Jon Meoli: Brandon Hyde’s reward for the Orioles’ turnaround is a win ‘he should take all the credit for’

Published 9/18/2023 11:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 9/18/2023 12:18 p.m. EDT

It was a celebration that Austin Hays admits probably wouldn’t have happened had he been the one on first base for Adam Frazier’s cue-shot, ninth-inning double instead of Jorge Mateo. He isn’t fast enough to score there.

His removal for the eventual tying run as part of the Orioles’ instant classic of a 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays to reestablish their two-game lead in the AL East with two weeks to play, gave him a unique perspective on a man who spent most of Sunday’s celebration on the fringes but deserves plenty of plaudits for how far this Orioles team has come: manager Brandon Hyde.

After that game today, I think he should take all the credit for it,” Hays said. “He managed his ass off. For the last four innings, I’m looking up at the board and there’s a pitcher’s name in the lineup and we’re trying to maneuver everything. Late innings, with a runner on second, how are we going to do the pinch running? It was way over my head. … You’ve got to give this win to him.

“Hyder does an amazing job of just putting everybody in a situation where he knows they’re going to succeed. What he did today, being able to manage that game, was special.”

That wasn’t always the case for the man who Executive Vice President Mike Elias tapped to lead the Orioles on the field as his manager in December 2018 — and not because of Hyde as a manager himself. He, somewhat charitably, described the roster and talent level in those early years as “extremely challenging” before Sunday’s game.

Every time he tried to pull a string and influence the game, it rarely went as he wanted it to. It was all knots and unraveling. He would use whichever pitchers were available on a given night, with matchups somewhat secondary, and play players out of position.

“We were trying to field a major league team out there,” he said.

Rare is the field manager who gets to see a rebuilding process through from the losing years to the winning ones, but Hyde is one of them. Now, he has an extremely talented roster at his disposal. That means matching up his hitters against other teams’ relievers, and vice versa, and trying to give his Orioles as good a chance as possible to win. Even though they were playing two weeks before the end of the season and with their playoff fates all but ensured, both Hyde and counterpart Kevin Cash were managing as if this was a postseason game.

Despite their starters faring well, both were removed after two times through the order. Hyde pulled Dean Kremer for Danny Coulombe, who got four outs before passing the game off to Jorge López. López gave Hyde three outs, too, before back-to-back home runs meant the Orioles were going to be chasing the game in the eighth inning.

After Adley Rutschman’s home run made it a 3-2 game entering the ninth, a tense two outs from Shintaro Fujinami and a cleanup job by Cionel Pérez kept it that way. That’s what made Hays’ ninth-inning, two-out single and Mateo’s run-scoring scamper so vital.

Earlier that inning, Hyde pinch hit Heston Kjerstad for catcher James McCann, putting Rutschman behind the plate and removing the designated hitter from the Orioles’ lineup. That meant Hyde had to hit for the pitcher twice in extra innings and remove pitchers faster than he otherwise would.

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The Rays and Orioles traded runs in the 10th, then DL Hall had a high-leverage assignment in the 11th. Once he got the first out, Hyde came out for a visit to talk strategy. It seemed to temporarily confuse Hall, who tried to hand Hyde the ball as if he was removing him. Instead, he empowered him, and the rookie left-hander kept Tampa off the board for Cedric Mullins to score Rutschman to win the game.

Hyde greeted his players, one by one, as they walked back from the on-field celebration to grab their playoff gear. When he finally had a moment to put on his playoff T-shirt, the stadium cameras broadcast the moment on the scoreboard and the whole stadium cheered his sight.

Other than his tearful address to kick off the champagne celebration, he mostly stayed on the periphery near the entry to his office corridor. He found his best friend, bullpen coach and catching coordinator Tim Cossins, for a celebratory picture across the clubhouse and an occasional embrace with players as they passed.

“For the last four innings, I’m looking up at the board and there’s a pitcher’s name in the lineup and we’re trying to maneuver everything. Late innings, with a runner on second, how are we going to do the pinch running? It was way over my head. … You’ve got to give this win to him.”

—  Outfielder Austin Hays

He more just wanted to soak in the joy around him. Asked how he felt after the game, he said only he was “relieved” they won, then turned the spotlight away from himself.

“I’m really happy for our players and our coaches and trainers and everybody in our front office,” Hyde said. “It’s a big milestone to lose 110 games two years ago and clinch to go in the postseason. Everyone that’s been involved, I’m just happy for them.”

That 110-loss season in 2021 made days like Sunday feel a lifetime away. All the while, Hyde held his players and staff to a high standard, and now the Orioles meet it frequently, as evidenced by their leaving this weekend in pole position for the top seed in the playoffs on the American League side.

Mullins, one of two players along with John Means who was on Hyde’s first Opening Day roster, said Hyde passed a winning mindset on to the players from the start.

“It just shows you how the relationship has developed over the course of a couple years,” Mullins said. “Everyone continued to battle, and for Skip to have that belief in us and for us to get to this moment, it’s pretty special.”