The Orioles didn’t need to do this.
They didn’t need to play into the 11th, to strain their bullpen and tire out their players ahead of a seven-game road trip. They had already clinched their playoff spot, their first since 2016, 40 minutes earlier thanks to the Guardians beating the Rangers 9-2. They were aware of this milestone when it happened in the bottom of the ninth inning but kept hush-hush about in the dugout even as the stadium announced the news and the crowd reacted.
They still had business to take care of. Because it wouldn’t be the 2023 Orioles if they didn’t make things more challenging than they had to be. And it wouldn’t be the 2023 Orioles if they didn’t have at least a little magic.
The Orioles and Rays, battling it out for a division title, played into the 11th inning. Baltimore, as it has done 92 other times this season, came out on top. This time, 5-4, which puts the Orioles two games ahead of the Rays in the AL East.
“It just embodies our team, being able to fight late in the game,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “We are never out of it. We always feel like we can come back and win. There’s nothing sweeter than doing that, to do what we’ve done all year in a game to be able to get us to the playoffs.”
It was only fitting that it was a player who had been through the lowest of lows who came up in the biggest of moments. Hays has seen the despair and the empty stands, played through the 100-loss seasons. So on Sunday, when he hit a single to start the rally in the bottom of the ninth, all he felt was pure joy. He turned to the dugout, amping his teammates up to keep going.
And they did just that.
Jorge Mateo replaced Hays as a pinch-runner. Adam Frazier, one of the Orioles’ only free agent signings, drove him in.
The game was tied at 3.
To the bottom of the 10th, after the Rays had gone back ahead by a run. But once again the Orioles didn’t back down. Adley Rutschman is the heart of the team. Everything changed after he made his debut in May 2022, the Orioles going 159-111 since that moment with a succession of top prospects following him to the majors.
On Sunday, Rutschman, who already hit a solo homer in the eighth, ignited the Orioles once again. With Aaron Hicks stationed on second as the automatic runner, Rutschman hit an RBI single to send in the tying run.
The crowd stayed on its feet, hats turned upside down as a rallying cry, into the bottom of the 11th. Ryan O’Hearn, one of their most powerful hitters, went small ball, bunting to send Rutschman from second to third.
“Rutschman gives us some life with the homer,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “And then he gets a hit in extra innings, gives us the chance to keep playing. But, he’s a special player.”
Then came Cedric Mullins, one of three position players, along with Hays, to survive the rebuild. He hit it high to center. Rutschman dashed home after it was caught, his teammates flooding the field to mob Mullins.
“I knew I had it good enough, but I didn’t know if it was going to drop or not,” Mullins said. “Turns out, it didn’t matter. We got the win. It felt amazing.”
Mullins threw his helmet into the air, rejoicing for a moment alone. “Let’s go O’s” chants rang out from a fan base that has been yearning for this moment.
Soon the team would catch up to him, chasing him around the outfield before they retreated toward the dugout. “Take back October” shirts would be handed out, champagne popped and beer funneled.
They want more. The division title is still at stake. There’s a new magic number now as the Orioles chase a division title. That number is 10, which can decrease with any Orioles win or Rays loss.
That’s the next mission.
“This is step one of many celebrations,” Hyde said in the clubhouse before the first of many toasts.
There will be more tasks after that. But for now the Orioles could bask in this accomplishment.
Step one was done. They beat the Rays 5-4. They are going to the postseason for the first time since 2016, and they did it in a way that only the 2023 Orioles could.
With a little bit of come-from-behind magic.