Suddenly, the Orioles offense looks more like their pitiful 2019 incarnation than the juggernaut that has rolled through the American League for the last 5 ½ months, and the only question is why.
Just five runs and nine hits in their last three games?
Four straight losses at crunch time?
Their four-game division lead slipping away in less than a week?
This may be no time to panic while they still lead the division by a few percentage points, but the Tampa Bay Rays have been on a month-long heater and the Orioles are going to have to figure something out in a hurry if they hope to avoid the Wild Card round in two weeks.
Knowing they already have a playoff spot all but mathematically wrapped up should make it easier to relax at this late stage in the season, but they seem to have lost their mojo at just the wrong time, which probably will lead a few pundits to speculate that they’re just too young and inexperienced – and maybe fatigued — for this time of year.
I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s not an unreasonable supposition that they can disprove by rebounding in the last two games of this critical series against the Rays.
It certainly doesn’t help that Adley Rutschman is both hitless and walkless in his last 13 plate appearances and was moved out of the leadoff spot Friday night for the first time since July 28. Seems like somebody figured out that it was better to feed him a lot of strikes early than to let him squeeze pitchers into deep counts.
Presumed American League Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson has just one hit in eight at-bats in this series, but that one hit was a home run and he came into Friday night with 12 hits in his previous seven games, so he doesn’t seem particularly overwhelmed by pennant race pressure.
It would be easy to point to Tampa Bay’s seemingly indestructible pitching staff if the Orioles bats hadn’t gone to sleep Wednesday night against one of the minor league pitching prospects they just traded to the Cardinals. It was only two days before that they were on an unprecedented offensive roll that featured four double-digit run totals in a span of five games.
Of course, this whole weekend might have a different look if not for that tie-breaking home run by Luke Raley in the seventh inning on Thursday night. Can’t help wondering why Kyle Bradish and Rutschman decided to challenge Raley with a 3-1 count, two outs and no one on base with the right-handed No. 9 hitter on deck, but that’s easy to say now.
Time to throw impressive rookie Grayson Rodriguez into the fire against another top-flight Rays starter. Tyler Glasnow is a hard-throwing right-hander who is 9-5 with a sterling 3.15 ERA and 142 strikeouts in just 105 innings, but that might actually be a better matchup for an O’s lineup that has hit better against high-velocity pitchers than breaking ball guys.
The Orioles have scored 18 runs in Rodriguez’s last three starts. Oriole fans can only hope they can put a few up for him tonight.