The Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, won a franchise record 90 games this year, setting several team records along the way. Then they lost the first game of the best-of-three International League championship series last Tuesday, before winning two in a row to take their first IL crown since 1985.
But the Tides had one more big win in them last night as they beat Oklahoma City 7-6 to win the Triple-A championship game in Las Vegas, pitting the IL champion Tides against the Pacific Coast League champion Dodgers.
Norfolk trailed 2-1 in the top of the seventh but had the bases loaded with two outs. Down 0-2 in the count against lefty Alec Gamboa, Colton Cowser mashed a grand slam to right center to turn the one-run deficit into a 5-2 lead with one swing. He hit the ball with a 107.6 mph exit velocity and it went 455 feet and deep into the Las Vegas night.
A mammoth blast just when the Tides needed it by the player ranked No. 11 on the top 100 by Baseball America and No. 14 by MLBPipeline.com.
On a cell phone call from the Las Vegas ballpark postgame, I asked Cowser what it felt like to mash a baseball in such a big spot.
“Clean version is very excited. I’m just really excited,” he said.
“First two pitches I was a little in between. Last one I just told myself to be on time for the heater and you know try to put a good swing on it and that’s what happened.”
Connor Norby hit a two-run homer in the ninth for a 7-2 lead and Norfolk would need every run when Oklahoma City scored four times in the last of the ninth. After he came on with a two-run lead and allowed a solo homer, righty Joey Krehbiel nailed down the final out and Norfolk had the win.
Cowser went 2-for-4 in the win and Norby was 3-for-3 and scored two runs. They combined for all six Tides RBIs and five of their seven hits.
On the mound righty Justin Armbruester allowed just two hits and one run in five innings on 71 pitches. TJ McFarland got the win in relief with 1 1/3 scoreless and two strikeouts.
What a season for the Tides, a team that had a big offense all year and strung together some huge hits in the last couple of innings Saturday to win the Triple-A title game.
Cowser talked about the on-field celebration at the end of the game.
"It was such a relief and a great accomplishment. Just really proud of our guys for sticking through this year. You know in Triple-A there are a lot of ups and downs. The second half towards the end, wasn't the greatest. But the accountability from (manager) Buck (Britton) and the coaching staff with all the hard work allowed us to play late into September and just really proud of our guys," he said.
During the post-game on-field celebration, Cowser was named the Game MVP and Britton was handed the championship trophy.
Two championships for Norfolk in a span of three days.
"Just a great group of guys," said Cowser. "Not only good ballplayers but a bunch of great people. We came to the field ready to work. We all really love each other and it's fun when you have such great relationships in the clubhouse. Just super proud of our guys and our team."
Holliday talks about Brooks: He may just be 19 years old, but we have seen many instances this year that even beyond his considerable talents, baseball's No. 1 prospect Jackson Holliday has plenty of baseball savvy too. He’s a smart player as well as one with amazing skills.
And yesterday he showed some of that savvy and maturity finding just the right words when being asked about winning the Brooks Robinson Award as the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year. This year of all years that means so much as Holliday got that award Saturday.
“Yeah, it’s quite an honor to be in the same conversation as him," he said. "He had quite an unbelievable career and if I have half the career that he had it would be a success. It’s unbelievable to look back on all the things that he accomplished and to share that award with him is quite an honor.”
How good was the year for Holliday?
It started at Low Single-A, moved to High-A, Double-A and then to Triple-A. Along the way, in addition to playing at four levels, he played in the All-Star Futures Game, rose to become the No. 1 prospect in the sport, was named Player of the Year for the entire Minor Leagues by Baseball America and took home the O’s honor on Saturday in Las Vegas while waiting to play in last night’s Triple-A championship game.
“Honestly it’s all pretty crazy and it’s been quite a year to think about,” he said. “Starting in Delmarva and now we’re playing here in the championship game. It’s been quite a blessing to stay healthy all year and have a good season. Looking back on it, it’s pretty, pretty crazy.
“Honestly everywhere that I’ve gone (all the levels) I’ve felt really comfortable. Like I belong there. I haven’t felt overmatched one time this year.”
So now he has reached the final step before the majors. And after just one full year on the farm. The next step, whenever it comes, is Baltimore and he’d like to do that for Opening Day 2024.
“That’s the goal,” he said Saturday afternoon on a team Zoom call with local media. “I’m in a different position than last spring training. Last spring was awesome and such an unbelievable experience I don’t think I would be here without it. But it’s definitely going to be a little different next year, having a chance to hopefully make the club out of spring is my goal. If that doesn’t happen, whatever is the plan, I’ll be ready for it.”
Over 125 games this year between the Shorebirds, IronBirds, Baysox and Tides, Holliday, has hit .323/.442/.499/.941 with 30 doubles, nine triples, 12 homers, 24 steals, 154 hits, 101 walks, 113 runs and 75 RBIs.
He leads all of minor league baseball in runs, is fifth in on-base percentage and ranks 11th in hits.
“I think I improved in every aspect (this season), which is always my goal. Feel like I’m playing a lot better defense since the beginning of the year. Feel like I’m controlling the zone as well as ever here in Triple-A which is always a positive.
"Going into next year I want to get stronger. I want to be able to drive the ball all over the field. If I would have hit the ball a little harder this year I might have had maybe 20 homers, the amount of times I lined out or flew out to the wall. That started to add up. So, I’m definitely excited to get home and get a lot stronger coming into next year. Think that is the main difference, being more physical,” said Holliday.
O's win No. 101: The Orioles ended a 15-inning scoreless drought scoring two runs in the last of the seventh Saturday night and three in the eighth to beat Boston 5-2.
That makes them 101-60 with one game to go today to wrap up the regular season. A win this afternoon at 3:05 p.m. and these Orioles tie the 1979 club as the third-winningest in club history.
Now leading this four-game series 2-1 ensures the Orioles will end the year with 14 straight non-losing AL East series. They are 10-0-3 the last 13 pending whether this will be a winning or tied series. Per Elias Sports Bureau, this is a club record surpassing the 13 straight series in 1969.
Also with last night's win the O's guarantee they will have a winning record over every other AL East team for the first time since 2014. They are now 7-5 versus Boston and have gone 7-6 against the Yankees, 8-5 against the Rays and 10-3 versus the Blue Jays.
Over the past seven games, in going 6-1, O's pitchers have allowed just eight runs and 36 hits with eight walks and 49 strikeouts.
It was a busy Saturday in Birdland with the news here that Félix Bautista will have Tommy John surgery. Also noted here, Gunnar Henderson was named Most Valuable Oriole. And click here for more on Holliday and the other minor league award winners that were announced Saturday.