HOUSTON — To expect anything else would be to shun reality, because the Orioles have been doing this all year.

They had changed out of their champagne-stained clothing and guzzled plenty of water in the hours between Sunday evening’s revelry and Monday evening’s potential postseason preview against the Houston Astros, and still nothing changed. They had to fly in after an emotionally exhausting day — and yet, here they were, back to business as usual.

On this occasion, Cedric Mullins did the honors in the top of the ninth. As the ball rose higher, the groan from the Astros fans within Minute Maid Park grew louder. Mullins walked, holding his bat, watching as the ball rose and fell and landed within the crowd. Then he jogged around the bases, and when he met two of his teammates at home plate, Baltimore held a lead.

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It was 8-7. It became the Orioles’ 48th comeback victory of the season. And like so many of the others, it was another blood-pressure-rising mess of a game. This time it involved an error from Ramón Urías to lead off the bottom of the ninth and ended with the tying run stranded on third.

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Left-hander Cionel Pérez entered to begin the inning, defending a one-run lead, set to face two of the best left-handed hitters in the game. Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker each entered with averages above .300 in left-on-left situations.

Then Urías bounced a routine throw to first base that put Alvarez on base. And a subsequent pinch runner reached third with one out. They’d strand him there after a series of intricate moves with two outs in the ninth.

Left fielder Aaron Hicks had left between the top and bottom of the ninth with a cramp sustained while sliding into second, and designated hitter Heston Kjerstad slotted into left. But with two outs, Hyde called Ryan O’Hearn from first to play left. Kjerstad took a seat, catcher James McCann entered to play first and right-hander Yennier Cano jogged out from the bullpen.

It was an elaborate maneuver — and O’Hearn said he was “still confused” by it — but Hyde explained he wanted to double-switch to ensure if the Astros tied the game, his pitcher wouldn’t have to bat as soon.

But Cano struck out Chas McCormick, securing a wild game, keeping the Orioles ahead of the Rays in the AL East, ensuring yet another series without a sweep (making it 88 in a row) and showing, for a second night in a row, the fortitude to fight through and win in the final inning.

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“I’m extremely impressed by the grit of our team, how tough they are, how we continue to battle,” Hyde said. “They’re celebrating right now — not as much as last night, but they’re celebrating. And they should, because that’s a heck of a win.”

Baltimore was in that position because Mullins caught all of a slider from Ryan Pressly. One of the premier closers in the sport, Pressly figured Mullins must have been sitting on the off-speed offering, ready to jump at it if it came — so he threw it, and hit a spot where most batters can’t barrel up on it.

Mullins, however, made no mistake.

“It’s not in the middle part of the plate,” Pressly said. “Nine out of 10 times, people roll that pitch over and he just went down and got it.”

But the offensive support began earlier in what would be a career night for O’Hearn.

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O’Hearn, who laid down a much-needed bunt in the 11th inning of Sunday’s win, showed why he doesn’t usually sacrifice his at-bat. He finished with his first five-hit game and drove in two runs, and his knock in the ninth prolonged the game long enough for Mullins to reach the plate.

“Just one of those nights,” O’Hearn said. “Seemed to have a magic wand tonight.”

Yennier Cano #78 of the Baltimore Orioles reacts to striking out Chas McCormick #20 of the Houston Astros during the ninth inning to defat the Houston Astros 8-7 at Minute Maid Park on Sept. 18, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Baltimore handed the ball to left-hander John Means for the series opener as he made his second start of the season since returning from the Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery that ended his 2022 campaign after eight innings. Last week, Means showed promise with his fastball and changeup, but felt his curveball let him down across his five innings.

Means only forced four whiffs on the 40 swings Astros hitters took against him, with half of those misses against his changeup. But Houston — a team filled with such paranoia against southpaws that they altered the batter’s eye in center field to account for it — only scored one run in Means’ five innings.

“It was kind of similar to the last outing,” Means said. “I had the changeup working. Breaking ball still isn’t really where I want it, but grinded through it. The defense helped a lot. And we just played all-around good team ball.”

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He still walked three batters, but overall it was another strong step for Means that sets him up for a role in the postseason — potentially as a member of the rotation. Still, Means hasn’t thrown more than the 86 pitches he reached once in a rehab start in the minors and again Monday night. It forced Hyde to a bullpen that has largely been reliable but cracked Monday.

Shintaro Fujinami #14 of the Baltimore Orioles reacts during the sixth inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sept. 18, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

“It’s pretty banged up,” Hyde said of his bullpen. “We just played an extra-inning game yesterday. I just threw everybody today, except for a couple guys that I didn’t want to pitch, that wasn’t going to pitch. It would be great to get a nice start out of [right-hander Kyle] Gibson tomorrow.”

Right-hander Shintaro Fujinami, who hasn’t allowed a run in his previous seven appearances, allowed a triple to Tucker, an RBI single to Chas McCormick, uncorked two wild pitches and then gave up another run-scoring single from Jeremy Peña to tie the game in the sixth. After Fujinami departed, José Altuve’s two-run double into the corner added on for Houston.

Baltimore leveled the game again through run-scoring doubles from Adley Rutschman and Mullins, yet the lead evaporated just as quickly. José Abreu homered off left-hander Danny Coulombe and Martín Maldonado added another long ball in the eighth off right-hander Mike Baumann, ensuring the first four Orioles relievers conceded at least one run.

But then O’Hearn started the ninth-inning rally with a single, Austin Hays joined him with another, and Mullins did the rest.

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“It was incredible,” Means said. “That’s what this team’s been doing all year. They’ve just been picking each other up over and over again, and then Cedric — Steady Ceddy — at the end of the game there, just absolutely crushed that ball.”


Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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