They say the smallest things are magnified in the playoffs — that’s true for even the most simple and familiar elements.
When the sunlight flooded over the field and the third-base side of Camden Yards on Saturday, 46,450 fans felt the warmth they had been seeking for nine years. It had been chilly and damp enough to push back the first pitch but, as soon as the clouds swept away, it was reason to celebrate with a sea of twirling orange towels in every direction.
The Orioles’ white jerseys blazed in the midday light. The fireworks stoked the incandescent mood of the riled-up Baltimore crowd, cheering with tall boys in hand. And entire sections were standing not just for the the final two-strike count of the inning but each and every one.
This is postseason baseball: familiar, yet totally blown up to a massive scale. It would make sense that the game is different, too.
Although the 101-win Orioles know how to come through in high-leverage situations, it was clear after a 3-2 loss to the Texas Rangers that there’s a learning curve to winning in the playoffs they’ll have to adapt to quickly. The opportunities missed Saturday spoke to an Orioles lineup trying to translate its wild regular-season success into an ALDS with a shortened sample and heightened drama.
There’s a temptation to slap labels on the performance: feeling “nerves” or coming out “flat.” The simpler truth is that most of the Orioles — only Aaron Hicks has more than five games of playoff experience — just haven’t played this kind of game before.
“It’s just a higher-stakes situation. You can feel it with every single pitch,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “Guys are putting their all into everything, so it definitely has just a little more emphasis.”
The Camden Yards sellout crowd was surging with that energy in every big moment at the plate, and the Orioles could feel that. One game is probably not enough to say the Orioles caved into pressure, but we can say with confidence that, as a team, they’ve never felt pressure like this.
The Rangers needed only one rally to truly capitalize. In the fourth inning, they caught fire against an otherwise hard-to-hit Kyle Bradish, knocking five hits in just six at-bats. If you grant each team a solo homer — one for Josh Jung and one for Anthony Santander — that sudden outburst was the difference in the game.
The Orioles had chances in each of the last three innings to string together their own rally. After Josh Sborz threw seven straight balls to open the seventh; after Aroldis Chapman walked two before Santander hit into a double play; when Gunnar Henderson was caught on a stealing attempt that had conflicting explanations.
From the clubhouse, the messaging was largely consistent. This was another game, and the Orioles happened to get beat. But Henderson acknowledged, at least, that the revolving pitching matchups, even the ones against Texas’ shaky bullpen, required adjustment.
“Facing a different pitcher every time can be tough, but that’s just playoff baseball,” he said. “Gotta stay locked in.”
Depth has been a strength of the roster, but in a shortened series it seems more important for the stars to anchor the performance. Bradish did enough to deliver his part in that, fanning nine batters, but no hits from Rutschman, Austin Hays or Cedric Mullins felt significant. Henderson finally offered a glimmer of hope in the ninth with a single after a long day at the plate, but it was quickly snuffed on the steal attempt (former Orioles prospect Jonah Heim rose to that moment).
Texas’ stars have been delivering this week, especially 21-year-old outfielder Evan Carter, who continued an epic postseason debut by reaching base in three of four plate appearances, with a run and an RBI. The Orioles need at least one of their own young stars to vault up a notch.
Even manager Brandon Hyde, who has been on plenty of postseason runs as a bench coach and in other assistant roles, is finding his footing here. His active managing style in Game 1 rarely granted him the outcomes he sought, leaving room for second-guessing.
Although their season could be done in two games, the Orioles’ expectations-defying crusade to the top of the American League has deservedly bought them a lot of credit and faith. They’ve been incredible in comebacks and one-run games, a sign that they have the poise within their clubhouse already. Said Mullins: “I was just thinking to myself that this isn’t the first time we’ve lost the first game of a series but came out on top.”
But regular-season experience only takes you so far in this climb, and the Orioles are already at altitudes where every step higher is a labor in and of itself. They’ve got to get used to the rare air.
As the crowd filed out after the last out of Game 1, there didn’t seem to be a lot of swearing or muttering or throwing towels in frustration. The Orioles faithful took comfort. There’s another game tomorrow.
For the Orioles, it might need to be tomorrow — lest they leave everyone waiting until next year.