Grayson Rodriguez called him a “generational closer.” Ryan Mountcastle pointed to his track record of success all season. Brandon Hyde noted that, for the most part, he’s been perfect in a sport that isn’t kind to perfectionists.
All of them know how dominant Orioles closer Félix Bautista is. Entering Tuesday, Bautista hadn’t allowed a run in his previous 17 innings — a stretch that could put him among Cy Young Award contenders.
But breakthroughs are bound to occur, and the breakthrough Tuesday wasn’t a lowly dimple — it was a pronounced gash in the brick wall that is usually Bautista. The Houston Astros came back to beat Baltimore, 7-6, with outfielder Kyle Tucker’s ninth-inning grand slam pushing them over the top.
The Orioles have won 61 games in which they led after eight innings. They’ve now lost four, with this latest one coming with the unexpected blow to their All-Star closer. If there’s anything Bautista has learned about himself over the last year as Baltimore’s premier reliever, though, it’s the importance of moving on.
Losses such as these, particularly given the early run support and right-hander Rodriguez’s strong showing, particularly sting. But allowing it to snowball would be worse.
“It’s an important position, so you can’t let this one outing carry over into the next day, because the last thing you want is it affecting you two days in a row instead of just the one,” Bautista said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “You’ve got to learn to leave it behind and just get ready for the next day.”
The backdrop for the collapse came with chants that rang around the ballpark in support of Kevin Brown, the lead MASN play-by-play commentator. “Free Kevin Brown,” fans chanted, urging for his return to the broadcast booth after his nearly two-week absence. Brown has called many of the biggest Orioles moments this season, and against the reigning World Series champions, this was one of them — only his voice was missed.
His voice might not have soothed what turned into a one-run loss when Bautista uncharacteristically blew a save.
Bautista allowed a walk and single to lead off the ninth, and while he said “things just didn’t go my way tonight,” at that time Bautista still felt confident he could escape the jam. He struck out the next batter, but the hard line drive from Yordan Alvarez off the center field wall turned into a single to load the bases.
The athleticism of Jorge Mateo was on display earlier Tuesday evening, when he ran down and robbed Alvarez of a home run in the fourth inning. It was an impressive play — one that saved Rodriguez from another run on his tally — and showed the promise of Mateo in center field despite his lack of experience.
But when even the spectacular might not have resulted in a catch in the ninth, Mateo’s inexperience didn’t help matters. He was turned around by the ball, and by the time he turned his hips and made up ground with his speed, Mateo’s lunging attempt missed the ball.
That left Bautista against Tucker, and the ninth pitch of the at-bat — a 100.4 mph fastball — left the yard.
“He’s not going to be perfect, which he really has been, almost the entire season,” Hyde said.
“For that to happen is pretty rare,” Rodriguez said. “Definitely not something that’s going to keep happening. Kyle Tucker is obviously a good hitter, but that right there is pretty rare.”
Earlier, there was much for the Orioles to savor. Mountcastle blasted a 472-foot two-run homer in the first inning, the second longest at Camden Yards since Statcast tracking began in 2015, to put the Orioles ahead against Houston left-hander Framber Valdez — ensuring Valdez wouldn’t throw a second straight no-hitter.
Baltimore added on with a two-run shot from Adley Rutschman in the second, and James McCann’s second RBI of the game prodded the Orioles ahead further in the fourth.
And with that platform, Rodriguez turned in one of his best performances since returning from the minor leagues last month.
Rodriguez found a way to avoid — or at least minimize — the damage against him Tuesday in what can only be seen as another sign of his development as a big leaguer. In his first 10 starts for Baltimore, five of his outings were capsized because he couldn’t do what he did Tuesday. In those starts, a single inning unraveled, and his performance was cut short.
“You saw a young starting pitcher who had to deal with a little bit of adversity,” Hyde said before the game, “and that’s not a terrible thing.”
After returning from the minor leagues in July, Rodriguez has turned in five straight strong outings. He’s done it with improved fastball command, and his slider — as displayed Tuesday — is more crisp.
And with each start, Rodriguez’s confidence grows. It’s evident in the way he stomps around the mound after strikeouts, or how he resets after allowing a baserunner.
“I think the slider has been a lot better since I’ve been back in the big leagues. That was something I really didn’t have before,” Rodriguez said. “We put in a lot of work to get it to this point.”
Rodriguez’s best start came July 28 in a shutout win against the New York Yankees that showed how dominant Rodriguez can be, with just three hits against him. After allowing four runs in five innings during his return July 17, Rodriguez has strung together four straight starts of 5 2/3 innings or longer.
On Tuesday, Rodriguez first ran into trouble in the third inning. He walked two and allowed a single to load the bases with one out, and a subsequent single brought in one run. But when the inning might’ve spiraled on him earlier in the season, Rodriguez recorded two quick outs — one sacrifice fly and one soft grounder.
He also found traffic against him in the sixth inning. The first runner reached on an infield single that resulted in Hyde’s ejection upon arguing, and the second followed in short order to place runners on the corners. But Rodriguez reared back and struck out Martín Maldonado with a slider — forcing his seventh whiff with that pitch.
“Any time there’s runners on base, especially against that team and that offense, when you can leave guys on base, that’s a plus,” Rodriguez said.
Bautista isn’t immune to baserunners. He tends to work around them if they do reach, showing a stoicism that has backed up his scoreless innings streak entering Tuesday. But even the best-laid walls can be besieged, and a swing such as Tucker’s eroded it completely with one mighty hack.