ATLANTA — There’s so much to take away from a series such as this, against the best team in the National League.
When it’s all said and done, when the Orioles either fulfill their own lofty expectations or crumble under its weight, the high-pressure early season games in front of sellout crowds at Truist Park will be seen as evidence for the former rather than the latter. This is a young Baltimore club, a team learning how to win in real time, an organization leaving a rebuild in the rearview mirror.
And even with a 3-2 loss against the Atlanta Braves that clinched Baltimore’s first series loss in their last eight attempts, these Orioles proved something. They lost the series, but with a pair of one-run defeats Saturday and Sunday, this group of up-and-comers displayed their ability to compete in these types of environments.
“It shows we’re up there with the best,” right-hander Tyler Wells said. “The last three games have been great baseball, regardless of the outcome. ... We came in and we just showed everyone exactly who we are.”
At some point — and soon — just competing won’t be enough. They’ll need to win games such as these. The Orioles will need their starters to work deeper into games and will need more timely hitting contributions consistently.
But the overarching prospect is encouraging, battling with a division leader who entered with the third-best run differential in baseball — and looked as though they belonged in that same company.
In this three-game set, there has been something of everything. On Friday, the Orioles entered and made a statement with their 9-4 victory that included a grand slam from Santander. The bullpen wavered Saturday, when pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar hit the go-ahead, two-run homer in the eighth inning off left-hander Danny Coulombe to set up Sunday’s rubber match.
And on Sunday, it took until the 12th inning for Michael Harris II to hit the walk-off double against left-hander Cionel Pérez to finally separate two nearly inseparable squads.
“That’s a great lineup and a really good club, and we had a chance to win last night. We had a chance to win multiple times today,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We’re obviously disappointed. I thought we played well, we just didn’t do a few things to kind of get a lead there.”
Far earlier, the duel began when Wells reinforced his place as Baltimore’s most reliable starting pitcher this season, even after he allowed a first-inning homer to Matt Olson. That would be the lone run Wells allowed through five frames.
But while it was a strong appearance, the outing left the Orioles with just seven quality starts in 34 games, a benchmark reached when a starter goes at least six innings with three runs or fewer against him. Before Wells’ outing, the Orioles’ 5.50 starting pitcher ERA was tied for the fifth worst in baseball. They haven’t worked deep enough into outings frequently enough, and it has taxed a bullpen that has stood strong against the challenge for much of the season.
The bullpen, in charge of covering ample innings again, had a fuller complement of high-leverage arms after manager Brandon Hyde stayed away from Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista on Saturday. After Wells departed, right-hander Austin Voth threw two perfect innings. Cano entered and forced extra innings with two scoreless frames.
“Cano, that was two incredible innings,” Hyde said.
When Hyde turned to Bautista for the 10th, now in line to protect a 2-1 lead that Anthony Santander manufactured with an RBI single, a wild pitch brought home the tying run.
It’s not as though the Orioles didn’t have more opportunities to end it earlier. They loaded the bases in the third inning off right-hander Bryce Elder, but the 23-year-old struck out Ryan Mountcastle and Gunnar Henderson to avoid that threat. Baltimore got on the board with an RBI groundout from Ramón Urías, but with two runners in scoring position and no outs, that was all the Orioles managed. And with bases loaded against right-hander Collin McHugh in the sixth, Cedric Mullins struck out to strand them.
“With runners in scoring position, we didn’t come through,” Santander said. “But I think we fight.”
Hyde said some of the swings from his hitters looked “long,” referring to them taking a longer bat path to the ball. In all, the Orioles hit 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 runners on base. And they didn’t record a hit since Santander reached in the fifth inning on an infield single, watching as 10 straight batters were retired through the end of the ninth before Santander’s extra-innings knock.
That left the Orioles and Braves to play three further innings, looking for anything to separate them. Atlanta finally pulled it out, but Baltimore didn’t look out of place.
“The AL East is still a beast,” Wells said. “We’re competing with the best of them.”