There was an opening for the Toronto Blue Jays several times during Thursday’s series finale against the Orioles, a way to turn the game in their favor with one swing. But each time, as soon as that opening widened, a Baltimore fielder slammed it shut.
Three defensive plays changed the course of the Orioles’ series-ending 5-3 win against the Blue Jays, forestalling Toronto from piling runs on right-hander Kyle Gibson and preserving a streak without a series loss against American League East opponents that has now reached 11 — the Orioles’ longest divisional non-losing streak since 2012.
Baltimore is 26-15 against the American League East this year, and the win kept the club two games ahead of the second-place Tampa Bay Rays.
“That was a big game for us. We’re at home, we’re playing really well, and when you’re playing well, you want wins to be a product of that,” Gibson said. “Every now and then, like our Atlanta series early in the year, you play really well and you don’t get wins, and that’s going to happen. But you want to be on these types of streaks right here.”
These types of streaks are possible because of Baltimore’s all-around effort. The Orioles hold the second-best record in baseball (79-48) because of the variety of ways they can win — pitching, hitting and defense.
There are times when one or two can be enough, and the last category can be overlooked at times. For the prolonged winning ways Baltimore has found, though, all three are more or less required on a nightly basis, and clean fielding was as big a part as anything Thursday.
“It’s every night with these guys. They just don’t take a play off,” Gibson said. “I know you probably go around and some guys would like to be hitting better, they’d like to be having better at-bats. But they don’t take it to the field, and they’re there when we need them every single night.”
The three defensive gems still resulted in two runs for the Blue Jays, but they prevented an unraveling for Gibson. His outing lasted through the eighth inning, the most innings of any Orioles starter this season, yet it wasn’t without its loose threads.
That’s where shortstop Gunnar Henderson and center fielder Cedric Mullins came in.
Baltimore entered Thursday’s game with the second-best fielding percentage in baseball, and the Orioles exhibited how that came to be throughout a win that gives the club nine wins over its last 13 games.
“We are playing really good defense,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We have good defenders at every position. That makes a huge difference.”
They also needed the offensive contributions from Mullins and Anthony Santander to provide a lead to protect — each of them powered two-run home runs, flipping an early deficit into an edge for Gibson.
Gibson allowed the first three baserunners to reach in the fourth inning via two singles and a walk, and with his back against the wall, the veteran right-hander faced 24-year-old star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. with no outs and the bases loaded.
On a sharply hit grounder into the hole, Henderson ranged back, gloved the ball and completed a leaping throw to second base for a force-out while falling back. A run scored, but it was a critical first out.
Then, when George Springer rocketed a ball to the deepest part of the Camden Yards outfield, Mullins made the first of his two game-changing defensive plays. His first read led him to drop his head, racing toward the wall at 26.1 feet per second, according to Statcast. He turned his head, then picked up the flight of the ball and made the catch. Again, it was a sacrifice fly, but it helped Gibson escape a fourth inning that began inauspiciously.
Gibson cruised until the seventh, when catcher Danny Jansen clobbered a ball that ricocheted off the left-center fence. But when Jansen tried to stretch the play into a triple — potentially bringing the tying run to the plate with one out — Mullins’ throw nabbed Jansen.
Hyde called it Mullins’ best throw of his career. And while Mullins acknowledged how his homer was pivotal, giving his team a lead, he said his outfield assist topped it, because it helped Gibson stay on the mound longer.
“Throwing Jansen out at third was really big,” Gibson said. “Ced made a great play on the Springer ball as well in that inning I gave up two. I know it’s a sac fly, but if that’s a double, that obviously changes that inning. Defense played great all night.”
This has become the norm for the Orioles. For how strong an outing it was from Gibson — going eight innings with six hits, one walk and eight strikeouts — anything less than perfection in the field could’ve squandered it. And, because it was the longest start of the year for Gibson and the Orioles pitching staff as a whole, it was an easy favorite for Hyde.
“We pay a lot of attention to our defense, just the little things that matter,” Mullins said. “Especially when we’re going to play really competitive teams, like the Blue Jays today. Being able to keep things tight and keep our guys out there a little longer for sure helps the bullpen.”
Santander, who hit two homers in Wednesday’s win, helped with his ninth career Eutaw Street homer. Mullins showed his multifaceted game with a two-run bomb of his own, and Henderson’s RBI single in the fifth added another run to a lead that closer Félix Bautista went on to protect.
Those were the fireworks-inducing plays against Blue Jays right-hander José Berríos, who experienced his first career loss to Baltimore. The three defensive gems didn’t warrant midgame explosions, but they were just as vital.
“That defense,” Gibson said, “was definitely a big part of me getting through the eighth inning.”