. Less certain is whether they’ll be in the picture when Baltimore hopes to earnestly contend, which likely won’t come until 2022, when top prospect Adley Rutschman and a cavalry of young pitchers led by 20-year-old Grayson Rodriguez have their roots down in Baltimore.
But in Santander and catcher Chance Sisco, whose .438 on-base percentage catapulted him to the leadoff spot this week, GM Mike Elias likely has some keepers.
Such future viability has been harder to identify in recent years.
The Orioles were outscored by 252 runs last year, a suboptimal developmental environment, to say the least. This year’s rotation is dotted with the usual mix of low-cost options that can’t necessarily be counted on to go deep in games: Veteran Alex Cobb, finally healthy after missing all of 2019, is joined by the likes of soft-throwing lefties LeBlanc and Tommy Milone and right-hander Asher Wojciechowski.
That bullpen, though.
A unit bombarded last year is almost untouchable in this one. Righty Mychal Givens and lefty Tanner Scott have not given up an earned run in a combined 17 ⅔ innings. Cole Sulser has emerged as a viable closing option.
With less than two years of service time, Scott, who has allowed just one hit to 31 batters faced, certainly joins the group of Orioles who may be around for the better days.
“I’m really pumped about Tanner Scott,” Hyde gushed on Wednesday. “That’s just wipeout stuff. He’s been doing that the last few weeks.”
The bullpen had a 5.79 ERA and a 2.12 strikeout-walk ratio in ’19; this year, those numbers are 4.21 and 2.55.
“When the bullpen’s pitching well,” says Hyde, “it makes things a lot easier. You can set up, navigate through orders and game plan. When guys are going out and walking guys like we did last year, pitching behind in the count, high pitch counts, possibly unavailable the next day because of a 30-pitch inning or 37 pitches for one-plus, that makes it really challenging for everybody.”
And then the spiral begins.
The Orioles are confident that won’t happen this season, due in some part to experience, performance and vibe. While social distancing has made cohesion challenging, the atmosphere has been strong.
Starting pitchers aren’t supposed to be at the park on nights they’re not pitching, but reliever Sean Armstrong said the likes of Cobb and Wojciechowski will have blown up the club’s WhatsApp group thread shortly after the last pitch of the game.
For the moment, they are in line to claim one of the eight AL playoff berths. The Toronto sweep will amplify the notion that the Orioles’ quick start was a fluke.
“We’re working here among ourselves, relying on one another, trying to avoid the noise,” says Armstrong. “Yeah, we got a tough stretch with the AL East but hey, we play in the AL East. That’s what’s meant to be.”
And at the least, the Orioles are more than just a speed bump.