The Orioles lost the biggest game most members of their clubhouse have ever played in. The good news is they’ll get the opportunity to bounce back each of the next three days.
Baltimore opened its critical series with the Tampa Bay Rays with a 4-3 loss Thursday night, leaving the Orioles with a one-game lead in the American League East. But with three contests to go in the weekend matchup, they have the ability to make up for it.
“We’re not going to sit too hard on it,” rookie infielder Gunnar Henderson said. “We’ve started off a series with a loss before, so we’re just going to go out there and continue to play hard and put ourselves in a good position to win a ball game.”
The Orioles have now lost the first game in 16 of their 48 series, but they came back to win six of the first 15 while splitting two others. They have won their past three series in which they dropped the opener, all against playoff contenders in Seattle, Toronto and Arizona. In the Rays’ only other visit to Baltimore in May, the Orioles lost Game 1 before winning the next two.
They have not lost more than four games in a row this season, with Baltimore having gone an AL-record 86 straight multi-game series without being swept. That streak began shortly before the Orioles called up catching phenom Adley Rutschman, who as a College World Series Most Outstanding Player is perhaps the only youngster on the club’s roster who has played in games with more significance than Thursday’s. He and Henderson, the Orioles’ top two draft picks in 2019, were two of the eight players who started against the Rays who have not played in a postseason game.
Thursday represented a taste, with what Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde called “a really good baseball game” decided by a handful of plays: rookie third baseman Jordan Westburg’s flub of a grounder to spark a three-run third; Baltimore’s inability to turn a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the fifth into more than one run; and Hyde’s choice to stick with a cruising Kyle Bradish to face Luke Raley with two outs in the seventh, only for the left-handed hitter to swat a game-winning home run as lefty Danny Coulombe warmed in the bullpen.
Starting the opener of this series might have been more of a test drive for Bradish than anyone else, with the second-year right-hander primed to be Baltimore’s Game 1 starter come the postseason. Despite the significance of the game and series — both the Orioles and Rays are positioned for the playoffs, but the division winner will get home-field advantage and a first-round bye — Bradish said he tried to view the outing as any other start, with the Orioles’ lead allowing him to avoid a more dire mindset.
“They’re right below us,” Bradish said, “but we’re still ahead of ‘em.”
Losing each of the next three games is the only scenario that would change that outcome. If the Orioles manage only one win this weekend, the Rays would leave Baltimore tied for the AL East lead but the Orioles would claim the season series and the division tiebreaker. Salvaging a split or following their current three-game losing streak with three straight wins would mean the Orioles enter the final four series of the season with a lead in the division and the tiebreaker in hand.
But the Orioles are not thinking even that far ahead. After the loss, their minds shifted to Friday, when struggling starter Jack Flaherty and a suddenly slumping offense will try to even the series in front of a sold-out crowd at Camden Yards. Before Thursday’s game, Hyde said he hoped his players would “relax and enjoy all the moments,” acknowledging he would not be able to do so himself.
“This is what you play for all year,” Hyde said. “To play meaningful games in September, it’s something we’ve always talked about, and these are definitely meaningful games.”
The meaning grows with each passing game. It simply presents another chance to win their biggest game of the season.