Cedric Mullins waited for the pitch to break, then turned and unloaded. As the ball floated high through the air, some fans flung their arms up, unable to wait until it dropped over the right field fence.
With one swift swing, Mullins had doubled the Orioles’ run total and given them an 8-5, fifth-inning lead over the visiting St. Louis Cardinals in the first of a seven-game homestand. The next inning, rookie Gunnar Henderson added on himself by hammering a 422-foot solo shot — his 25th home run of the season.
On a night when Orioles starter Dean Kremer had a poor showing, the Orioles shined everywhere else: The offense picked up the slack, the bullpen — which remains without injured closer Félix Bautista — took care of business, and the defense was strong, highlighted by an outstanding diving catch by defensive replacement Austin Hays in the eighth.
With the 11-5 victory, the Orioles improved to 91-52 and lowered their magic number to clinch a playoff spot to four.
A moment of silence was held before the game and a Baltimore City firehouse was honored Monday, the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in front of an announced crowd of 15,485.
The Orioles then fell behind early as Kremer wasn’t as sharp as he’s been in recent weeks, allowing five runs in a game for the first time since July 19. Baltimore’s offense just about kept pace, though, thanks in part to aggressive base running from veteran outfielder Aaron Hicks.
After Hicks singled in the second inning, the Cardinals (63-81) threw to third to try and stop Mullins, advancing on the hit. An opportunistic Hicks then sought second. He might have been tagged out, but St. Louis third baseman Nolan Arenado’s throw bounced into right field, allowing Mullins to score and Hicks to reach third. Then, a single from Ramón Urias gave the Orioles another run.
Hicks again helped create a run in the fourth when he hit a liner to center field with two outs. It had the look of an easy single, but he hustled for a double. Two pitches later, Adam Frazier drove him in for Baltimore’s third run.
The Cardinals still led 5-3, thanks to seven hits against Kremer in his 4 1/3 innings, but the Orioles took the lead for good in the fifth of what had been a see-saw game. Adley Rutschman and Henderson each singled to open the frame and then Ryan O’Hearn — who made a nifty sliding catch in right field to end the top of the fourth, earning a hat tip from Kremer — doubled to score one. Ryan Mountcastle then walked, loading the bases and prompting Mullins’ momentous at-bat.
Mullins drove a 1-2 slider out of the park for his second grand slam of the season and the team’s sixth.
It was a productive day for the offense, which has now scored at least 10 runs in four of its past five games. In addition to Mullins’ blast, Henderson and Hicks each finished with three hits and Hays, who entered in the seventh, drove in two runs in the eighth.
But the bullpen was equally essential. Still operating without Bautista, who might or might not return this year, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Monday, a crew of five relievers did not allow a run. DL Hall, Jacob Webb, Jorge López, Danny Coulombe and Shintaro Fujinami scattered five hits over 4 2/3 innings.
6-man is the plan, for now
With 2019 All-Star John Means making his MLB return Tuesday, after a 17-month hiatus following Tommy John elbow reconstruction, the Orioles will operate with a six-man rotation. That is subject to change, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Monday, but for now, starters will get an extra day of rest.
Baltimore went to a six-man rotation last month and briefly returned to the traditional, five-starter cycle before adding Means into the mix.
“We’ve had really good starting pitching since the trade deadline. I think a big part of that is these guys getting an extra day,” Elias said.
Tate, Akin unlikely to boost bullpen this year
Means will soon provide a pitching boost, but it doesn’t seem likely that relievers Dillon Tate and Keegan Akin will pitch again for the Orioles in 2023.
“As the calendar ticks down, it’s becoming increasingly a stretch for either guy to come back for a substantial part of the calendar, but they are both getting better,” Elias said.
Tate (right elbow flexor strain) has missed the entire season and Akin (lower back discomfort) was moved to the 60-day injured list in late August.
Wells waiting in the wings
The Orioles’ best starter during this year’s first half could provide bullpen depth as the season wanes. In 18 outings before the All-Star break, Wells led MLB with a 0.927 WHIP, but he later struggled with his control as he approached a career-high in innings pitched.
Wells was sent on July 30 to Double-A Bowie, where he started three games, and was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk on Aug. 23. He’s made four relief appearances there and has posted a 3.65 ERA over 12 1/3 minor league innings.
“We made the decision to send him down, back him off a little bit and then transition him to the bullpen where he’s most likely to contribute for this team going forward this season,” Elias said.
Westburg expected to return this week
Orioles infielder Jordan Westburg sat on Sunday and was again out of Monday’s lineup.
“I do think that we’re hoping to have him back in the lineup this week,” Elias said.
This story will be updated.
Cardinals at Orioles
Tuesday, 6:35 p.m.
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