Amid the chaos of celebration in the Orioles clubhouse, Brandon Hyde would have loved for everyone to believe it was the champagne spraying across the room or the cigar smoke wafting into his eyes.
But no. Those were tears. A lot of them. More than he could wipe away with a discreet brush of his hand.
The Orioles manager — who just Tuesday told reporters “I wish I looked a little happier” than his typical dugout mean mug — stood in the heart of sports ecstasy in Baltimore as his team feted its first playoff berth in seven years. Around him, his players and staff were pouring beers on each other, hooting and hollering, dancing to deafening club hits. The Homer Hose, which all year long the team has said is a conduit only for water, was finally delivering something a little stronger.
But here was Hyde, weeping. For the fifth-year manager who soldiered through two seasons in which the Orioles lost more than 100 games, relief was an inextricable component of his joy. He endured a lot for an afternoon like Sunday.
“I’m a wimp in a lot of ways,” Hyde said, gesturing toward the festivities. “Look at this, man. It’s what it’s all about. You just want to see the guys you grind with every day enjoy, especially after so many guys had tough years, you know?”
If the Orioles hadn’t won Sunday afternoon, they still would have clinched a playoff spot. The team leadership had walked through a few scenarios, including clinching in a loss. “I think we would have done something, at most, a little more sedated,” general manager Mike Elias said.
The team — and the city — had something more festive in mind. And that doesn’t happen without the 5-4 walk-off win over Tampa Bay, an exclamation point on what Elias called “a foregone conclusion.” It might only be a starting point for the Orioles, but the stunning, extra-innings drama felt too good not to crack open the champagne.
In the Camden Yards stands, you would not have known that the Orioles were closing in on a playoff spot even if they hadn’t lifted a finger. The Rangers getting blown out by the Guardians wasn’t registering much interest among the crowd, and even the 10th-inning Jumbotron graphic reading “POSTSEASON CLINCHED” generated little more than a murmur.
There was too much riding on what was in front of them — the AL East and a potential first overall seed are still on the line, after all.
In the eighth inning, when the crowd of 37,297 was getting restless with the Orioles down 3-1 after back-to-back solo homers by the Rays, Adley Rutschman came to the plate. A chant of “LET’S GO O’s!” rumbled. The 25-year-old catcher took note before blasting a solo shot of his own.
“It felt like everyone was super into it,” he said. “The fans were going crazy.”
The home crowd had an even louder reaction in the top of the ninth when the home plate umpire called Rays outfielder Josh Lowe safe on a close play at the plate. In an instant, the throngs were up on their feet, waving their arms in protest. “OUT! OUT! OUT!” they shouted, and minutes later they were rewarded with an overturned call on review.
From there, it was a nail-biting roller coaster. They howled as Adam Frazier cracked a drive down the third base line into acres of open space. They nervously leaned forward in their seats as the Rays scratched another run across in the 10th. Rutchsman played hero again in the bottom of the inning, scoring Aaron Hicks on a single to keep the game going.
The Orioles got inventive in the 11th inning, sending power hitter Ryan O’Hearn out to bunt. The first baseman hadn’t attempted a bunt in five years — and he nervously thought of teammate James McCann’s bunt attempt when he nearly took a pitch to the face this season.
“Hyde said, ‘Can you get a bunt down?’ ” O’Hearn recalled. “I said, ‘I haven’t bunted in a long time, but I’ll fucking get it down. … Luckily it was a slider, and I got it down and it was beautiful.”
From there, a sense of inevitability reigned with Rutschman on third and Cedric Mullins at the plate with one out. The crowd, already on its feet, got loud for one of the few Orioles whose career spans the entire rebuild. When Mullins lined out to center, everyone knew right away. It was enough.
The Orioles had officially already made the playoffs 30 minutes prior. But only then, after winning the squeaker, could everyone watching finally exhale.
A noticeable chunk of the crowd had left by that point, with the game going beyond three hours and rain threatening overhead. Lauren Shapiro of Pikesville was one of the holdouts, staying with her husband and three children ages 7, 5 and 2. After the walkoff, they celebrated with their kids riding on their shoulders.
“It wasn’t easy staying, but we absolutely had to stay and watch these guys win,” Shapiro said, adding that her family will be coming for the playoffs, too. “It’s been an amazing season so far.”
It was after the fireworks and the dogpile on the field when Hyde first started welling up, the gruff manager hiding his eyes behind a pair of sunglasses. Sitting in the first row behind the Orioles dugout, Kurt Scheffenacker cried, too.
Scheffenacker, a 59-year-old from Cockeysville, inherited season tickets from his grandfather, who had watched the Orioles since they moved from St. Louis in 1954. He’s been attending home games, with rare absences, since 1977.
As the game got tight, Scheffenacker walked up to the concourse to curse and shake his nerves loose, as he has for decades of close games. But it’s been a long time since he’s seen an Orioles team deliver a moment that has made so much angst worthwhile.
Watching the Orioles win, and not just clinch, made him feel as proud as he’s ever felt.
“When they’re 50 games out of first place in August, that’s when my family wants me home — and I’m still here at the ballpark: my favorite place on Earth,” he said, wiping his face. “To watch them blossom into this incredible team, it was mind-blowing. It’s been a pleasure in every way.”
Andy Kostka contributed reporting to this story.