This crowd wanted to erupt. It was on the verge of it many times, swelling in a cacophonous chorus, only to dash against the rocks of missed opportunity.
Long before first pitch, as Orioles fans huddled in the concourses out of the rain, the chants started. And, when Austin Hays and Adley Rutschman walked against left-hander Aroldis Chapman to lead off the eighth inning, the swell built once more, a wave of anticipation for a big hit that never came.
It was a towel-waving, vocal cord-straining frenzy of an experience nine years in the making.
And yet, when Baltimore needed a breakthrough against a notoriously shaky Texas Rangers bullpen, the moment passed by. The Orioles, hosting their first home postseason game since 2014, began the American League Division Series with a 3-2 loss to the Rangers. Baltimore will return Sunday for Game 2, with first pitch at 4:07 p.m.
“Coming up in big moments, it can’t happen every time,” outfielder Cedric Mullins said. “It just is what it is. Preparing for tomorrow, we’ll have opportunities to bring in a run and try to execute then.”
Despite the roar of a sellout crowd and a pitching staff that largely managed a potent Texas offense, the missed chance in the eighth against Chapman stood out most starkly in a groan-inducing game.
After Hays and Rutschman walked, Anthony Santander — who had already hit a home run — grounded into a double play. And Ryan Mountcastle, who also notched an RBI, struck out on one of Chapman’s lethal 101.4-mph sinkers to end the frame.
“The key was to try to get a double play ball,” Chapman said through a team interpreter. “The outcome came out there toward the end.”
But even then Baltimore had one more opportunity.
Gunnar Henderson’s leadoff single in the ninth against right-hander José Leclerc brought the crowd back to its feet. The noise rose, the anticipation building in the club’s first postseason game since 2016, but Jonah Heim’s throw to second nabbed Henderson and sucked the energy out of Camden Yards once more.
The steal itself was full of questions. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said there was a “miscommunication” on the play, although Henderson said he went because of the sign he received. Aaron Hicks, at the plate, may have missed a sign of his own to create a hit-and-run.
Whatever occurred in the buildup, the steal from Henderson had the chance to create a run-scoring opportunity and avoid a third double play ball. It went awry instead, syphoning off the last gasp from Baltimore.
“Thought it was a good time to take it. Didn’t happen. Hate that it didn’t happen,” Henderson said. “Felt like we had a good chance to do it.”
In the buildup to this day, Rutschman figured this all would feel like just another baseball game once the first pitch was thrown. Perhaps that truly was the case for Rutschman, a first-timer on this stage but a College World Series champion who is well acquainted with big games.
Baltimore played its share of high-leverage games down the stretch of the regular season, and there were moments from each of them that could translate to this ALDS.
But, at the same time, none of those games felt like this. They didn’t have Joan Jett singing the national anthem, or a shortened orange carpet from the dugout to the baseline for lineup introductions in front of a sellout crowd. The 46,450 announced fans at Camden Yards marked the largest crowd at this stadium since Game 2 of the American League Championship Series in 2014 — the last postseason game to be played in Baltimore.
Starting pitcher Kyle Bradish noticed the different environment when he was showered in support as he walked to his pregame bullpen session. Mullins felt it was “so loud it almost seemed just like a dull roar.”
The easy excuse for a young team adjusting to the postseason for the first time was batted aside, however.
“Once I got out onto the field and was able to embrace it, just kind of settled down and was able to get out there and have fun,” Henderson said.
Much has changed between the last postseason squad and this one. At the center of this Orioles roster are young stars drafted and developed by the new regime, but there’s still a handprint from former general manager Dan Duquette, the man who put the rebuild in motion in 2018. Baltimore broke through in the fourth inning against left-hander Andrew Heaney through two of those pieces, when Santander walked and Mountcastle plated him from first with a double.
And in the sixth, with Baltimore grasping for offense, Santander sparked the Orioles and the crowd with a crack. He took a low changeup from right-hander Dane Dunning and lofted it deep to right-center field, cutting the Orioles’ deficit to one again.
With five days off before Game 1, Baltimore’s pitching staff entered as rested as it had been all year. The Orioles lined up Bradish to take the ball, and the way he cruised through three innings gave promise for another deep outing.
But the Rangers got to him in the fourth inning, when four straight hits brought home two runs. Adolis García and Evan Carter knocked consecutive doubles, although Bradish managed to end the subsequent bases-loaded threat.
Bradish has pitched with longer leashes all season, but here, when the margins are so narrow, Hyde turned to the bullpen. Left-hander Danny Coulombe closed the fifth by stranding two baserunners, but right-hander Jacob Webb — the second reliever called upon in a close game — struggled to find the zone and allowed a deep solo homer from Josh Jung.
And, while there were chances for Baltimore’s offense — most notably in the eighth — they fell aside in the hush-inducing form of disappointment. Orioles fans have waited a long time for this. The result, at least in Game 1, will leave them waiting longer for a chance to erupt.
“Do what we’ve done all year. We don’t get down,” Bradish said. “It is the postseason, so this loss might hit a lot harder, but we’ll come back tomorrow and even up the series.”