Game 1 was just baseball. Game 2 was just a bummer.
Taken together, they put this Orioles season on the brink, and likely leave a pair of questions for anyone who spent the last six months invested in the club. Is this the same team I’ve been watching all season? And is there any hope they play again at Camden Yards this fall?
On the former, it sure didn’t feel like it during their 11-8 loss Sunday to Texas. The 11 walks by their pitching staff felt quite foreign. So, too, did their inability to produce with runners in scoring position — 0-for-4 Saturday in Game 1 and 3-for-13 in Game 2, after leading baseball with a .287 average in such situations during the regular season.
All very uncharacteristic of a team that, quite simply, rode a combination of talent, process and good fortune to 101 wins and a division title. If there was ever a time when things just consistently didn’t work out for them, it didn’t last long.
There was always another late-inning rally to reverse what could have been a tight, tough loss.
Not on Saturday.
There was, more often than not, an ability for manager Brandon Hyde to use the data and information provided to him by the front office to make pitching changes at the right time, and call on the right reliever in the right moment. Sunday’s efforts to do so were torpedoed by Bryan Baker’s three-walk cameo.
And, finally, there was always a win at the end of a series to keep their famous, meaningless streak without getting swept intact. We’ll see on that front.
Some of that’s just baseball. In this era of data-driven decision-making and optimization, the goal is to win as many games as possible over the course of a 162-game season. The same people who propagate that will also tell you that baseball’s playoffs are the most random in sports. There are more months in a regular season than this series will have games.
Yet that doesn’t feel like a wholly satisfying explanation for how the Orioles find themselves in this hole. They hit on Sunday, at least, putting five runs across against Rangers starter Jordan Montgomery and largely taking good at-bats off him.
While this hasn’t been the best version of this Orioles’ offense for a while now, it had enough to win a ballgame Sunday. Jorge Mateo buoyed the whole operation with four hits from the No. 9 hole, while Gunnar Henderson and Austin Hays did what they could to provide force in the middle of the lineup.
You can win 101 games with one or two hitters hot at a time. You can pass the baton all year long and get the results you hope for. But in the playoffs weaknesses are magnified, and too often that baton fell before the Orioles could put together a big inning.
What they couldn’t have guessed is that the swingman who Texas stuck in its bullpen for length despite his 7.31 ERA in September and 5.30 ERA on the season — Cody Bradford — would come in and carve them up. No such long reliever existed in the Orioles’ bullpen. Jack Flaherty had two decent innings but clearly isn’t built up enough to provide more than that.
And yet perhaps it’s a good sign that, despite all that, every Orioles rally brought not just the thought that something good could come of it but the expectation that it would.
Hays earnestly said Sunday that he still thought the Orioles would come back and win. That’s been the outcome, when they’ve played their brand of baseball, nearly two-thirds of the time this season. When they’ve made good swing decisions, attacked pitches they could drive, thrown the ball over the plate and made plays for their pitchers, they’ve won.
Hays said he doesn’t believe they’ve played any differently in the playoffs; only the outcomes have skewed from the season’s.
“We were right there that first game,” he said. “We just needed that one big hit. It was a really close game; we just couldn’t come out on top. Today, we got behind early but we continued to fight. Made it a close game. Really felt like we had a chance still, even when we were down early in the game. Just think we always have a chance, no matter what.”
That’s about where the hope that there’s a Game 5 on Friday night in Baltimore stems from. They have a chance if they play the way they have all year. They have a chance if the pitchers Hyde calls out of the bullpen execute as they’re supposed to. They have a chance if they get back to hitting with runners in scoring position.
Only 10 teams in the history of baseball have overcome an 0-2 start to a five-game series, with the 2017 Yankees being the most recent. Aaron Hicks was on that team, and will no doubt be asked about it, and will almost assuredly say something along the lines of: Those Yankees came back because they believed in themselves and got back to doing what got them there.
And he would be correct. The small sample of the playoffs makes them wholly unpredictable, but that doesn’t change the facts borne out over the course of the season. The Orioles are a solid team, with plenty of talented players who generally make the right plays at the right times. Which is why they, too, have a chance.
They have a chance, quite simply, if they become the team we watched all season. And that doesn’t require drastic change; it just means they happen to have things go their way again.