As Jorge Mateo walked toward the Orioles’ dugout on the first-base side of Camden Yards, the crowd immediately behind that dugout rose, in twos and threes and then all at once. They were clapping, hands raised and outstretched, a salute to the Baltimore infielder.

For his speed, which is blinding. For his defense, which is faultless. And this year, more than ever, for his timely production at the plate that included the go-ahead, two-run double in the sixth inning Friday that secured the Orioles a 3-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The organization has long valued Mateo for all three of those attributes, but the fanbase has a short fuse on slumping players. In past seasons, as Mateo struggled at the plate, there was less enthusiastic support for the now-everyday second baseman and more calls for a shift into a bench role.

His performance backed those calls. Over the final five months of the 2023 season, no qualified batter (200 or more plate appearances) posted a lower on-base-plus-slugging percentage than Mateo’s .472.

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But a third of the way into the 2024 season, he is being serenaded with applause. And for good reason, no matter how surprising it may have been months ago to consider Mateo as an everyday player who manager Brandon Hyde says is difficult to take out of the lineup. It seemed a foregone conclusion Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 prospect in baseball, would arrive and solidify a role Mateo has instead made his own.

“He’s gotten huge hits for us,” Hyde said. “He’s trying to take advantage of this opportunity he’s getting right now, and he’s playing Gold Glove defense, as I always talk about, and when he gets on base he creates so much havoc. When he gets on base, he scores. And then tonight, he gets some big hits.”

That’s baseball. In a 162-game grind, the unexpected is bound to occur. Just look at the mound Friday, where a journeyman from Venezuela who pitched recent years in Japan and South Korea toed the rubber.

Or look to Austin Hays, a centerpiece on the Orioles whose everyday role has been reduced by a slump. Hays drove an RBI single as a pinch hitter, setting up Mateo’s two-run double, but he still made a call-to-action postgame for himself and Cedric Mullins.

“We’re not performing like we’ve always performed,” Hays said. “We haven’t done what’s expected of us, and we need to play better. And we’re going to.”

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The Orioles are still managing, though, because there’s “a different hero every night,” Hays said.

The emergence of right-hander Albert Suárez initially appeared as a feel-good story. It still is, of course; his Orioles debut was his first major league appearance since 2017. But there’s less room now for feel-good and more need for a pitcher who can step up and fill a major hole in a rotation that on paper looked entirely different this winter.

Arm injuries strike with startling frequency now. On Friday, general manager Mike Elias announced UCL injuries for right-hander Tyler Wells and left-hander John Means would require season-ending elbow surgeries. The blow is heavy, and when Elias looks around at who might pitch instead, he’d be forgiven if he said he’s surprised Suárez is the answer — at least for the time being.

“He’s been incredible,” Elias said, “and I’m looking forward to watching him tonight.”

What Elias watched from Suárez wasn’t the 34-year-old’s finest command, but it was the workman-like outing that has made him such a reliable option in a pinch. He completed five innings with one run against him, lowering his ERA to 1.57. Among pitchers with at least five starts this year, Suárez has the lowest ERA in the majors.

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“For me, my mentality is: Go out there and do my job,” Suárez said.

Suárez allowed a leadoff double to Richie Palacios in the second inning, and after a sacrifice bunt moved Palacios to third, he scored on Ben Rortvedt’s single. Beyond that, however, Suárez stranded any other runner against him.

In doing so, the Orioles were well within reach by the time Suárez racked up 95 pitches.

“It’s been a really big find,” said Elias, who again gave credit to Baltimore’s pro scouting department for their work in identifying Suárez while pitching in Korea and signing him on a minor league deal. “That’s pretty good value created. And we love this guy. He has a lot of experience. He’s extremely mature, accountable, focused. He’s what he looks like when you watch him pitch behind the scenes. Pretty impressive guy. He’s so excited to be where he is and be a part of this team, and it’s been a big shot in the arm for us at an important time, especially with these pitching injuries, to have him step up.”

As Baltimore aspires for pivotal moments in October, it takes nights like Friday, months away from those winner-take-all games. Hours before first pitch, the news became public that two key pitchers would miss the remainder of the year. Then the show of resilience began.

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Suárez, a little-known depth piece entering spring training, performed at a high level again, And Hays and Mateo — not the offensive stars that garner national attention — manufactured the winning runs.

“Our goal always remains the same,” said Mateo through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, “which is to go out there and win the game.”

That’s what it takes on a march to October.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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