The Orioles clinched a playoff spot and earned a come-from-behind, walk-off victory Sunday over their division rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, in extra innings before a raucous, and sometimes nervous, crowd of 37,297 at Oriole Park.
With the Texas Rangers losing in Cleveland, Baltimore earned its first postseason berth since 2016. Less than an hour later, the Orioles brought the crowd to a roar as star catcher Adley Rutschman scored the winning run in the 11th inning on a sacrifice fly by Cedric Mullins.
The 5-4 win gives the Orioles a two-game American League East lead over the Rays with 13 games remaining in the season. Baltimore last won the division in 2014.
The tension of the race was palpable Sunday. For Sean Monroe, the stress of the finale of the Orioles’ four-game series with the Rays had crept up on him as he stepped away from his spot at the right field flag court to collect himself.
One victory stood in the way of the team securing a wild-card spot. The possibility of winning an AL East division title — and having the chance to go deep into the playoffs — is within reach for the first time since 2014. To win the division, the Orioles need to end the season ahead of or in a tie with the Rays. Having won more games in head-to-head action, Baltimore holds the tiebreaker advantage over Tampa Bay.
For fans at this weekend’s nearly sold-out series, the prospect of a division title weighs heavy.
“I really want us to win,” said Monroe, who bought his house in Pigtown to be close to Camden Yards. He estimated he’s been to 60 games this season.
Crowds at the ballpark have been amped up this season as the Orioles’ young stars have propelled the team to improbable success, prompting increasing attendance. An Orioles cap giveaway also boosted attendance Sunday, with white caps dotting the usual sea of orange fan apparel.
When Adam Frazier’s line drive at the bottom of the ninth tied the game 3-3, thunderous applause rippled through the stadium as thousands sprang to their feet and jumped up and down. The electrified crowd was met with a video board message that, because of a Rangers loss, the Orioles had clinched a playoff berth.
“We’ve been waiting so long for something like this,” said Alex Darnell, a season ticket holder who watched the game from the center field roof deck bar with his friends. “I’m so happy.”
His friend TJ Gvochovski bought a package of day-game tickets for next season in part to get presale dibs on postseason games. “The fact we can clinch the playoffs this series is pretty wild to me,” he said.
Standing at the bar, the pair agreed that fans helped the team shake off losses in the first two games of the series. They estimate they’ve been to 35 games collectively this season.
“The environment is fantastic,” Darnell said. “Winning means everything to O’s fans, real O’s fans who were here when they were losing 120, 115 games, screaming at your TV saying, ‘I wish they’d be better.’ We deserve this.”
The Orioles are just two years removed from losing 110 games in 2021, the last of five consecutive seasons during which they finished with a losing record — three of which included at least 108 losses.
But those days are history as a result of a rebuilding project that started in 2018 when Mike Elias was hired as the team’s executive vice president and general manager. Soon after, he hired Brandon Hyde as manager.
Sunday’s result was a milestone in that process. And the walk-off win was a cherry on top.
“To see the fans behind our dugout and fans behind home plate, that’s an amazing feeling,” Hyde said. “I’m glad that they got to celebrate, and I’m glad that we made the city proud, especially the way we won, too. That was pretty dramatic.”
Fans erupted in applause after every O’s defensive out and base hit Sunday. By the 11th inning, fans on every stadium deck stood to watch each Orioles at-bat. Their cheers reached a climax when Mullins hit a sacrifice fly to center field that scored Rutschman with the winning run.
Thousands remained standing to watch as the team pulled fresh orange T-shirts over their jerseys. Printed on the front was a promise for the postseason ahead: “Take October.”
With the division lead and the best record in the American League (93-56), the Orioles are on pace to get a bye and face the winner of a wild-card series that would start Oct. 3 between the Rays and several possible teams: the Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays or Houston Astros.
The Orioles open a three-game series Monday in Houston.