When Brandon Hyde gathered the Orioles for an introductory spring training meeting in February, he didn’t lay out any specific benchmark for his team to reach. Sure, he wanted to make progress from last season, but the Baltimore manager opted against outlining how big of a step he expected.
There were the generalities: The Orioles dreamt of playing October baseball for the first time since 2016, for one. But there are so many unknowns that early in the spring that Hyde left his aspirations at “improvement.”
“You never kind of know in spring training,” Hyde said Tuesday, thinking back. “We’re pretty young, so I think things come up. It’s tough to be a young player in this league, so you never know how guys are going to react.”
And yet, here the Orioles are. With Tuesday’s series-clinching 9-3 victory against the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore matched its 2022 win total at 83 games. There’s still a month remaining in the regular season, and Hyde emphasized how Baltimore is preparing to play for another month after that when the postseason arrives.
So the Orioles can check off “improvement” — and appear capable of so much more.
“We still have a whole month left and we’ve already been able to get to where we were last year, which was a really big turnaround for us,” said Austin Hays, one of the few key contributors who saw the darkest days of the rebuild. “It’s a great accomplishment for us, but we know we’re not done.”
The 2023 iteration is leading the American League, and the victory maintained their 2.5-game lead on East-division rival Tampa Bay. Those young players Hyde held out hope for in the spring are turning into stars by a rapidly approaching fall. The injuries Hyde hoped his squad could avoid are certainly felt, such as closer Félix Bautista’s ulnar collateral ligament ailment, yet the depth has proven capable.
In all, what Baltimore did Tuesday night has swiftly become the norm.
“They’ve come together extremely well as a team — you don’t know that, either. You don’t know how your team’s going to bond,” Hyde said. “These guys really like each other, and they like to win together.”
They’ve proven their penchant for the latter part plenty this season, already ensuring Baltimore finishes with an above-.500 record in consecutive seasons for the first time since the Orioles did so in 2013 and 2014.
The foundation for much of this has been the starting pitching and timely hitting. Right-hander Dean Kremer pitched into the seventh inning with one run against him, a solo shot from Lenyn Sosa in the third, before he needed the bullpen to bail him out of a rough situation.
Left-hander Danny Coulombe inherited Kremer’s two runners with no outs, and a bunt-turned-popout helped secure the first out. Coulombe threw Oscar Colas a sinker just above the zone to induce that popup, because Coulombe said the hardest pitches to bunt are curveballs and high fastballs.
The plan worked. The White Sox bunted both runners into scoring position before a groundout ended the threat.
“You get out of traffic and out of an inning that doesn’t start out very good, bullpen guy comes in and puts a zero up, that’s definitely a momentum-builder for the offense,” Hyde said.
Coulombe covered 1 2/3 scoreless innings before right-hander Yennier Cano’s lone out came via Hays’ twisting, leaping catch by as he crashed into the left-field wall. Right-hander Shintaro Fujinami gave up two runs in what turned into another blowout. Without Bautista, the Orioles have pieced together a new late-inning group that has a month to jell before the pressures of postseason baseball.
“It’s tough missing that guy at the back end,” Coulombe said, “but guys will step up, and they have.”
The Orioles were in that position at all because of a belated breakthrough against Chicago. Right-hander Jesse Scholtens held Baltimore off balance in 5 1/3 innings, with Adam Frazier’s RBI single the lone score before his departure.
In the seventh, though, after Coulombe averted damage, Santander proved a menace to Chicago again. On Monday, it was his three-run homer that turned the game into a blowout. On Tuesday, an inside-out swing with two outs squibbed a bases-clearing, three-run double down the right field line before he added an RBI single an inning later.
“He’s almost at 80 RBIs now,” Hays said of Santander. “He’s our guy in the middle of the lineup that, it seems every time he comes up there in a big moment, he gets it done.”
Santander’s bookend run-scoring knocks were part of a run-scoring flood late in the game, similarly to how the series opening broke open. The Orioles plated five runs in the eighth.
It was a close game until it wasn’t — and it wasn’t in a hurry. When a team wins as much as this one has, there are all sorts of varieties included within a 2022-matching 83 victories.
And Baltimore will take just about any kind.