If there’s one thing that can be said for the unpredictable 2017 Orioles, it’s this: You can never count them out until the last out is in the books.
The Orioles proved that again Tuesday night — actually, Wednesday morning — when Manny Machado, with the Orioles down to their final out, clubbed a game-ending, two-run homer off New York Yankees closer Dellin Betances.
Those brave souls who stuck around until 12:53 in the morning (after a two-hour, 14-minute rain delay pushed back the start of the game) were rewarded by witnessing the Orioles’ MLB-leading 12th walkoff win — in a game the club once trailed, 6-1.
The game-winning blast was the second of the day for Machado, who recently won American League Player of the Month honors for August after batting .341 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs. After slumping throughout the first half this season, Machado has returned to his MVP-caliber play since the All-Star break. His latest heroics, combined with the Minnesota Twins’ loss earlier in the night, pulled the Orioles within half a game of the second American League Wild Card spot.
“Manny, he’s been really dialing up what we need in a time of need,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Manny’s got a chance to have a great career, and he’s off to a really good start. It’s been an honor to watch some really great players play at a very high level. It’s something that’s very hard to do, that very few people can do. Manny has a chance to fit into that group.”
The last at-bat dramatics erased a long night of frustrations for the Orioles, who surrendered six runs in a sloppy second inning. Jeremy Hellickson was the latest starting pitcher to throw a dud, failing to make it out of the third inning. Five of the six batters he faced that inning reached base, and all five ended up scoring during an ugly, six-run frame that also included an Adam Jones’ error.
Hellickson was pulled with one out in the third, marking the fifth time in the Orioles’ last seven games that their starter has failed to complete five innings.
But as has happened countless times this season, the Orioles’ offense and bullpen overcame an abbreviated effort from a starter. Six Orioles relievers combined to hold the Yankees to one unearned run for the final 6 2/3 innings, while the offense powered back with four home runs to chip away at the deficit, setting up the ninth-inning suspense.
“Some great innings pitched out of our bullpen tonight to hold them,” Showalter said. “That’s a tough lineup to hold down. It’s a reminder of what these guys are made of. Whether it be the pitchers, guys kept grinding, little by little, they kind of let us sneak back in there.”
Somehow, some way, the Orioles keep finding improbable ways to win. And their Tuesday stunner against the Yankees might be their biggest victory of this season.
Austin Hays’ surprising promotion
Tuesday’s biggest Orioles news happened off the field, as the club announced the promotion of top outfield prospect Austin Hays to the majors.
Hays, who’s a lock to be named the Orioles’ minor league player of the year, has emerged as one of the best prospects in baseball with his incredible 2017 season split between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. In 128 games, he batted .329 with a .958 OPS, 32 home runs and 95 RBIs.
Hays may be the most exciting prospect to debut for the Orioles since Manny Machado in 2012. But the timing of his callup is surprising. The Baysox are set to begin their playoff series against Altoona on Wednesday, and now they’ll be without their best player for the postseason.
That suggests, to me, that the Orioles plan on giving Hays plenty of opportunities to start games in September, rather than just having him absorb the experience from the bench like fellow prospect Chance Sisco, another recent callup. After all, why would the Orioles rush to pull Hays from Bowie’s roster — and start his major league service clock so early — unless they thought he could contribute to their own postseason chase?
And frankly, he probably can. Not all 22-year-old rookies can come to the majors and make an immediate impact, but Hays is in a league of his own. He laid waste to the minors this season, and he’s plenty capable of sparking for the Orioles down the stretch, similar to how Machado did after his August 2012 promotion.
With Trey Mancini and Adam Jones firmly entrenched in left and center field, respectively, Hays’ best shot to see action this month is in right field. Will Buck Showalter start Hays over veteran Seth Smith against righties? Maybe not.
Hays, though, would certainly be an upgrade against left-handed pitchers ahead of Joey Rickard, who has an unremarkable .283 average, .706 OPS and one home run versus southpaws this year. Hays, by contrast, has torched lefty pitching for a .411 average and 1.170 OPS in the minors this season, with 12 homers in 166 plate appearances.
Hays wasn’t in the lineup against Yankees lefty CC Sabathia on Tuesday. That’s understandable, since his promotion wasn’t made official until an hour before the scheduled start time. But it’ll be interesting to see how many starts Hays gets moving forward. The Orioles would be well served to give him a legitimate chance.
Orioles honor control specialist Wells
Hays wasn’t the only Orioles minor leaguer who had a memorable Tuesday. The Orioles named Low-A Delmarva lefty Alex Wells as the 2017 Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Wells was 11-5 with a 2.38 ERA in 25 starts for the Shorebirds. He allowed three or fewer runs in 22 of his 25 starts.
Wells, 20, isn’t known for a blazing fastball or gaudy strikeout numbers. No, his specialty is throwing strikes — a ridiculous number of strikes. In 140 innings this season, Wells issued 10 walks. That’s not a typo.
Wells threw 68 consecutive innings without walking a batter to end his season, spanning his final 11 starts.
“Alex had an excellent year,” said executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. “Outstanding control. No walks in his last 68 innings. So he had [the equivalent of] seven complete games plus five innings of the next game where he didn’t walk a guy. And if pitching is about throwing strikes, Alex knows how to throw strikes, because he threw more strikes than any other pitcher we had in our organization this year.
“He put it all together this year. He’s got a very good curveball to go along with that, good intelligence, excellent instincts, and I hope he has a long career with the Orioles.”
Wells wasn’t ranked as one of the club’s preseason top 10 prospects by most publications. With a fastball that tops out at 90-91 mph, he may never get a lot of praise from national prospect rankings. Pitchers who don’t get a ton of swings and misses in the minors face uncertain futures in the big leagues.
But all he’s done in his two-year professional career is succeed, first in Low-A Aberdeen in 2016 (4-3 with a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts) and now Delmarva.
Wells’ pinpoint control is his bread and butter. The Orioles’ major league staff, which has issued the second-most walks in the AL (497 entering Tuesday), could learn a thing or two from Wells’ ability to keep the ball in the zone.
“I’ve tried to have as much control as I can, commanding both parts of the plate, in and out. And I feel like that’s the way I’m going to be known as a pitcher, just commanding the ball,” Wells said. “I’m not going to be able to blow guys away unless I get a jump in [velocity], so having that command is going to help me succeed.”
Each of the last six pitchers to earn the Jim Palmer Award have made it to the majors with the Orioles: Donnie Hart (2016 winner), Oliver Drake and Mychal Givens (2015), Tyler Wilson (2014), Mike Wright (2013) and Dylan Bundy (2012).
“It’s definitely an honor to be along with those guys, and hopefully I can have the success that they’re having right now in the big leagues, take after those guys and just keep doing what I’m doing and having fun while I’m doing it,” Wells said.
The Orioles have taken a lot of heat — and deservedly so — for their often tepid effort in international amateur scouting, but Wells, whom the club signed out of his native Australia in 2015, could be one signing who pays off.
“Mike Snyder, our Pacific Rim director, did a great job in identifying Alex, and Chris Reitsma, our scout in Canada, saw him pitch in an international tournament,” Duquette said. “I think Alex struck out seven out of the first ten Canadians that he faced that day. Good curveball. And then we were fortunate to get him signed. So here he is, and he’s off to a great start in his career.”