Austin Hays had his helmet on and his bat in his hand, but before he could walk to the base of the dugout steps to prepare for his upcoming at-bat, Anthony Santander called him over.
“Don’t get ready,” said Santander, before turning his attention back to the man in the batter’s box.
An inning earlier, Ryan McKenna served as a defensive replacement for Santander in right field. If not for that, it might’ve been Santander — the Orioles’ team leader in home runs with 13 — at the plate in the 10th inning. But Santander had faith in what McKenna could achieve, even though the 26-year-old’s opportunities are limited.
“He’s an animal off the bench,” Santander said to describe McKenna. There was no need, then, for Hays to prepare. And, when McKenna drove an opposite-field, two-run home run to walk off Saturday’s game against the Seattle Mariners 6-4 in the 10th inning at Camden Yards, Santander felt validated in his belief in a player who had just two hits this month before that long ball.
“I called it,” Santander said.
McKenna’s at-bats have been few and far between, even before Aaron Hicks arrived as another outfielder to compete with for playing time. And yet, when McKenna reached home plate in the bottom of the 10th inning, the center stage was all his. The Gatorade bath was his, with ice and liquid splashing all around. The homer hose was all his.
The walk-off plaudits were all his, too, for the first time in his major league career.
“It’s stuff you try to visualize,” McKenna said, before admitting that “real definitely trumps” what he had imagined a walk-off would be like.
He might not be the first player on manager Brandon Hyde’s lineup card this year — or longer, in truth — but there are 26 players on a roster for a reason. So, in a game that Baltimore appeared ready to let slip away at various points, McKenna’s opposite-field homer off right-hander Justin Topa secured the Orioles a win.
“When you’re with him every day, you really appreciate how much energy he brings to our team,” Hyde said. “Just the kind of person he is is phenomenal, and he’s a really good athlete — great athlete — that has helped us the last couple years in a lot of ways. So fun to watch him get this moment today, and he’s earned it.”
In a back-and-forth game, the Orioles’ suspect baserunning raised eyebrows and closer Félix Bautista allowed a game-tying, two-out homer in the ninth. But the win, no matter how it came, sets up a rubber match Sunday between Seattle (37-38) and Baltimore (46-29).
The Orioles looked set to wrap up the win earlier, when Santander produced four hits. He opened this month without a home run in 14 straight games and, in that span, the outfielder hit .196. But, with a long ball in the series finale win against the Chicago Cubs on June 18, Santander began a stretch that has extended to four homers in five games.
“Get on time with the fastball, recognize better pitches, swing at better pitches,” Santander said. “Sometimes when we struggle a little it’s because we chase a lot. I just try to hit my pitch.”
There was Santander’s two-run shot in a series-opening win against Tampa Bay, and his consolation prize of a homer in a blowout loss Friday to Seattle. He came through with two RBIs on Saturday, first with his shot to right-center field off right-hander Bryce Miller and later with a run-scoring single in the fifth to give Baltimore a one-run lead again.
But that lead didn’t hold. For the second time, right-hander Dean Kremer couldn’t manage a shutdown inning after the Orioles gave him an edge to work with. In the third inning, after Adam Frazier’s RBI single gave Baltimore a lead, Kremer allowed solo shots to Mike Ford and J.P. Crawford to hand it right back.
And, after Santander tied the game with a solo homer of his own and then gave the Orioles a lead in the fifth, Kremer returned and promptly allowed a homer to Mariners star Julio Rodriguez.
Kremer allowed just five hits, although three of those were home runs — bringing his season total to 17 in 16 starts, behind only right-hander Tyler Wells for the most an Orioles pitcher has allowed this year. Those were just about the only blemishes on his day, though — a fastball and two sweepers over the zone — and they just happened to leave the yard.
“Mistake pitches? Maybe one of the three,” Kremer said. “It is what it is. Just kind of flush it and keep throwing.”
Beyond that, Kremer was solid. He worked seven innings for the first time this season, and when Hicks handed him a lead in the sixth his 10-pitch seventh inning allowed the Orioles to bypass an inconsistent middle-relief corps straight to their most reliable relievers.
But even that was an adventure. Right-hander Yennier Cano allowed two singles to lead off the eighth and required a putout at the plate to prevent a run, with shortstop Gunnar Henderson firing a throw to catcher Adley Rutschman. Then left-hander Danny Coulombe entered for a favorable matchup with Jarred Kelenic and ended the inning with a groundout to preserve the lead.
Then Bautista stumbled, allowing a two-out homer to Ford that might’ve deflated the Orioles if they had let it.
“Well, Félix isn’t going to be perfect this year, and everybody knows that,” Hyde said. “And those things are going to happen at times. Give Ford credit. He beat us with two homers today.”
Giving that credit is a lot easier when it comes after a walk-off win. It revolved around a rare center-stage moment from McKenna.
“He does a lot of stuff behind the scenes, as far as picking up guys and stuff over the course of the game,” Kremer said. “He’s a big part of this team.”