Orioles manager Brandon Hyde faced redundancy before the Rays.
More questions about the magnitude of the series. How his players would handle it, how he’d handle it.
“I just want our guys to enjoy it,” Hyde said during his daily media session. “This is what you play for all year. Play meaningful games in September. It’s something you always talk about.
“I really want our guys to just relax and enjoy all the moments.”
The fun times began with Cedric Mullins’ running, diving catch in right-center field to rob Taylor Walls in the second inning and likely save a run. They accelerated with Ryan O’Hearn’s leadoff homer in the bottom half and Gunnar Henderson’s 26th in the fourth.
The finish was a buzzkill, and it tightened the division race.
Luke Raley hit a tie-breaking homer off Kyle Bradish in the seventh, and the Rays’ bullpen stayed in lockdown mode in a 4-3 win over the Orioles before an announced crowd of 24,835 at Camden Yards that was fired up from the first pitch.
The Orioles are 91-55 and only one game ahead of the Rays for first place, their smallest margin since July 22. Their magic number to clinch a playoff spot remains at four, and it’s stuck at 15 for the division title.
They need one win to own the tiebreaker against the Rays, who struck out 15 batters.
"You're not doing yourselves any favors with that," Hyde said.
"I have no doubt we'll bounce back tomorrow and win tomorrow," Bradish said. "It's just a bad day."
Heston Kjerstad made his major league debut by pinch-hitting for Jordan Westburg leading off the eighth and struck out on five pitches against right-hander Robert Stephenson. He received a standing ovation before the at-bat and heard more cheering on his way back to the dugout.
Bradish was charged with four runs, his most in a start since July 26 in Philadelphia. He hadn’t allowed more than two since Aug. 1.
Mullins rescued him in the second with a spectacular grab. Bradish raised both arms. O’Hearn hoisted his cap.
"It was Cedric being Cedric in center field," Hyde said. "He's been doing that all year and for a few years now."
But Raley broke a 3-3 tie with his two-out, 409-foot shot to center field, and Bradish arched his back as he watched it clear the fence.
"Just threw a bad pitch to Raley there," Bradish said. "Just got to be better than that, and know who's on deck. Hung a slider."
Bradish allowed seven hits, walked none and struck out five. His ERA was 3.03 after four consecutive starts, but it rose to 3.12.
Asked how he felt about his performance, Bradish said, "A little indifferent."
"Threw some good pitches, got seven innings, but gave up four runs," he said. "So, indifferent outing."
Bradish explained his mindset, how to stay focused and not get too caught up in the stakes.
"They're right below us but we're still ahead of them," he said. "Just take it like it's another outing, not get caught up in the moment of it."
The Rays’ three-run third began with Raley’s chopper to third base that Jordan Westburg couldn’t handle and was spared the error. Yandy Díaz singled, and Raley scored the tying run on Brandon Lowe’s single – with Aaron Hicks fielding the ball in right and hesitating before throwing home.
Randy Arozarena followed with a line drive into the right field corner, his triple plating two more runs.
O’Hearn hit his 13th home run, an Aaron Civale cutter traveling 409 feet to right field. He took at least five steps with bat in hand before breaking into a jog.
Nine of O’Hearn’s homers have tied the game or provided a lead. This one broke the Orioles’ streak of 14 consecutive innings without scoring.
Henderson brought the Orioles within 3-2 leading off the fourth, his blast to right field coming against a 92.8 mph fastball. He’s one homer behind Anthony Santander for the team lead.
Henderson also ranks fourth on the Orioles’ rookie home run list behind Ryan Mountcastle’s 33, Cal Ripken Jr.’s 28 and Eddie Murray’s 27. No Baltimore player has been chosen Rookie of the Year since reliever Gregg Olson in 1989.
Hold that thought.
The two solo homers were the lone hits off Civale until Mullins laid down a perfect bunt down the third base line to lead off the fifth. Hicks walked, Westburg popped up a bunt that fell between the mound and plate for a single, and Adam Frazier tied the game with a fielder’s choice grounder.
Getting the ball out of the infield is overrated.
Adley Rutschman grounded into a double play, and the Orioles settled for one. It began a streak of 14 consecutive batters retired. No one else reached base after Westburg.
"We had an opportunity there in the fifth," Hyde said, "and for me that was a big part of the game there."
Civale was removed after five innings and 87 pitches. Tampa Bay’s bullpen hasn’t surrendered an earned run in 34 innings. Four relievers retired 12 straight, including former Oriole Shawn Armstrong.
"This is a great pitching staff and their bullpen doesn't give up many runs and they haven't for a while," Hyde said. "We had nothing going once we got Cirvale out of the game."
"They roll out a bunch of different arms with different arm angles," Henderson said. "Not easy, especially seeing them for the first time. It's a little bit challenging but I know we can do it."
The Orioles have lost three in a row for the first time since a four-game skid June 27-July 1.
"It's all been pretty close games, so all we've got to do is get one big hit and it will turn around," Henderson said.
Was Hyde able to take his own advice earlier about relaxing and enjoying the moments?
It didn't get any easier after tonight.
"I thought we played a really good baseball game," said Hyde, adding that he doesn't sense that his team is pressing. "We've just got to do a little bit better job. The opportunity we had to score, we only got one across. That's been something we've been good at this year is to push more runs across in those kinds of situations. We just didn't do it tonight."
"It's obviously a big game, just because of the series, but you've just got to treat it the same and not go out there and play pressed or anything," Henderson said. "Just go out there and play our game. That's what we've been doing all year."
Players watch games that might impact them. They can recite the standings. It's no longer too early.
"We're all looking at it," Henderson said. "Who wouldn't be at this point in the season? But just got to take it a day at a time."
* Anthony Bemboom hit a grand slam this afternoon as part of an eight-run sixth inning in Norfolk’s 12-10 win over Memphis. Jackson Holliday hit his first Triple-A home run. Colton Cowser hit his 16th, Lewin Díaz his 17th and Josh Lester his 22nd. Holliday and Lester also doubled.
Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann allowed nine runs and 15 hits in 4 2/3 innings.
Max Wagner had a two-run triple for Double-A Bowie, which was eliminated from playoff contention. Wagner and Samuel Basallo each had three hits.