TORONTO — Perhaps the most difficult test for this Orioles team wasn’t whether it could score off Kevin Gausman, one of the best pitchers in the American League East. It wasn’t whether their own starting pitching could continue the roll it has been on for the last month.
It was whether Baltimore’s relief pitchers could hold a lead, particularly in the difficult conditions that are extra-inning baseball.
To win Sunday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Orioles needed to do it without their best two high-leverage relievers. Closer Félix Bautista and setup man Yennier Cano were unavailable after pitching so much earlier in the series, with Bautista’s two innings Saturday sealing another extra-inning win.
But Baltimore completed its first three-game sweep against an American League East rival since 2021 — and the Orioles’ first three-game sweep at Rogers Centre since 2005 — because a bullpen without its top options held strong.
Of course, the offensive outpouring that turned a close game into an 8-3 victory with five 11th-inning runs certainly helped. It gave right-hander Mike Baumann ample breathing room, even with an automatic runner on base behind him.
Still, over the course of a 162-game season, Baltimore will need all eight of its relief pitchers, in situations varying in pressure. And when it came to making a statement Sunday, the bullpen allowed two runs in the 5 2/3 innings it needed to endure.
“No Bautista, Cano or even [right-hander Bryan] Baker to close it out for us,” left-hander Cionel Pérez said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “But we have a great group of guys in the bullpen, a lot of quality arms out there, and we have a lot of confidence in this group. ... All aspects of the game today, we were huge. The offense came through today, and to be able to take three games from Toronto — that’s a great team over there — and especially here in front of a lot of fans, I think it says a lot about who we are as a team.”
The help came in the form of Cedric Mullins’ five-hit performance, driving home one run in the 10th to cover for the unearned run that scored off right-hander Austin Voth. And it came in heaps when Austin Hays, Terrin Vavra and Mullins drove in more runs in the 11th.
“It was huge,” Mullins said. “Typically, if you’re the away team in extra innings, you need two to win. So for us to really break it out there to give Baumann a little room to work was huge.”
These sorts of wins underscore the importance of the full 26-man roster. There was Vavra’s pinch-hit, two-run single. A bullpen out of arms persevered. And as one shortstop struggles at the plate, another showed a glimmer of what could come.
As the signs of progress continue to make themselves visible, the case for Joey Ortiz’s place in the lineup only grows. It begins in the field, with the glove that was never a doubt, and extends to his improvement in the batter’s box.
The Orioles have shown with several roster moves — as well as their strong performances on the diamond — the club is in a win-now mindset. That mindset tightens the leash on certain players and leads to opportunities for others, and in that way Ortiz could find himself as an answer in the near term.
This month, the fortunes of shortstop Jorge Mateo have completely shifted. After the heights of March and April — in which he hit .347 with a 1.062 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 23 games — Mateo is hitting just 6-for-55 this month.
That’s a worrisome trend for Mateo, whose defense and baserunning capabilities have earned him leeway. There’s only so long, though, the Orioles can wait before Mateo finds some level of consistency again. In that time, Ortiz and Gunnar Henderson are options at shortstop, should Baltimore make a major shift.
Without any more options available in Mateo’s contract, the Orioles aren’t in a position to send the 27-year-old to the minor leagues for a stint to reset his approach at the plate. He got off to a great start because he ditched a leg kick in favor of a toe tap and quieted his upper-body movement.
But as his slump persists Mateo’s swing has gotten out of sorts. He’s loading more with his hands, drawing his arms back, and while his swing path hasn’t elongated as a result, Mateo is late more often. The result: 18 strikeouts in 16 games this month, with just two walks.
Ortiz checked in with his first hit against a right-handed pitcher, tagging Gausman for a double that left his bat at 107.9 mph. In his last four games, Ortiz has four hits — and that double to lead off the third inning gave Baltimore the first of two runs it scored in the frame.
“I’m just feeling a little bit more comfortable,” Ortiz said. “I’m trusting in my ability to play the game. Just kind of relaxing a little bit at the plate and letting everything happen.”
Beyond that, Gausman was dominant. He threw 115 pitches across eight innings, allowing only those two runs. He left with a no-decision, however, because right-hander Dean Kremer pitched around trouble throughout his outing.
Only once did Kremer retire the side in order, and he allowed nine hits in 5 1/3 innings, one of them a solo homer from Matt Chapman. But Kremer also struck out seven batters, and the Orioles turned three inning-ending double plays — including a pivotal one in the sixth, when Pérez entered to replace Kremer and escaped a bases-loaded jam.
The Blue Jays left 11 runners on base but finally broke through for their second run against right-hander Mychal Givens. In his first appearance this season after dealing with a knee injury since late spring training, Givens allowed a sacrifice fly in the seventh that forced the game to extra innings for a second straight day.
Once there, Baumann handled an 11th inning that was as low pressure as possible because of the cloudburst of run support that rained down in the top half of the frame. But it was still a positive for the bullpen, a sign that, without Bautista and Cano, they can get it done.
“Just an incredible effort really by everybody today,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I emptied the whole bench, I used every pitcher I had available, and we get a sweep on the road. That’s huge.”