The bat finally landed just after the ball did — one along the first base line, in plain sight of the onlooking Orioles dugout, and the other far over the left field wall.
It was a four-seam fastball on the inner edge of the plate. Right-hander Bryan Baker, thrust into this spot as part of a revolving door of pitchers Friday night, had just returned from a stint in the minor leagues. And Harold Ramírez, pinch hitting for the Tampa Bay Rays, welcomed him back with a noise-squelching first-pitch, three-run home run.
He carried his bat partway down the line, walking and admiring, and then flung it into the air. It twirled, end over end, and once it fell to the grass the Rays had this game well in control.
In front of a sellout crowd at Camden Yards, the energy sapped away with Ramírez’s sixth-inning blast, a knock over the left field wall that coincided with another listless Baltimore offensive effort. With the 7-1 loss, the Orioles have matched their season high of four straight losses.
The fact they’re doing this now against Tampa Bay — the Orioles’ direct competition for the American League East championship — further dampens a soggy stretch for a team that has been immune to losing streaks of this caliber for much of the season.
Now, the Orioles and Rays are tied atop the American League East. Baltimore held a four-game lead Sunday.
“It was really important to come here and take care of business,” Rays right-hander Zach Eflin said. “So far we’ve done that. We have to continue that through the weekend. It’s a huge series for us.”
Baltimore needs to find wins for a variety of reasons; the club is still searching for a playoff berth, with the magic number reducing to three because of the Texas Rangers’ loss Friday night. But in the hunt for a divisional crown — which would be Baltimore’s first since 2014 — the Orioles would find it somewhat less strenuous with at least one win from this four-game series against the Rays.
Should the Orioles win one game this weekend, they’ll hold a winning record in the season series against the Rays. And, should Tampa Bay and Baltimore finish the season tied, whichever team holds the head-to-head record will win the division.
“We all know the importance of this series,” Rays outfielder Manuel Margot said. “They’ve been going up and down; we’ve been going up and down. It’s very important for us to come out and try to play well against them.”
But those are all future considerations.
What came Friday night continued a recent mire the Orioles have slogged through — a mire that began with a shortened start from right-hander Jack Flaherty, continued with middle relief issues and was thoroughly impassable because of another anemic offensive display.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “These things happen. You gotta just stay positive, and tomorrow’s a new day, and still a lot of baseball left.”
Heston Kjerstad, who received the first start of his career Friday, broke up a no-hitter by Eflin with a solo home run in the sixth — the first hit of his career. He received his home run ball from the family who caught it and traded a signed bat and other memorabilia for his milestone. In the bowels of Camden Yards after the game, Kjerstad took a photo with the whole family.
He called it “surreal.” Kjerstad had wanted to get his first hit out of the way, and he did so with a bang.
“Truly something you dream of,” Kjerstad said, “and really awesome to be able to experience that.”
But with two on and no outs in the eighth, three straight strikeouts punctuated a dismal day for the Orioles at the plate. When asked whether his players were feeling pressure because of the situation, Hyde said he didn’t think that was the case.
“I just think we’re in a little bit of a team funk offensively, but I think you give Zach Eflin a ton of credit, honestly,” Hyde said. “I thought he was excellent and gave us a tough time.”
The Orioles finished with two hits, far from the kind of production needed to break through a Tampa Bay relief corps that has become especially stout over the last month.
In the biggest start of Flaherty’s short Orioles career, the trade deadline acquisition appeared every bit up to the challenge through the first three innings. Behind him was the fifth sellout crowd of the season, creating an atmosphere at Camden Yards that was a preview of the postseason. Rays manager Kevin Cash said it was the loudest crowd he’s heard in Baltimore.
But Flaherty scraped through the fourth inning with a solo homer and RBI single against him and then didn’t record an out in the fifth. He allowed two baserunners to reach in the fifth before Hyde called for right-hander Jacob Webb, who allowed a sacrifice fly to conclude Flaherty’s line.
With four innings and three runs against him, Flaherty has completed six innings in just one of his seven starts for Baltimore.
“Rough stretches happen,” Flaherty said. “Why would confidence change? Rough stretches happen. If I was asked the same question for this team, like, ‘Where’s my confidence at in this team?’ It’s still through the roof. You go through rough stretches no matter what.”
A better offensive performance could’ve covered for Flaherty. But the outing went sideways when left-hander DL Hall allowed a run in the sixth before he was pulled for Baker. And Baker promptly saw his first pitch leap over the left field fence.
That left Ramírez to spin his bat into the air, and, as it twirled, the Orioles themselves looked on the edge of a spinout in their biggest series this season.