The Orioles won 101 regular-season games and a lot of them looked like Game 1 of their American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers. The only difference was the outcome.
The game was a pitched battle that almost emptied both bullpens and was hanging in the balance until soon-to-be American League Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson inexplicably got thrown out stealing with no one out in the bottom of the ninth inning.
That left the O’s to ponder a number of missed opportunities in the 3-2 defeat at Oriole Park that put them on their heels in the best-of-five series that resumes Sunday at 4 p.m. It also left them needing to demonstrate the special chemistry that has allowed them to come back from many similar series-opening losses when the games didn’t mean quite so much.
Known for their dogged resilience, they need it now more than ever.
They clearly had a pitching advantage with newly minted staff ace Kyle Bradish on the mound and were unable to dig deeply enough into the soft spot in the Rangers’ rotation. The result was an offensive performance hauntingly similar to many of the games during the final two weeks of September.
Lest anyone forget, they averaged just 2.6 runs per game over their final eight but managed to win six of those games to lock up the division title. But they knew – and manager Brandon Hyde said again after Saturday’s game – that two runs is not going to make it against a Texas offense that led the league in almost everything this season.
Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about that if they could have advanced a runner after getting the first two batters on base in the eighth inning, but Anthony Santander got to play both hero and villain on this day when he followed up a game-tightening home run in his previous at-bat with a double-play ball that was about as deflating as a porcupine in the balloon bouquet section at Hallmark.
Don’t misunderstand. Santander has been the most productive hitter on the team over the past several years and was a candidate for Most Valuable Oriole again this season. The Orioles certainly want what he’s cooking. Whether he’s an ideal No. 3 hitter with two place-setters in front of him, however, has come open for debate.
It will be interesting to see if Hyde goes with much the same lineup in Game 2 against left-hander Jordan Mongomery, since he also conceded Saturday that the offense needs to generate more runs early in games. Certainly, he would never want to give the impression that he lacks confidence in his hitters, but – as Yogi Berra might have said – it can get late pretty early in a short playoff series.
This certainly is not a time to over-react. The Orioles will be in okay shape if they can bounce back behind Grayson Rodriguez and split the first two home games. Keep in mind that they finished the regular season tied with the Atlanta Braves for the best regular-season road record in the majors (52-29) and won their road series against the Rangers.
The only relevant question is whether they can respond the same way to adversity in the postseason as they did over the past six months.
“I think we’ll respond fine,’’ Hyde said. “We just need to get some early runs. In the last week or so of the season, we just had a tough time scoring early. That’ll take a lot of pressure off a lot of people on the mound and on [the hitters] themselves if we try to get a few runs across early in the game.”