CLEVELAND — The Orioles have been longing for this day.
An off day, finally, after playing a grueling 17 straight days. They went 9-8, good enough to hold on to a 2 1/2-game lead in the American League East. Back-to-back outings of seven-plus innings from their veteran starters on Saturday and Sunday meant they didn’t need more than six outs from their fatigued bullpen. That also saved them from having to go to their emergency plan, which involved a starter eating innings in exchange for missing his next spot in the rotation.
“This stretch that we’ve been in, the schedule makers need to take a look at it because it’s really unfair and really unhealthy, honestly,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “To to do this to a team in September, especially the teams that we are playing, I’m really proud of our guys for holding in there.”
But, after one day of rest, the real work begins.
On Tuesday, the Orioles return to Camden Yards for a six-game sprint to end the season. They’ll begin the week with two games against the Nationals before hosting the Red Sox for four.
A division title is at stake. It would be their first since 2014, and it could come as early as Wednesday with either two Orioles wins and a Rays loss or one Orioles win and two Rays losses. If they win the AL East, they will earn a first-round bye and get five additional days off, which should stand only to benefit the overworked bullpen. It would also give them home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series.
“I think anytime you inch closer you get excited,” said pitcher Kyle Gibson, who was part of the Phillies team that lost to the Astros in the World Series last year. “This is a team that’s really looking forward to it. I think if we just keep taking care of business it’ll be a whole lot of fun coming up.”
The Orioles, who on Sunday earned their 97th win, can also hit or surpass 100 wins this week for the first time since 1980. Only five teams in franchise history have reached that mark.
Two years ago they lost over 100 games.
“We’re just focused on what we’re doing,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “We just want to go out and play hard every day.”
As the Orioles departed Cleveland on Sunday after a 5-1 win, there was an overwhelming feeling of relief in the clubhouse. They survived the toughest part of their schedule at the most stressful time of the year. But this span did expose weaknesses that may not be solved with just one day off.
The bullpen has largely gotten by just fine without closer Félix Bautista, who partly tore his UCL, but it is starting to feel the effects of not having the All-Star available. Yennier Cano — who has primarily been the closer — has struck out only two batters in his last seven appearances. Jorge López has been their top strikeout guy lately, but he’s not eligible to pitch in the postseason unless he’s replacing an injured player and the league approves a petition.
There is also the issue of fatigue. The seven relievers who were with them for these 17 games — Jacob Webb, DL Hall, Cionel Pérez, Danny Coulombe, Shintaro Fujinami, Cano and López — all made at least six appearances, with four making more than eight. They made seven bullpen roster moves during this span, attempting as best they could to manage workloads.
As for the offense, it was sometimes overpowering, scoring eight or more runs seven times in 17 days. They were, though, also lethargic at times, averaging only 2.5 runs a game in those eight losses. Cedric Mullins, their starting center fielder, is 1-for-18. The Orioles haven’t hit a home run in five games.
Those are problems, though, for Tuesday. On Monday, at long last, they will rest before refocusing.
“It’s probably been as much up-and-down baseball as we’ve played all year,” Gibson said. “Losing four, winning four. Losing a couple, winning a couple. That’s uncharacteristic of us. I think the one thing that stands true is they were all pretty close ballgames and we were in them. Everybody needs the off day tomorrow, and we’ll come back home and enjoy a little celebration hopefully at home with the fans.”