CHICAGO—The cue should have come at the end of spring training when Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias emphasized that 2023 wasn’t going to be like any other.
Elias believes these Orioles are a playoff team, and that last season’s 7-14 April record set them behind.
When Elias was announcing Grayson Rodriguez’s demotion to Triple-A Norfolk, which turned out to be temporary, he explained.
“We want to put ourselves into the best position to win these five games and the games that come right after that. We’re trying to win every game that we can to start the season,” Elias said.
The Orioles were 7-6 when they decided to demote Cole Irvin to Norfolk. One of the qualities that attracted the Orioles to the left-hander was his ability to avoid walks. In 2021, he issued 2.1 walks per nine innings, and last season, it was just 1.8.
In his three starts with the Orioles, Irvin has allowed eight walks in 12 2/3 innings. In 181 innings last season, he gave up 36.
The Orioles have better choices for starters than they did in previous years, and though Spenser Watkins, who replaced Irvin on the roster is with the Orioles for long relief, they can soon consider DL Hall, who’s being stretched out at Norfolk, as an alternative.
There’s another worry for the Orioles, and that’s the Tampa Bay Rays. As the Orioles were beating Oakland on Thursday to improve to 7-6, the Rays were tying the major league record with 13 straight victories to begin the season.
Tampa Bay lost its first two games to Toronto and is now 13-2.
With that 13-0 start, Tampa Bay could play .500 ball for the rest of the season and still win 87 games. In 2022, the Rays were 86-76 and were the final wild-card team.
In order for the Orioles to make the postseason, at least as one of the three wild cards, they’ll have to contend with Tampa Bay, New York and Toronto. It’s possible that all three wild-card teams could come out of the East. Last year, Seattle, with 90 wins, qualified along with the Rays and Blue Jays.
The Orioles fell to 11 games under .500 (24-35) on June 10th and were still nine games under (35-44) on July 2nd before their 10-game winning streak that put them in the playoff conversation began.
Manager Brandon Hyde knows the season is just over two weeks old.
“We have  games to go,” Hyde said. “They’ve played really well to start the year. That’s a really good club. They have great, great pitching. We knew that going in that that’s going to be a really good team. They’re off to a good start, and we have a long way to go.”
Last season’s 10-game winning streak was the Orioles’ longest since 1999.
“They’ve been beating up teams the first 13 games. We have a lot of baseball left,” he said.
First baseman Ryan Mountcastle marveled at the Rays’ start
“Thirteen is insane to start the year. That’s incredible,” he said. “If we can beat them and we sweep them in a series, we’re only two back. It’s a tough team to sweep, but if we win a couple of games against them, it will narrow the gap and I’m sure it will even out,” he said.
“They’re a really good team. I’d be shocked if they weren’t a playoff team. They’ve got a [good] pitching staff. Their lineup seems to be clicking, too. They’ve got a good team and, hopefully, we can catch up to them.”
Watkins, who was recalled on Friday to shore up the bullpen, followed the streak from Norfolk.
“A great motivator for us, and it allows us to understand that we belong here,” he said. “We’re a force in the AL East and seeing that makes us hungry to want to do something like that for ourselves.”
Watkins back: Watkins spent much of the 2021 and 2022 seasons with the Orioles, but this year’s team is more talented and when he was optioned to Norfolk, he was assured that he was still in the team’s plans.
“Talking with Hyde and Elias when they made the decision in camp, [they said]: ‘Be ready, you’re going to be a big part of this team at some point throughout the season.’ I went down with the mindset of work on what you have to work on, and be ready when the call came. Luckily, the call came pretty quick.”
In 2022, Watkins started 20 times for the Orioles and pitched three times in relief.
“I was getting my feet wet being a long reliever last year as well as piggy-backing this spring, having an understanding that there could be a role, a future down the road for me,” he said.
Norfolk’s players are watching the Orioles closely, knowing that many of them will play for the team in 2023 and beyond.
“Just about every guy in that clubhouse is watching the boys up here play every night, which is pretty cool,” he said.
Watkins has yet to pitch since his Friday recall.
“The team camaraderie from not just within this clubhouse, but within that clubhouse, which was built in spring training is pretty awesome to see. You keep an eye on how it’s going. As you go more and more, you have a feel, for maybe they’re going to need a guy, maybe not. You always stay ready, and you always follow along.”
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