You don’t forget sounds like this — and not the roar when Gunnar Henderson smacked a home run to give the Orioles the lead, nor the crescendo that followed when Félix Bautista entered the game in a twinkling ballpark for the save situation Henderson created.
Those are, at this point, the nightly soundtrack of this magical Orioles season. With every such win, more and more fans believe; more and more fans come cheer. And as they watched Bautista leave with what manager Brandon Hyde described as arm discomfort, they groaned.
Tens of thousands of people were ripped from the thralls of another signature win in a season full of them by the troubling sight of Bautista wandering around the mound after a 102-mph fastball with one strike to go, wiggling his fingers and eventually walking off the mound.
The collective sigh was unmistakable; the win they were watching was a Pyrrhic one.
It will require scans and doctors to determine the cause of that discomfort and whether it will keep Bautista from helping the Orioles secure October baseball and push for playoff success. No such expertise is needed to explain how daunting a stretch run without The Mountain would be.
Bautista, who in lieu of his 34th save of the season was credited with his first hold of the year as he left Danny Coulombe to record the game’s final strike, has been a dominant force in the Orioles’ bullpen for the last two years. He was an All-Star this year, and with that midseason honor secured was moving on to greater pursuits. His dominance, as illustrated by his 16.23 strikeouts per nine with a 0.92 WHIP, was garnering him inclusion in the AL Cy Young conversation.
But that overpowering presence at the back of the bullpen was also a key facet of the Orioles’ playoff aspirations. This team is a season-high 32 games over .500 and could eclipse last season’s win total of 83 before September even hits. It has reached these heights because of what it does in close games.
Part of that is late, productive at-bats like Austin Hays’ walk in the eighth inning, which put him on to score when Henderson homered. The other part is Bautista, who has been nearly flawless for the entire season and shortens the game for Hyde at every ask. Perhaps, as Cole Irvin said twice he would pray for, it would be a minor issue that just requires rest.
If not, an Orioles team that has made it this far being fortunate enough to count Cedric Mullins’ injured list stints as the most significant obstacles of the year now has a new problem to overcome.
It’s not exactly a molehill. Yennier Cano was an All-Star, too, on the strength of an electric first month-plus, but he struggled some in the middle of the year before seemingly getting back on track in August. He hasn’t been charged with an earned run this month, and neither has Cionel Perez or Jacob Webb. July trade acquisition Shintaro Fujinami had two strong innings Friday and, crucially, has eliminated walks recently, even if he’s liable to allow some long outs.
Most of those outings came in the middle or late innings, with Bautista in reserve for the ninth. Not having him in that spot will challenge the entire bullpen’s equilibrium; perhaps it will create an opening for Tyler Wells, who came out of the bullpen Friday at Triple-A Norfolk, or DL Hall to join the team. Hyde could have to play the matchups instead of simply penciling in Bautista.
Everything Hyde, Irvin and Henderson said after Friday’s win was true; it’s impossible to know just yet what is ailing Bautista, and these Orioles are a scrappy and talented bunch that picks each other up and has won close games for five months now.
There is comfort derived from all that experience. They know they’ve erased late deficits before, and they know what happens when they do. Bautista comes in and finishes the job. That’s what made Camden Yards so loud Friday as he strolled in across the center field grass, and what made the disappointment at his exit so audible.
So many memorable wins in the Orioles’ first 128 games felt like this one. It might be a long time until they can summon Bautista with a ninth-inning lead and re-create this particular energy, this particular tried-and-true approach to winning games.
Without Bautista, the formula changes – significantly. The 6-foot-8 Bautista, literally and figuratively, raises this team’s ceiling to heights that will be challenging to reach without him. They can still win games without him. It’s fair to wonder how late into October those games will be if they don’t have Bautista at the back of their bullpen.