There was a chill in the air Wednesday night, the first notes of fall seeping into Camden Yards.
It felt like October weather. And in a few days — as early as Oct. 3 — the place will be home to playoff baseball, something this city hasn’t experienced since 2016.
The Orioles still don’t know when they will begin their playoff journey, but on Wednesday they moved a step closer to finding out. They beat the Nationals 5-1, doing their part in the equation. But the Rays did them no favors, beating the Red Sox 5-0. Baltimore’s magic number to win the American League East is one.
On Thursday, they’ll walk into Camden Yards with a chance to win the division — and win their 100th game for just the sixth time in franchise history — in front of their home crowd. The Rays are off, meaning the Orioles and the Orioles alone control the outcome.
“It’s in our hands right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “That’s a lot of fun.”
That title would not only give them their first banner since 2014 but earn them a crucial first-round bye. That can only stand to help the likes of Grayson Rodriguez, who is already 40 innings above his previous career high.
“It’s huge,” Rodriguez said. “All of these guys want extra rest; it never hurts. Getting an extra breath of fresh air, we are going to get that October boost.”
On Wednesday, he added to his total with 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Nationals. He struck out five and walked none. His slider was improved, and he’s planning to use that pitch more in punch-out situations.
“Big league hitters can hit fastballs,” Rodriguez noted.
This was his last start of the regular season, his focus now shifted to what will await him next month. He’s never been to a postseason game, let alone pitched in one. But Rodriguez is no longer the unreliable rookie, the one who went on a roller coaster in his first 10-game major league stint, experiencing all the highs and lows in just a six-week period. He can land his off-speed pitches for strikes and doesn’t fall behind in as many counts.
He’s expected to be the Orioles’ No. 2 starter come the playoffs, the team showing a willingness to trust him with an important role after he’s posted a 2.58 since his recall in mid-July.
He’s someone they can rely on, even when he’s not at his best. He’s pitched at least five innings in every start since his return.
“Maybe not his sharpest as last time but still great stuff into the sixth inning,” Hyde said.
But that all means nothing if the offense can’t handle itself. The last time they faced a southpaw, the Orioles were shut out by their former prospect Drew Rom, who they traded to the Cardinals at the deadline. This time, they fared much better against the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin. They put up four runs against him — with Adley Rutschman responsible for three of those. He hit a two-run home run and had a RBI single.
“It was good to get the one today, but tomorrow’s a new day,” Rutschman said. “Gotta go out and get it. Everyone’s excited, but tomorrow, same thing it always is, just keep going with the process.”