ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — It was just another July game.
The Rays and the Orioles play each other a dozen times a season, and it was even more in past years before the balanced scheduled was intact. There are no surprises when these two teams face each other, nothing out of the ordinary that they haven’t seen before.
But this night had more at stake. The Rays and the Orioles entered the four-game series in a tie at the top of the American League East. Being in first place is no big deal for Tampa Bay, which has held that spot consistently over the last few seasons. Baltimore, emerging from the dark days of a rebuild, hasn’t been able to say the same.
Now it can.
The Orioles beat the Rays 4-3 in 10 innings Thursday to move into sole possession of first place in the division, the first time they’ve held that spot after the All-Star break since Aug. 12, 2016.
It was another sign for the Orioles that they are not only legit but also a threat in the American League.
“It feels really good,” closer Félix Bautista said through interpreter Brandon Quinones. “It’s something we’ve worked toward all year. Since the start of the season it was something we wanted, trying to play good games and trying to dethrone Tampa.”
To get to this point, Baltimore had to inch up on a team that once seemed unreachable. The Rays burst out of the gates, winning their first 13 games and going 23-6 in the first month. The Rays, though, hit a snag in July, going 3-11, creating the opening the Orioles needed.
The Orioles started to put the pieces together. Gunnar Henderson hit his stride, just like the team expected him to. In the fourth inning Thursday, with the Orioles down 1-0, Henderson tripled to lead off the frame. It was the spark the Orioles — who went 0-for-9 their first time through the lineup against Tyler Glasnow — desperately needed.
Adley Rutschman drove in Henderson to tie the game. Soon, the Orioles had a 3-1 lead thanks to efforts from Anthony Santander and Ryan O’Hearn.
“I was just thrilled to be able to scrape three runs against Glasnow, who was really good,” Hyde said. “Great stuff.”
A team, though, can only go so far without starting pitching. Kyle Gibson continued to do his job for the Orioles, striking out eight in six innings. He exited in the seventh after giving up back-to-back singles to open the inning.
Hyde opted to send in Yennier Cano — usually reserved for the eighth inning — to try to preserve the lead. Cano, though, immediately gave up an RBI double to Yandy Díaz as the Rays tied the game at 3.
The game remained that way heading into the ninth, thanks to a diving play from Ramon Urías to stop the go-ahead run from scoring. The middle of Baltimore’s order failed to produce in the top of the ninth, but Bautista easily got the three outs to send it to extras.
In the top of the 10th, with Aaron Hicks placed on second, Adam Frazier bunted to move Hicks to third. Colton Cowser then hit a sacrifice fly to give the Orioles the lead.
Bautista knew he would be going back out for a second inning if the Orioles scored in the 10th. He stayed ready, but the move seemed gutsy at first: Bautista hit Luke Raley on the first pitch. But Bautista composed. Then he struck out Randy Arozarena and got Brandon Lowe to ground into a double play to end the game.
The call at first had to be reviewed before the Orioles could celebrate. The team watched the replay from the field, then surged the mound before the umpires confirmed the game was over.
“I can’t tell you how many times, I’m in my fifth year here, where we would lose those type of games,” Hyde said. “But we have Félix Bautista now. That’s a huge difference.”
There are 66 games left, including three in this series against the Rays. But the Orioles had done it. They had taken over first place in the American League East on this July night.