ATLANTA — If one swing of the bat could be a statement to the rest of the league, it has to be one that cracks as loudly as Anthony Santander’s in the seventh inning. It has to be one that leaves the Orioles outfielder watching, admiring, as the ball sails high and long. It has to be a grand slam to push Baltimore far out of reach against one of baseball’s fellow juggernauts.
That’s right — juggernauts.
The caveat that surrounded much of the Orioles’ winningest April in the club’s history was the quality of the opponent — that is, how the majority of Baltimore’s wins came against bottom dwellers. But Baltimore hasn’t won seven straight series entering Friday’s game against the Atlanta Braves by accident.
So they arrived at Truist Park on Friday, lined up against one of the best pitchers in baseball and rattled off seven runs in the seventh inning alone. Santander’s blast against right-hander Joe Jiménez punctuated the frame, but it was a seventh inning that unraveled for left-hander Max Fried and fed kindling to the fire that is Baltimore’s baseball team.
With the 9-4 victory, the Orioles have won 16 of their last 20 games. They’ve won all 11 series openers this year. They hold the second-best record in Major League Baseball at 22-10. And while it’s early May, there’s a reason to be excited.
“That was a huge win,” Santander said. “We got still a lot of games coming, with a lot of big teams, big lineups. But that was really good to win against this team, that’s been playing really good game right now.”
The offensive showcase was backed by a strong six innings from right-hander Dean Kremer, who needed just that kind of bounce-back showing. Barring 6⅔ shutout innings against the Washington Nationals last month, Kremer entered having allowed at least four earned runs in his other five starts.
Kremer forced 15 whiffs Friday, though, matching his season high. He did it with improved command, spotting his four-seam fastball away from the heart of the zone and inducing six swings and misses on that offering alone.
”Definitely makes it easier to sleep at night,” Kremer said. “It’s going to be a process over the course of the year, and just trying to get better in every start.”
After conceding one run in the first inning, he cruised through the next five innings with minimal pressure, and a strike-out, throw-out to end the sixth inning brought out a fist pump and a yell from the 27-year-old. It was a vastly improved showing from his earlier appearances this year.
“I thought everything was different,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He gave up some hard contact, but I thought he really competed well. I thought the presence was good on the mound. I thought he showed great body language, because he’s got really good stuff. He pitched with a ton of confidence tonight.”
For much of his outing, Kremer walked a fine line, with a one-run lead. Fried entered having allowed one run in his previous 20 innings, but Baltimore jumped on Fried in the third and fourth with a pair of runs. That’s when Santander clubbed his first homer of the game, going long for the second consecutive game.
Then the seventh inning arrived, and the scoring outburst meant Kremer could withdraw safely in line for the win. First, center fielder Cedric Mullins homered off Fried, another positive sign in a left-on-left matchup that shows Mullins’ improvement compared to last year. Fried’s second throwing error, this time on a Jorge Mateo bunt, brought home the second run. And with bases loaded against Jiménez, the relief pitcher, Santander made no mistake.
“Felt really good right there,” said Santander, who hit two homers in his first 27 games before knocking three in the span of two days. In doing so, Santander hit homers from both sides of the plate for the sixth time in his career, and he broke a streak of five straight Orioles losses when the switch hitter accomplishes the feat.
Santander ambushed Jiménez’s low four-seam fastball and launched it to deep right field for his first career grand slam. When he returned to the dugout, right-hander Kyle Gibson grabbed his shoulders, shook Santander in excitement and yelled into his ear — although Santander said he couldn’t understand a word of it.
But Santander did grab the gist of Gibson’s sentiment.
“They enjoyed that homer with me,” Santander said. “That was awesome right there.”
“Our dugout, that’s about the loudest it’s been,” Hyde said. “Just because of the situation and how far he hit it.”
But even then, the Orioles weren’t done in the seventh. Mullins batted around and checked in with an RBI single, creating enough of a cushion for a pitching staff that blew a seven-run lead Thursday to weather another late push, with Sean Murphy blasting a three-run homer off right-hander Mike Baumann.
It’s always an adventure for this Orioles team, with high-scoring games and late comebacks and — as Friday can attest to — significant statements.
All the joy that came Friday will vanish if Baltimore stumbles in the final two games of the weekend, but for at least one day, the gauntlet of games the Orioles are entering began with a crack — and a major one at that.