Reasons why the 2022 version of the Orioles bears little or no resemblance to models of the recent past have been articulated inside the clubhouse and during manager Brandon Hyde’s media sessions. The confidence, the unity, and most of all, the improved pitching.
Another example played out in the 11th inning of Saturday afternoon’s game against the Rays, on a field with fake grass and real complications for the Orioles, who had lost 10 straight under the dome.
Rougned Odor, the automatic runner, broke late for third base as Jorge Mateo missed on a bunt attempt, and he was thrown out. An absolute back-breaker on previous teams during the rebuild. A game they certainly would have lost.
Mateo tripled into left-center field, the bunt no longer in play. Cedric Mullins drew a seven-pitch walk and stole second base. Ryan Mountcastle fell behind 1-2 with two outs, fouled off a curveball to stay alive and punched a 95 mph inside fastball into right field for a two-run single.
Not your same rebuild Orioles.
“We’ve had a lot of come-from-behind wins, a lot of late-inning victories,” said outfielder Austin Hays. “We had a lot of opportunities to beat the Rays last year. They won almost every game against us last year, but there were eight or nine games where we had them and just couldn’t finish or we made an error late. Just couldn’t close out the game. So, to be the ones that were coming from behind, it’s good.”
“We just had a tough time winning close games in the past,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “(Saturday) night was a perseverance win. I feel like we’ve won in all different sorts of ways this year, and that’s a sign of a good club, being able to win in different ways.”
And not being satisfied with .500.
“We feel like there’s still some games we should have won that we let get away from us,” Hays said, before Sunday’s rally fell short in a 7-5 loss. “We’re looking at it like, ‘OK, I see where we’re at right now, but it could be better.’ There is room for improvement, and we do believe that we can play a lot better than .500.”
“Of course, there are higher goals in mind for us,” reliever Félix Bautista said through interpreter Brandon Quinones. “The goal is to continue competing and try to make the playoffs.”
They’re serious. The Orioles aren’t here to entertain you with mediocrity. To settle for respectability, despite how much they craved it earlier.
“Especially after these last couple weeks, we sort of know what we’re capable of now, and looking at our record, it seems like we could be better than that,” Mountcastle said. “Hopefully, we can keep winning games in the second half and be well above .500 at the end of the year.”
Not just within sniffing distance of it.
“Definitely not,” said first baseman Trey Mancini. “No matter what our record is, this team puts its best foot forward every single day. We haven’t carried ourselves any differently now than we did two months ago. Whenever our record wasn’t quite what we wanted it to be, I still think this team had a different aura about it, and it was just a matter of time before we got hot.
“That just has to do with team cohesiveness and things like that. We’ve just really been playing for one another, better than any team I’ve been a part of for a long time. That’s been huge for us. Nobody changes their attitude or anything like that based on what our record is, and that’s really important.”
“Anyone in baseball isn’t going to be happy unless we’re winning, of course,” said reliever Joey Krehbiel. “And our team, with the players that we have and the coaching staff that we have, we know what we can be, so we expect it.”
“We know what we’re capable of, we know what we can do,” said outfielder Ryan McKenna. “We have the talent in the room and everybody, we motivate each other and we compete every day to try to win the ballgame. We pick each other up. I think we’ve shown that in the past with all the stuff that we’ve been through so far.
“We have 2 ½ months left, and I think we’re going to dedicate the same thing that we did in the first half in the second.”
Some players say they check the standings, others insist that they haven’t done it.
“For sure, yeah,” Mountcastle said, smiling. “We’re up there right now. I don’t know what the standings are currently, probably one or two games back, but we’re up there with all those other guys and we’re excited about it.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen them,” McKenna said. “I’m kind of familiar with where we’re at right now. But it’s tough. Middle of the season, there’s still so many games to be played. We’re going to come out and compete every day. It will be good, it will be fun to watch.”
Said Hays: “A couple days ago I had seen we were like two games out from a wild card spot, which is kind of crazy to not see double digits for the first time in years. But it just gives you something to play for, it gives you a little more motivation. It’s actually something that’s attainable.
“We were so far out by this point the last few years that it wasn’t even something to really think about or look at. So, all these games do matter, and it gives you a little extra edge each night when the seventh inning rolls around and you have a chance to win. You’re playing for something. That’s a good feeling to have and makes you hungry every day.”
Krehbiel isn’t crunching the numbers.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you how far down we are from the wild card, I couldn’t tell you my own stats. I just don’t focus on that stuff,” he said.
“But regardless, why wouldn’t we not want to make the playoffs? I’m sure some are thinking about it.”
“Honestly, I don’t even know exactly how many games out we are right now in the wild card or anything like that,” Mancini said. “It’s not anything we talk about at all, and I think that’s a good thing.”
The break provides a reset for players who need it. It allows Bautista’s right hand to heal after the hook on a rubber exercise band popped loose from a fence and struck him. He warmed Sunday in the eighth inning and walked back to the dugout.
It gives Hays a break while he’s been playing with a sore right wrist. It refreshes a bullpen that’s logged 375 2/3 innings.
The order of the rotation could change.
The enthusiasm on this team seems permanent.
“It’s a blast,” Krehbiel said. “Every day is the same. Whether we win or lose, the next day everyone’s back happy, everyone’s smiling again, ready to try to win that game.”
“It’s definitely been the most fun first half I’ve had as part of the team here,” Mancini said. “I’m just so proud of these guys and the hard work they’ve put in. Everybody just played so well together and it’s been really fun. If you compare where we were to where we are right now, it’s certainly something to be proud of.”
“It feels good,” McKenna said. “I think this success is just due to a lot of discipline, an everyday routine, learning from adjustments to the made in the past. I think it’s a cumulative effort from the coaching staff on down, and it’s been awesome to be a part of.
“It’s contagious, too. We feed off each other and it’s been awesome to have the success that we’ve had. I know we have a lot to go, and I think these guys are dedicated to continuing what we’ve been doing, which is really cool, too.”
“There’s a lot of guys who have gotten a real opportunity here with this team and taken full advantage of it,” Hays said. “Just to see a lot of guys individually putting together some really good seasons, a good, healthy first half. Just go home, rest up, and come back and just continue doing what we’ve been doing. Improve in some of the areas that we can look back on.”
Try to stay in contention rather than be known as a first-half flash in the rebuild plan.
“It’s awesome,” Mountcastle said. “Last year was pretty fun, trying to play spoiler a little bit, but trying to be in it this year is way more fun.”
On the same day that the Orioles landed at .500, they also reeled in prep shortstop Jackson Holliday with the first-overall pick in the MLB Draft, and had three more selections before the night was over. More talent pumped into an organization that's clearly on the rise.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias called it “a pretty significant mile marker for us.”
“I think that's a step,” he said. “Now we're adding what's going to be a big, new wave to the bottom of what is an excellent farm system. I say it all the time, our division is ridiculous. We've got to tangle with these four extraordinarily well-run, well-resourced organizations. But I think that this Orioles organization is in the healthiest spot it's been in in a very long time, and it just got a lot healthier 20 minutes ago, so I think this is a really nice night for us to have things going well at the major and minor league level, and in the scouting department all at the same time on the same night.”
So yes, it's OK to celebrate .500. But the Orioles will keep broadening their interests.