Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde would soon wander over to a metal bench behind a row of four pitching mounds, sunglasses glinting against the dawn, but for the moment on that early February morning the Orioles’ brain trust envisioned what could occur in the coming months.
From then until now, eight months to the day, Baltimore’s aspirations materialized almost beyond the general manager’s and manager’s wildest dreams. Almost. The Orioles won 101 games, secured an American League East crown and have the Rookie of the Year front-runner as a centerpiece for future goals.
They also lost in the American League Division Series, swept in three games, which left Hyde “still pissed” at an end-of-season meeting last week.
But on that morning in Sarasota, Florida, as the sun rose on another warm workout day, this, at its core, is what Baltimore would’ve wanted.
“It’s gonna be a dogfight. I know that,” Elias said. “But I think we’ve got a good shot to get into the playoffs this year, and we’re going for that.”
“You look at our spring training roster,” Hyde said, “I’m really encouraged by the amount of talent that’s there.”
Hyde had a right to be encouraged, and the performances over a 162-game campaign reinforced that early belief. There were more highs than lows, although in the moment the ending to it all could overshadow some of the bright spots throughout. The unfettered hope of that early spring training morning materialized into something grand.
The story of the 2023 Orioles season, of course, begins well before the first pitch was thrown at Fenway Park on March 30. It begins well before that spring training morning, even.
To understand where Baltimore found itself entering the season, begin with Elias and Hyde. Begin with the 2019 MLB draft, in which Elias set the franchise on its present-day course with the selections of catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson. Begin with Hyde’s first season of management, his 108 losses, and the patience it took to arrive on that February morning in Sarasota willing and able to utter the word “postseason” without it being out of the realm of possibility.
Eight months later, inside an interview room in the bowels of Camden Yards, Hyde and Elias reflected on this journey. There was a bitter taste left by the early postseason exit, and perhaps that won’t wash away until Baltimore comports itself better in October.
But the tale of a baseball season isn’t watered down to the final three games. It includes much more.
“We had so many awesome moments,” Hyde said. “Huge wins, and close wins, and the amount of close games we played was ridiculous. And how we won some games during the season, it was just a total team effort, and that’s how we played all year. Unfortunately, in the postseason, we just didn’t play our best and ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw, but I’m going to have great memories of this team.”
They start in Boston, at a frigid Fenway Park in March, and while the drop from outfielder Ryan McKenna that set up the Red Sox’s walk-off win won’t be remembered fondly, a series loss to begin the year soon gave way to the first of nine games against the Texas Rangers.
That, too, started inauspiciously. It featured a line drive off right-hander Kyle Bradish’s foot that forced Baltimore into desperate measures. The answer: Tyler Wells, scheduled to start the next day, volunteered to pitch out of the bullpen.
“I can do this,” Wells told Hyde.
He wasn’t wearing cleats or a jersey. He ran back into the clubhouse, changed, then took the mound for one of his best performances of the season. Wells threw five hitless innings, bridging the gap for a bullpen that otherwise would have been overly taxed early in the season. The appearance set the stage for Wells’ tremendous first half, and it underscored his team-first approach — exhibited when he returned from the minors late in the year having accepted a bullpen role for the final stretch.
The trickle-down of Bradish’s early injury and Wells’ much-needed fill-in appearance was that Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect, rushed to Texas to make his debut. The first 10 starts of Rodriguez’s season were typical of a young pitcher — up and down in nature, resulting in a demotion for a month.
When Rodriguez returned in July, though, he found his footing. It’s his second half of the season that breeds confidence for Rodriguez’s future, just as Bradish appears to be an ace in the making.
“Does he have the ability to? Absolutely. Does Grayson have the ability to? Absolutely,” Hyde said. “They’re a ways away. You know what I mean? They’re a ways away. A true No. 1 is a guy that’s going to stop any sort of losing streak, a guy that’s going to dominate a team in the postseason, and those are hard to find. But those two guys have the stuff and the ability to be those type of guys.”
They’re surrounded by other young, talented players who filled the season with memorable moments.
There was Rutschman’s first career walk-off homer in April, and Ryan Mountcastle’s nine-RBI game that month. There was Cedric Mullins’ cycle in May, and Ryan O’Hearn’s four-RBI performance that put him on the map in Baltimore’s lineup early. There was Henderson’s four-hit, two-homer game against the New York Yankees in July.
There was James McCann’s bunt in Tampa Bay, when he got a sacrifice down on a pitch at his face — and in doing so helped prod the Orioles closer to a division title. O’Hearn, then, was asked to do the same in Baltimore’s postseason-clinching win. He hadn’t bunted in years, but he told Hyde the words that will long stick in Orioles lore: “I’ll f---ing get it down.”
Those were the moments that led to champagne celebrations. Those were the moments that made the Orioles campaign such fun, for the players and the fans, and the moments that make the ending all the more upsetting.
But there can’t be an ending of any kind without the winding path that lasted eight months —from the sunny mornings in Sarasota to the overcast ending in the American League Division Series.