BALTIMORE – It was just another manic Thursday at Camden Yards, where the Orioles needed to win another rubber game to take another tough series against another tough opponent.
Apparently, winning tense games with late-inning theatrics has become habit forming. The O’s have won their last five series against AL East opponents and four of them required a deciding-game victory that was in doubt until the final inning – the latest a 4-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, who have lost five of six games to a team that they once took for granted.
This time, budding superstar Adley Rutschman brought the Orioles from behind in the fifth inning with a solo homer over the tall fence in left field, Anthony Santander gave them a slim lead with a two-out RBI single in the sixth, and Austin Hays supplied some insurance with a mammoth homer into the upper bullpen in the eighth. And still, the bullpen had to survive a dangerous situation in the eighth before closer Félix Bautista got the last four outs to earn his 18th save.
Brandon Hyde has joked several times about the toll all those close games take on a manager, since 36 of his team’s 43 victories this year have come by four runs or fewer. He does not, however, think that playing under that kind of pressure day after day is having a similar effect on his young team.
“It doesn’t seem to be and if you go in our clubhouse now, they don’t seem fatigued,’’ Hyde said as the team packed up for a weekend series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. “I think that we’re, even last year, we’re really used to playing close games at the end. I think last year we were bottom third in offense or middleish, but to able to be over .500 because we just play a ton of close games. And this year, also. It seems like every game is similar … [we have] to hold on tight the last couple innings.”
It remains to be seen how the club performs during the dog days of late summer, but Hyde thinks that his young players have grown from the experience of battling to within a few games of the playoffs last year and winning dozens of close games on the way to the second-best record in the major leagues (43-25).
“I don’t really know the answer, except our guys are used to it and I think it does give them confidence,’’ he said. “When you win close games, it does give you confidence. And when you have a back-end of the bullpen that gives you an opportunity to, you feel good about it when you have a lead late, no matter if it’s one or four. I like four, but today was two. Haysy … [that (homer] was massive.”
Hays’ eighth-inning homer was estimated to have traveled 439 feet and allowed Bautista to breathe a little easier after getting the final out of the eighth inning with two runners on base, then retiring the Jays in order in the ninth.
“I’d always prefer to score 10 runs and let our pitchers breathe,” Hays said, “but a win’s a win, just find a way to win the game no matter what it is, and we’re doing a good job of battling and fighting and scoring late in the game in these really close games.”
Starting pitcher Tyler Wells delivered another strong performance and had no complaints about having to pitch in so many tight games.
“As far as focus goes, I think it elevates my focus,’’ said Wells, who improved to 6-2. “We have to go out there as starters and give as much as we can and keep the game close. I think that’s our biggest focus here. I don’t think it puts any more pressure on me. I think it just makes me want to focus harder and it makes me want to be better.”
It certainly helps when your front office can pick up former Yankee Aaron Hicks to fill the void left by the injury to Cedric Mullins or make the seemingly borderline acquisition of Ryan O’Hearn in the offseason turn into a Cinderella story when the O’s also needed to replace Ryan Mountcastle recently.
So far the beat goes on.