HOUSTON – Orioles manager Brandon Hyde ran out of pitching. He also was running out of ideas.
His club regained the lead over the Astros tonight on Cedric Mullins’ three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning, and he had to get creative to avoid losing control of the situation. But typical of the 2023 Orioles, they figured it out.
They seem to thrive on weird.
Aaron Hicks came out of the game in the bottom half of the inning with a cramp, creating a chain reaction and some confusion in the Orioles’ 8-7 win before a stunned crowd of 34,456 at Minute Maid Park.
Cionel Pérez inherited the ninth and recorded two outs after Hyde surrendered his designated hitter by putting Heston Kjerstad in left field and moving Austin Hays to right. Ramón Urías entered at third base and committed a throwing error on a routine chopper by Yordan Álvarez.
Pinch-runner Jake Meyers raced to third on a fly ball. Kyle Tucker bounced to second, with Meyers holding for reasons that maybe only he understands. Hyde brought in Yennier Cano to pitch and James McCann to play first base, with Ryan O'Hearn replacing Kjerstad in left. Fans booed the delay.
Chas McCormick struck out on three pitches. Cano had his seventh save. The box score had Anthony Santander playing third base and making the error.
The Orioles swigged champagne and guzzled beer yesterday, and an entire game got drunk tonight.
"Well, I didn’t have any pitching left, so I had to put Kjerstad in the game and lose my DH," Hyde said, looking straight ahead while his head still spun. "I had Cionel for the first three hitters, and then I had Cano ready for the fourth hitter. Hicks got a cramp, so now I have to put Kjerstad in the game and now I have to lose my DH. But it’s seven spots away."
Don't stop him. He's on a roll.
"If I bring in Cano there and they tie the game, now potentially I’m going to have to hit (Jack) Flaherty or (Kyle) Gibson in an extra-inning situation because I didn’t have any players," Hyde said. "I wanted to just double switch and there were so many … I just double switched. So, there was a little bit of confusion back and forth a little bit of where I was putting people. It got ironed out, and it was correct."
"I'm still a little bit confused," O'Hearn said.
What about Hyde's confidence level in letting Flaherty or Gibson bat? There's always room for more quips.
"Extremely confident," he said. "I saw Jack Flaherty in St. Louis in 2018, really could swing the bat well. So, I was hoping that they were going to have to match up for him there if they had gotten to that spot."
McCann worked out at first base during batting practice, as if Hyde had a hunch.
I don’t think that he had any expectation of going in with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game at Minute Maid Park," Hyde said, "but that’s how it worked out."
The 48th comeback win improved the Orioles’ record to 94-56. They lead the idle Rays by 2 ½ games in the division, and the magic number is nine to clinch. Their sweepless streak is up to 88 series.
Their relievers allowed six runs and six hits in three innings. Usually spelling a loss. But the Orioles are more interested in math.
Ryan Mountcastle wasn't available again due to left shoulder soreness, or he would have played first and spared some of the maneuvering, which Hyde felt necessary to hide his weaker defensive players in matchups and also try to prevent pitchers from hitting. Now, Hicks is a health riddle.
"I’m not really sure," Hyde said when asked for specifics. "I haven’t even gotten there. I’m still happy that Cano punched that guy out and shook hands and I haven’t even asked that, honestly, at this point. But I know it’s a cramp. It’s in the lower-body region."
The game was becoming a pain in the lower-body region with the bullpen's struggles.
"It’s pretty banged up," Hyde said. "We just played an extra-inning game yesterday. I just threw everybody today, except for a couple guys that I didn’t want to pitch, that wasn’t going to pitch. It would be great to get a nice start out of Gibson tomorrow."
Winning games is the priority. Too much at stake with a division title in the balance. The champagne dries and the Orioles get serious again.
But there’s more happening behind the scenes that intersects.
Hyde and his pitching coaches are working to set the rotation in the final weeks and with the postseason nearing, Hyde was waiting to evaluate John Means before committing beyond Gibson on Tuesday.
The club also is determining which starters fit into a playoff rotation.
Means is making his bid after going 17 months without pitching.
In his first career start against the Astros, and his second after elbow reconstructive surgery, Means allowed one run over five innings and left with a lead. Four hits and three walks kept him busy, but he retired the side in order in the fifth on 12 pitches to put him at 86.
O’Hearn had his first career five-hit game, including a tiebreaking two-run single in the fifth against Justin Verlander. The Astros scored four runs off the bullpen in the sixth, the Orioles fought back to tie in the seventh, and José Abreu homered off Danny Coulombe in the bottom half of the inning.
Looked like an Orioles loss after Martín Maldonado clubbed a 430-foot homer off Mike Baumann in the eighth, but counting them out is pure foolishness. Hyde may be uncertain about the rotation, but he knows which players to count on in the clutch.
Going for his 31st save, Ryan Pressly put two runners on base in the ninth and Mullins homered to right-center field. The place fell silent - until the aforementioned booing.
"I think we're just kind of getting used to that, the back and forth, the battle, the grind," O'Hearn said. "I don't know how many times I've said it, but we're going to play every out until the game's over. And tonight was a really good example of that."
O'Hearn and Austin Hays singled with one out in the top of the ninth and Mullins carried a slider 425 feet for his 15th home run.
