When anyone involved with the Orioles discusses the challenges of winning in the American League East, it’s the well-heeled clubs in Boston, New York and Toronto they’re typically referring to having a disadvantage against.

The feat the Orioles accomplished Thursday night with a 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox — clinching the division title in what’s been a seasonlong race against the Tampa Bay Rays, who churn out talent from their farm system and win at as high a rate as any smaller-market team around — was perhaps even more of an accomplishment this year.

Tampa Bay sprinted out to a massive lead in April, only to be caught in July and ultimately held off by the Orioles. The task was a tall one. The reward — rest at a time when everyone wearing baseball pants needs one — is a worthy reward.

This Orioles season has been built on winning close games. They’re 30-16 in one-run games, and came from behind to win 48 of the 100 victories this year. Manager Brandon Hyde believes the team’s success has, essentially, built on itself in all of these close games. He has been asking for blowout wins since the early days of his managerial tenure. Five seasons later, they’re more frequent than they were in 2019, but more often they’re left to sweat out close games or claw back from deficits.

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No amount of success in doing so made this division title any easier. They were fighting to keep it close from the beginning.

The Orioles' AL East title will afford Adley Rutschman a little time to take off his catching gear. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Two weeks into the season, remember, the Rays were an astonishing 13-0 at close of business April 13. They had a six-game lead over the Orioles, who were a respectable 7-6 at that time. The Rays finally started losing games, and the Orioles were mostly good in the first half. The deficit swelled to 6.5 games on May 8, was down to three a couple of weeks later, then back up to 6.5 on June 9.

On June 17, the Orioles were 43-27 — the third-best record in baseball — but remained six games back. It swelled again to 6.5 games on July 1. Then the Orioles got hot, surging into the All-Star break with a five-game winning streak that cut it to two games.

The Orioles pulled even for the first time on July 19 — the eve of what proved to be a pivotal four-game series against the Rays at Tropicana Field. They won three of four to take a lead they’d never fully relinquish; the Rays pulled even when they took the first two games of four at Camden Yards in mid-September. But the next night the Orioles won to clinch the season series — and the tiebreaker if it came to that — and they won again in the series finale as both teams clinched playoff spots.

That six-game lead two weeks into the season was a significant one to overcome. Hyde’s team had plenty of time to do it, and the Rays are undermanned compared to how they started the year, but they are still 84-62 after that initial 13-game winning streak, good for a .575 winning percentage. If that was their whole season, they’d still have the fourth-best record in baseball, just as they do now.

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The Orioles, in that same stretch since the end of the Rays’ big winning streak are 93-53 (.637), fueled by a spectacular second half and the kind of overall consistency that shouldn’t be expected of a young team.

Star outfielder Cedric Mullins said that season-opening streak reminded the Orioles of something they’ve long known: This is a tough division to win in.

“When they went on that crazy winning streak to start the season off, we knew we were going to have our hands full,” Mullins said.

Their reward for all this is clinching the league’s best record, ensuring they’ll have home-field advantage at least through the American League Championship Series if they make it that far and, more importantly, a four-day break before the American League Division Series kicks off Oct. 7 at Camden Yards.

Whichever team gets through the wild-card round to face them, be it these same Rays, the Astros, Mariners or Blue Jays, will have a far different experience than the Orioles to that point. The Rays are locked into the top wild-card spot, but the other four teams are bunched closely. They will play to the end this week, then deploy their best starters in the wild-card round.

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Adley Rutschman, meanwhile, will get to go four days without catching a baseball game for the first time in months, should he and the Orioles choose to go that route. Gunnar Henderson and Anthony Santander, who will have over 150 games played by the end of the season, will get a few days off as well.

All those pitchers who have blown past their career highs in innings – Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, and Grayson Rodriguez chief among them – will get plenty of time between starts to restore their energy reserves for the postseason grind. Same with the relievers such as Yennier Cano, who hasn’t pitched as many innings as he has in 2023 since he was a 20-year-old back in Cuba.

Rodriguez called the extra rest an “October boost.” He was right. It could serve a team well, provided it stays sharp. And the Orioles deserve it.

jon.meoli@thebaltimorebanner.com

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland. 

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