MINNEAPOLIS — Over the next few days, when the bats are down and cleats are traded for flip-flops, this performance will sweeten the All-Star break. This performance, with its cascade of runs, will play on repeat in the minds of the Orioles and fans alike.
There was no better way to end a positive first half of baseball in Baltimore than what the Orioles produced Sunday in their 15-2 victory. They piled on the runs, secured a sweep of the Minnesota Twins and — barring their four All-Star representatives — can relax for a few days with the knowledge that they’re firmly in a pennant race, let alone a push for a wild card.
At 54-35, Baltimore is entering the break with its best winning percentage since 1997. The Orioles hold the third-best record in baseball and trail the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays by two games.
They’ve shown, over the course of 89 games, that they’re not just an up-and-coming club. They’re here to challenge down the stretch and into October, and it makes this All-Star break feel different than so many others in recent years.
“I think, when you don’t have playoff hopes, this break is more of a relief,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “You get away for a little bit and kind of regroup. But, for us right now, some of our guys need a few days of rest and then we’re back at it.”
A week ago, the feeling around Baltimore was different. The Orioles dropped the first two games of a four-game series against the Yankees and had lost six of seven overall. Then outfielder Colton Cowser arrived, the latest young addition to an energetic clubhouse, and the wins have followed big innings and strong pitching.
“We kind of knew we weren’t playing our best baseball there the first couple games in New York, probably for a 10-game stretch,” right-hander Kyle Gibson said. “We just needed a little reset. We just needed a couple breaks to go our way, we needed to put a couple games together, and to finish the [first half] on a five-game winning streak, that changes everything going into the break, really.”
There won’t be much rest for Baltimore’s All-Star representatives, right-handers Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista, outfielder Austin Hays and catcher Adley Rutschman. But the Orioles have that big a group going to T-Mobile Park in Seattle because of this strong first half. And, in Hays and Rutschman, their performances in the final game of the first half displayed why they’re heading to the All-Star Game in the first place.
After a first-inning run crossed against Gibson, Hays’ 434-foot shot to the second deck in left field tied the game in the second. It was his second-longest homer of the season and the fourth homer of his career that traveled at least 430 feet, according to Statcast.
Then the hit parade began.
As the Orioles poured on seven runs in the fifth and six runs in the sixth, Ryan Mountcastle’s first swing since returning from the injured list resulted in an RBI single. Aaron Hicks also crushed a three-run homer to widen the gap against his former team.
Then Rutschman gave an early preview of what he hopes to do in Monday’s Home Run Derby by crushing the longest homer of his career. The ball sailed an estimated 461 feet and pushed Baltimore ahead by nine runs.
“That was a bomb,” Hyde said. “I think that was overdue, too. He’s been grinding a little bit, but I thought he really swung the bat well here the last couple days and let it eat on that one.”
The lead swelled to 13 runs when outfielder Anthony Santander clobbered the second of his two long balls in the seventh inning, having practically turned Target Field into a batting practice session.
Lost in all the fireworks was Gibson’s seven-inning, 11-strikeout performance against his former team. Returning to Minnesota, where he pitched for seven seasons, brings back ample memories. It’s where he grew first as a human, then as a pitcher and later as a father.
“Yesterday, I took a couple extra minutes to go out early and watch [Tyler Wells] warm up and just kind of soak it up,” Gibson said. “Who knows what’s going to happen next year or the rest of my career? This might’ve been the last game I get to pitch here. ... A lot of life happened here. A lot of good memories and a lot of family milestones happened here.”
In each of their last seven games, the Orioles have benefited from starts that lasted six innings or longer. They’ve produced five straight quality starts on this five-game winning streak. They’ve also have five five-run innings since Thursday.
Amid Baltimore’s turnaround came a seven-game losing streak for the Rays, narrowing the division lead. This is the way of baseball, an up-and-down sport over a 162-game marathon. The teams that limit the downs do the best, and the Orioles have proven to do just that.
“It’ll be a tight one down the stretch,” Gibson said.
For now, though, they’ll savor this game. They have a few days to remember the big hits that turned a series finale into a blowout. And then the Orioles will shift their focus to the second half and all the great moments that could still come.
“Great first half for everybody as a team,” Santander said. “I think it is good momentum to keep playing like this the second half, and playoffs — that’s what we want. That’s our mentality.”