"Unbelievable," O'Hearn said. "You can't say enough about what he does on both sides, defense and offense. Ceddy's an incredible player and a huge part of us having success."
"That’s a premier closer," Hyde said. "O’Hearn with the huge hit. Haysie to give Ced a chance there and takes just a great swing on an off-speed pitch down. We just kept fighting, honestly. Things were not going our way. It felt like it was, and then it wasn’t. For our hitters, honestly, to answer the bell there and continue to score runs and to continue to keep us in the game and pick people up, that was massive."
Means was denied a chance at his first win since Sept. 20, 2021 in Philadelphia, and his first in the American League since July 31, 2021 in Detroit. He’s surrendered four runs and struck out only two batters in 10 innings since his reinstatement from the 60-day injured list.
"I think it was kind of similar to the last outing," Means said. "I had the changeup working and breaking ball still isn't really where I want it, but grinded through it. Defense helped a lot. And we just played all-around good team ball there."
"I thought Means was good," Hyde said. "He gave up the run early. Kind of some hard contact there in the fifth inning, for me, a little bit. That’s a tough, tough lineup to go three times through. He got halfway through the third time. 80-something pitches in his second start. I thought he did a great job."
Shintaro Fujinami hadn’t allowed a run this month in seven appearances, but Tucker tripled with one out in the sixth and scored on McCormick’s single, and a stolen base and wild pitch were followed by Jeremy Peña’s RBI single.
Jacob Webb replaced Fujinami and walked Mauricio Dubón. Maldonado struck out, but Jose Altuve lined a first-pitch sweeper off the left field wall for a two-run double that gave Houston a 5-3 lead.
Fujinami was charged with three runs and has allowed six in two innings against the Astros in his rookie season.
Abreu made contact on a changeup and Coulombe lowered his head, knowing where it was going to land: 425 feet to center field.
Rafael Montero was smacked around in the top of the seventh. Gunnar Henderson singled for his third hit and he scored on Adley Rutschman’s double. O’Hearn reached on an infield single and Mullins doubled to bring home Rutschman with the tying run. O’Hearn was an easy out at the plate.
Altuve led off the bottom of the first with a first-pitch double, the ball bouncing off the top of the left field wall. Means retired the next two batters, walked Abreu and surrendered an RBI double to Tucker. McCormick lined to third.
Hays raced into left-center field and made a leaping catch to rob Álvarez. He tracked down Altuve’s fly ball in front of the 366-foot sign, and the visiting bullpen, in left-center field in the fifth – venturing into the corner where the out-of-town scoreboard ends.
Hays isn’t running at full speed on the basepaths but covers plenty of ground in left.
Means was exposed to more hard contact than in his return start Tuesday night against the Cardinals. He walked Álvarez with one out in the third and Abreu followed with a double into left-center, the exit velocity clocked at 109.4 mph. Tucker’s double in the first came with an exit velo of 104.8 mph.
Tucker made soft contact in the third, lifting a fly ball into shallow center that Mullins ran down. Álvarez decided to test his arm and was thrown out at the plate.
Henderson tripled with one out in the top of the third and scored the tying run after McCormick raced toward the left field line and made a diving catch on Rutschman’s fly ball.
Henderson’s nine triples are tied with Arizona’s Corbin Carroll and Ketel Marte for the major league lead. He’s two behind Al Bumbry for the club’s rookie record in 1973 and three behind Paul Blair for most in a season in 1967.
No Orioles player has led the majors in triples or tied for first, per STATS.
The Orioles put two runners in scoring position in the fifth on Jorge Mateo’s infield hit, Henderson’s opposite-field single and a ground ball. O’Hearn, who had a double and single in his first two at-bats, looped a single into left-center for a 3-1 lead.
O'Hearn never had more than three hits in a game before tonight.
"I thought it was great," Hyde said. "It was an outstanding offensive game for him, and he continues to just get massive, enormous hits for us. He’s a ballplayer. He’s a winner. It’s just fun watching him right now. He takes good at-bats almost every time out there."
O'Hearn had his first four-hit game and kept going.
"I still don't have a four-hit game," he said, joining in the fun. "No. Just one of those nights. Seemed to have a magic wand tonight, putting together good at-bats. Balls were finding holes and it was awesome. I haven't had a five-hit game in a long time, so a night that I'll remember, for sure."
Verlander stranded two runners in the sixth after Hicks reached on an infield hit and Kjerstad singled for his second major league hit. Hicks was 3-for-31 with 13 strikeouts lifetime against Verlander.
Kjerstad singled off Héctor Neris with one out in the eighth inning for his first career multi-hit game. Pinch-hitter Anthony Santander struck out on 10 pitches and Henderson took a called third strike.
It was bleak. And then it was bliss.
"It was incredible," Means said. "That's what this team's been doing all year. We've just been picking each other up over and over again. And Cedric, steady Ceddy at the end of the game there just absolutely crushed that ball and it was so fun. So much energy. It was incredible."
"I’m extremely impressed by the grit of our team, how tough they are, how we continue to battle," Hyde said. "They’re celebrating right now. Not as much as last night, but they’re celebrating. And they should, because that’s a heck of a win."