TORONTO – He’s No. 99 on your scorecard but No. 1 in your hearts.
OK, that is a stretch. But heading into Sunday’s series finale at Toronto, some fans must have thought that the rookies were doing their part. When would the vets pick up some slack too? Well one did late in the game yesterday and in a very big way.
It was an unlikely candidate in Jesus Aguilar, the first Oriole ever to wear a number in the nineties. But beyond that distinction he had struggled badly in his first eight O’s games. Once an All-Star in 2018 when he drove in 108 runs with a career OPS of .772, his O’s OPS was .261 at game time Sunday. He was only in the lineup because Ryan Mountcastle was hurt.
Then Aguilar, who started his day 0-for-3, hurt the Blue Jays.
His solo homer in the eighth was his first with the Orioles and pulled them within 3-2. After Adley Rutschman’s two-run single gave the O’s the 4-3 lead in the ninth, Aguilar singled in their fifth run. And they needed it when Toronto pulled within 5-4 in the home half of the ninth.
The big man got a big hit. Two of them.
“That’s great. For the whole team. I think we can have a lot of good things this year. We just have to keep pushing and see what happens,” said Aguilar postgame at Rogers Centre.
He said he believes in these scrappy Birds.
“I think we have a lot of young guys that are hungry and play the game the right way. That’s the most important thing for me. You can see, especially in this division, the record that we have right now. A lot of good things in the clubhouse,” he said.
Aguilar’s single in the ninth, an inning when the Orioles went 2-for-3 with runners in scoring position, gave them a game with five runs or more for just the fifth time in the past 23 games.
The offense has not come easy or often for this team in recent weeks, but in the ninth they scored three to comeback against an All-Star closer in Toronto's Jordan Romano. A closer with 14 straight scoreless appearances over 15 innings and one with an ERA of 0.31 at home. He had allowed one earned run in 29 home innings this season for the best home ERA by any MLB qualifying reliever. His 34 saves were tied for second in the majors and his 19 one-run saves have set a Toronto team record.
He has massive credentials and then the Orioles beat him.
The ninth began with back-to-back pinch-hit singles by Kyle Stowers and Ramón Urías. That got it going and when Cedric Mullins walked, the bases were loaded for Rutschman. He hit a 98 mph fastball against the shift into left for a 4-3 lead. He said he was not looking to hit that way against the shift, it just happened. And the Orioles had their first lead of the day.
“That’s a super pro at-bat,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He got something he could handle, out over the plate, stayed on it. Base hit the other way.”
After the win, Rutschman credited the table setters in the ninth.
“I mean, they did a phenomenal job. Romano is a great pitcher. To have Stowie and Ramón lead it off with two hits, that’s huge. Get runners on and that’s how it starts. That’s how the momentum starts. We fed off that.”
Then Rutschman caught Félix Bautista in the last of the ninth when he recorded his 14th save, throwing one pitch 102.6 mph. Yes Bautista allowed a run but the big man also got Bo Bichette to ground out and end it with two runners on. A walk-off had to be on the minds of most the of crowd of 41,301. Bichette had gone 10-for-19 with a three-homer game and nine RBI's in the four-game series in Baltimore.
“That’s a big moment, against a really good team. And just to see him go out there compete, give up one run but not let that get him down. Just continue to go out and battle against Vladdy and Bichette, two phenomenal hitters, that’s big time. He stepped up,” said Rutschman.
The Orioles scored just 11 runs this weekend and rookies drove in eight with Rutschman driving in four. The youngsters like Gunnar Henderson, Terrin Vavra, Stowers, Rutschman and DL Hall all had some nice contributions this series.
“I think it’s just nice to see all the guys settle in, do their thing,” Rutschman said. “Play how everyone knows that they’re capable of playing. Just to get settled at the big league level. I think everyone is exciting for what’s to come, but I think we are focused on the here and now and just happy to get a win.”
Considering that the Orioles had lost eight of their last 12 games overall and six of their past seven against Toronto, this easily qualifies as a big win.
The storyline looked like it was going to be O’s get swept and the playoff hopes are all but dashed. But now they head home hoping to make one last strong run.
As it turned out, the 2022 Orioles had at least one more amazing moment in them.