As the Orioles’ fortunes have risen in this dream season, soaring to the apex of the American League, it’s funny how rarely we’ve thought to look down.
That cloud we’ve been floating on? There’s plenty of cushion beneath it. The Orioles’ brightest days still seem ahead. The young stars at the forefront of Saturday night’s 8-0 win against the Tampa Bay Rays highlighted the promise of what’s still to come.
Grayson Rodriguez, two months shy of his 24th birthday, mowed down the Rays lineup that had troubled the last two O’s starters — even shaking off a line drive to the leg. Gunnar Henderson, the 22-year-old recently elevated to the leadoff spot, led the scoring deluge with a 3-for-3 start, including his second homer of the series. Tyler Glasnow’s very first pitch cracked off Henderson’s bat for a hit, setting the tone for an aggressive night at the plate.
One of the youngest teams in baseball, but still one of the best, battered the Tampa bullpen that had kept a lid on opposing offenses for 34 straight innings without an earned run. The Orioles ensured that their 87-series streak without being swept continued, the longest such stretch in more than 80 years.
But you still might be feeling the tiniest pit in your gut. Or a crawling sensation up your neck.
That has everything to do with the four-game stretch that preceded the win.
Given an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2016 this week, the Orioles flagged, losing four straight for the first time since July 1. Their well-oiled offense turned meek and struggled with strikeouts, even against the woebegone Cardinals. In the losing streak, they led only for a half-inning of the 36 they played.
The Orioles insisted they weren’t pressing in a high-stakes series with their top AL East rival. But the results suggested, at the very least, some nerves snaking their way into what has been an unflappable clubhouse.
Rodriguez said the mood at the park Saturday, however, was businesslike from start to finish.
“We hadn’t really run into a stretch like this, but I don’t think you could really tell that from the guys,” he said. “Attitudes didn’t really change. Everybody was still confident in their ability to go out and win a baseball game.”
Still, the smallest headwinds left an impression. All this time, it seemed the Orioles were playing with house money. But the losing streak — which briefly allowed the Rays to pull even for the division lead — was a wobble that underscored how high hopes have gotten.
Baltimore has been busy toasting the Orioles’ resurgence all summer; it’s only now that fans might start to realize that upward climb means there’s farther to fall.
Let’s not lose perspective here. The Orioles will make the playoffs, and they still have the steering wheel in the AL East. The Rays play six of their last eight games against Toronto, which will be battling for a wild-card spot, while the O’s gently glide into the postseason with series against Cleveland, Washington and Boston — all well out of the mix. A first-round bye is still a likely outcome.
But what fans are starting to realize — or what they should be starting to realize — is that whatever the Orioles do in the postseason isn’t all gravy. They’ve raised the bar. A team that wins the pennant should be thinking about winning the World Series. You never know how much closer you can get.
The current roster and front office have nothing to do with the trauma of the team’s last playoff appearance, but certainly the memory lingers: Zach Britton languishing in the bullpen, waiting for a call from the dugout that never came. It wasn’t a “postseason” so much as a one-night-only performance that still haunts the fan base.
The best quality about these Orioles might be that they’re blissfully free of baggage. Even the homegrown veterans are experiencing high-stakes baseball for the first time. Manager Brandon Hyde said many of them are still feeling the wind at their backs after so many losing seasons. And rookies such as Henderson and Rodriguez have no basis for comparison.
“I think our young guys maybe don’t know better,” Hyde said. “They’re just playing their butts off every single night.”
There is hubris, though, to this enterprise. The Orioles’ relative inexperience is in stark contrast to the Rays, who have finished first in the division in two of the last three seasons. They’re about to take on Houston, the defending World Series champs, who sport a lineup of names already etched in postseason lore (albeit a few in infamy). The Rays and the Astros probably lurk somewhere in the postseason journey, not to mention the Braves or the Dodgers if the Orioles are lucky enough to make it that far.
Henderson, Rodriguez and the rest of the young Orioles may be legends in the making, but they aren’t legends yet. They’ve been great so far, but we simply don’t know what we’re going to get out of them next month.
The unknown, in this instance, can feel harrowing.
These Orioles will build their legacies pitch by pitch. Hit by hit. Gatorade bath by Gatorade bath — both Henderson and Rodriguez were ambushed after the game. “I feel like I got most of it,” a still sopping wet Henderson said afterward.
Saturday’s win allowed the Orioles to resume the climb, now just one win from clinching the postseason.
After years of darkness and meaningless baseball, it may be a little unsettling to realize the Orioles finally have something to lose. But it sure beats having nothing to play for at all.