BOSTON — The stage was set after that inexplicable play.
The game looked like it was over. It should’ve been over. A lazy fly ball to Ryan McKenna from Matasaka Yoshida in the ninth inning appeared to be the Red Sox’s last gasp in Saturday’s game, but McKenna instead was left staring at his glove in disbelief after the ball bounced off of it and fell to the ground.
Adam Duvall stepped to the plate. And, naturally, with that second chance, Duvall snuck a two-run home run just over the Green Monster off right-hander Félix Bautista, handing the Orioles a devastating loss. It was the cruelest way for this to end, but after McKenna’s mind-boggling bungle in left field, it felt almost inescapable.
In a game Baltimore once led 7-1, Boston came back to win 9-8.
The story on Saturday should’ve been about the Orioles’ terrific offensive start to the season, including setting a Major League Baseball record by recording 10 steals through their first two games. Instead, it’s about the suspect defense and pitching that could be longer term problems. It’s about a jaw-dropping moment in left field, and then a gut-punching moment when Duvall turned on his second homer of the game.
In the clubhouse postgame, McKenna stood at his locker and put on a brave face. He explained how he charged the ball quickly, and how the ball hit off the heel of his glove. Those weren’t excuses, though — he knows there are no good ones to explain a heart-wrenching mistake that played a role in costing a game.
“It was unfortunate timing,” McKenna said. “Bautista was throwing a hell of an inning there and all of our guys were really working hard to put us in a chance to win that game. So just tough timing.”
Tough timing, indeed. McKenna had laid out earlier in the game, robbing a hit from Kiké Hernández in the fourth inning. But his gaffe in the ninth inning wasn’t the lone issue in the outfield the past two days. Center fielder Cedric Mullins couldn’t get to two potentially catchable balls near the wall on opening day and another Saturday, and Austin Hays, playing in right field, took a bizarre angle on a ball that turned into a ground-rule double in the seventh inning and brought home a run. Anthony Santander also had trouble with the Green Monster playing left field Thursday.
But the focus will center on McKenna because of the increased visibility of the play — and the walk-off homer that followed. This wasn’t a case where the route to the ball was hard for onlookers to accurately assess or even notice.
The ball was headed softly toward his glove.
It never landed there.
“Mistakes happen, and unfortunately, it was just at a tough time,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We have a lot of confidence in him and his defense and feel bad for him right now. Nobody feels worse in there than Mac.”
Hays added: “You play this game long enough, you’re bound to have one of those plays happen. It’s unfortunate the situation that it was in, but that’s my fellow outfielder out there, and I know he makes that catch 999 times out of 1,000.”
The one miss came in a one-run game, as it turns out. Bautista said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones that his approach didn’t change after the error in left field. He delivered a low fastball to Duvall, a 99.7 mph offering, and Duvall turned on it for the win.
“It is surprising, for sure,” Bautista said. “We all know he’s a really good outfielder and he has a good glove, so I think we’re all a little bit surprised that it happened, but at the end of the day, there are still 160 games left, and it’s something natural that happens and it’s part of the game.”
The Orioles built a big lead with an early barrage again. Hays led the way with a 5-for-5 day, following catcher Adley Rutschman’s own five-hit performance Thursday with one that featured a homer, two doubles and two singles.
But Mullins showed progress at the plate against left-hander Chris Sale, smacking two hard hit balls early in Saturday’s contest. One leaped into the right field bleachers for a three-run home run, an encouraging sign after Mullins struggled against left-handed pitching last season. He hit just .209 in those left-on-left matchups, 70 percentage points below his average against right-handers. He struck out nearly 25% of the time against southpaws.
In his first opportunity of 2023, however, Mullins not only reached base against Sale. He lashed the ball, once for a single at 106.5 mph and again for a 418-foot shot that left his bat at 103 mph.
He wasn’t alone, of course.
Up and down the Orioles lineup, there were triple-digit exit velocities. Six of the seven hits Sale allowed in his three innings were hit at 100 mph or faster. While Sale struck out six batters, three clubbed homers, including Hays and Ryan Mountcastle in the first inning.
Before the game, Hyde acknowledged Mullins’ struggles against lefties last year, both in his lineup selection and during his pregame media session. Hyde dropped Mullins from leadoff to eighth, but he didn’t sit him — he wanted Mullins to “get his confidence back against left-handed pitching,” even though Sale’s arm slot is difficult to pick up.
The offensive firepower from Baltimore helped cover for an unsteady pitching staff for the second straight game — but only for so long.
“The game is about pitching and defense,” Hyde said, “even if you score some runs.”
Baltimore’s 7-1 lead evaporated with right-hander Dean Kremer on the mound. He lasted three innings, and he found trouble in his final frame when he walked the leadoff batter and then left a cutter that should’ve been under the hands of Alex Verdugo over the plate, leading to a deep homer.
Kremer also allowed a blast from Duvall that cut a six-run edge to two.
“Shoutout the offense, they’ve done a tremendous job putting up runs the last two days,” Kremer said. “I just didn’t put up zeroes after we scored. That kind of let them back in the game.”
That lead, while buoyed in the intermediary innings, would slim to one run entering the eighth inning when right-hander Austin Voth allowed a solo shot from Kiké Hernández and left-hander Cionel Pérez gave up a ground-rule double to Duvall near Pesky’s Pole before stranding two runners with a strikeout of Triston Casas to end the seventh.
For as positive as Baltimore has looked offensively — barring Ramón Urías, that is, who struck out five times in his first game as a leadoff hitter — the pitching has looked more suspect. And the defense hasn’t helped.
McKenna faced the camera and the gaggle of reporters after his blunder. This might’ve been some cruel April Fool’s joke if it wasn’t so real. So he didn’t hide from the questions he knew would come.
“Obviously, it sucks,” McKenna said. “But we’ll move forward.”