In the first nine games this year between the Orioles and Tampa Bay, the Orioles went 6-3 and they were 6-0 in games decided by two runs or less.
But in the series opener last night in Baltimore, Tampa Bay won a close one by 4-3 on Luke Raley's tiebreaking homer in the seventh. The Rays bullpen put up four perfect innings to protect that lead. The Rays 'pen has thrown 34 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
Tonight, the Orioles hope their 'pen gets a chance to protect a late lead.
Then we will find out - Can the Orioles win close games against Tampa Bay without closer Félix Bautista?
It is really a question they are going to have answer the rest of the way and a big question for October playoff baseball.
As the O's earlier went 6-0 in those close games against the Rays, Bautista came up very big. He went 4-for-4 in save chances and added a win in those games, throwing 6 2/3 scoreless.
I asked bullpen lefty Danny Coulombe if that was a legit question for the ‘pen right now. Can they win the close ones against the best teams, like Tampa Bay, without Felix?
“I haven’t even really thought about that honestly,” said Coulombe. “It always hurts when you lose you closer, but I think we are perfectly capable of holding leads and winning these games. We’ve got a lot of capable arms in this bullpen, and we trust everybody.
“They put us in good positions to succeed and everyone has to step up a bit. Not just in this series, but the rest of the year and the postseason.”
And he said the bullpen pitchers will be up for the challenge.
“Everybody is ready to step up. It’s not that we don’t want to hear about Felix anymore, it’s we don’t have him anymore. We have to deal with what we have. I think (Yennier) Cano has been great this year and other guys have been really, really good.”
Manager Brandon Hyde was asked about this topic yesterday. Ironically, the Orioles have not had many save situations without Bautista. Does Hyde still plan to mix and match in the ninth inning?
“There were a couple of games where, if the score had gotten to a certain point, in a save situation, I was using Cano in the eighth and someone else in the ninth. Just kind of depending on where teams were in their (batting) order. Ideally you want to use Cano, like in Boston, in the (Justin) Turner pocket. So, if that came up in Boston, he would have probably pitched the eighth inning.
“I feel good about numerous guys (late in the game). Danny has been good against lefties and righties. Cionel (Perez) has been good against lefties. You know we have Lopie (Jorge López) here too who has closed games in the past. Fuji (Shintaro Fujinami) is coming (on). Fuji has been throwing the ball really well.
“It’s still kind of up in the air a little bit but, just kind of take it inning-to-inning at the end of the game.”
But this key series has now begun. Coulombe said he is very excited to pitch in a big series and in big late-season and October games.
“This is fun. This is really cool. This is why you play. How often do you get to be in a pennant race and play a team you are fighting against in a four-game series at the end of the year? It doesn’t get better than that,” he said.
But now the Orioles previously potent bats have suddenly cooled off. During a three-game losing streak they have scored just five runs on 16 hits, going 2-for-21 with runners in scoring position. Before that they had scored 48 runs over the previous five games and 155 in the previous 22.
With their AL East lead down to one game, the Orioles will look to get in the win column tonight when Jack Flaherty (8-8, 4.98 ERA) pitches against right-hander Zach Eflin (14-8, 3.53 ERA).