The Orioles pulled out all the big — and little — tricks. They homered and soared after fly balls. They bunted and played small ball. Their starter, one of the best in baseball, went seven innings.
It still wasn’t enough to beat the Rays.
Baltimore, hosting Tampa Bay for four games this weekend with a chance not only to wrap up a playoff spot but to move further ahead in the American League East, tried to match Tampa Bay tit for tat on Thursday. But the Rays got the win in the back-and-forth affair, 4-3, not only starting the series well but also pulling within one in the division, cutting an Orioles lead that was four games just a few days ago.
The Orioles dropped their third straight, their magic number to clinch at least a wild-card spot stuck at four for the third night in a row.
“We’re not going to sit too hard on it,” shortstop Gunnar Henderson said. “We’ve started a series off on a loss before. We’re just going to continue to play hard and put ourselves in a good position to win a ballgame.”
The Orioles still didn’t have their best offensive showing, but it was, alas, better than it had been the last two nights against the Cardinals. Ryan O’Hearn and Henderson each homered, and Baltimore scratched a third run across in the fifth thanks to two bunts, a walk and a fielder’s choice.
But that big hit, the one that has earned this team the title “comeback kids,” didn’t come. They struck out 16 times against the Rays pitching staff, including eight times against starter Aaron Civale.
“We just have to do a better job,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “The opportunities we had, we only got one across. That’s something we’ve been good at this year — pushing a run across in those situations — and we just didn’t do it tonight.”
Hyde, who said pregame he would manage as if it was a playoff game, made the needed late substitutions to attempt to add more bang. He replaced Jordan Westburg with Heston Kjerstad in the eighth, but the left-handed bat known for his big power in the minors struck out swinging in his major league debut.
Kyle Bradish went over six innings for the sixth straight start, giving the Orioles seven innings but allowing four earned runs, his most since July 26. He was almost through that seventh inning when, with two outs, Luke Raley hit Bradish’s high slider to center field to give the Rays a 4-3 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, down by one, the Orioles had their middle of the order up, just the crew they would want in a situation like this. Henderson struck out swinging. So did Anthony Santander and O’Hearn, too, as Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks worked the edges of the strike zone.
There are still, though, three more games in this series, and the Orioles need to win just one to earn the tiebreaker over the Rays.
They know the stakes and understand the position they are in.
“We’re all looking at it; who wouldn’t be at this point in the season?” Henderson said. “Just got to take it a day at a time. You can’t try to play for all that. You just have to go out there and try to win one game at a time.”