Cedric Mullins stood between first and second base, fists clenched, eyes fixed on his dugout. Teammates raced out of it. A fly ball that otherwise would be routine suddenly meant everything.
The Orioles clinched their first playoff berth since 2016, and they knew it two innings before the final out, with the Rangers losing in Cleveland. But they wanted the win. Take care of their own business.
Rays center fielder Manual Margot drifted back, made the catch and got out of the way as Adley Rutschman sprinted to the plate in the bottom of the 11th. He knew what was about to happen. He's been there.
Austin Hays ran onto the field with a water cooler hoisted above his head as Mullins was mobbed in a 5-4 win. Manager Brandon Hyde stayed back, soaking in the scene before he’d get drenched inside the clubhouse.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was deep enough to get the run in, and I just see everybody swarming me,” Mullins said. “It’s a great feeling. Being able to get the walk-off is one thing, but to hit the walk-off and we also clinched just added onto it. An amazing feeling. I think we’re all really just kind of feeling how our perseverance has continued to bring us success through it.”
Orange T-shirts were passed around on the field that read “Take October.” Players embraced and lingered, in no hurry to separate from fans who cheered them. Orioles began applauding the crowd after taking a group photo.
And then, it got crazy.
“Obviously, it’s great,” Orioles Executive Vice President/General Manager Mike Elias said. “I just want to thank everyone who’s been a part of this. It’s hundreds of people. There are people all over the organization, there are people who aren’t here anymore, including a lot of players that helped get us to this point. (former GM) Dan Duquette and his staff, some of the drafts that they had before I got here. There’s no way we do this in five years without having Mullins and (John) Means and Hays and (Anthony) Santander and those guys in the system already.
“This is a very special group of people. We’re just getting started in terms of what I think this team can do the next several years and the next month and a half. So, hats off to these guys.”
Head coverings wouldn’t have been a bad idea after the game.
Plastic hung over the lockers and across the floor inside the clubhouse. Félix Bautista and Jorge López each had a cigar in one hand and a champagne bottle in the other.
One corked popped, then another. Elias and a few players slipped on goggles to protect their eyes. Careful steps were needed to exit or risk slipping on ice cubes.
Veteran pitcher Kyle Gibson provided a voice of experience, offering advice before the music cranked and he’d get drowned out.
“You don’t need glasses,” he said. “The burn’s the best part.”
Everyone circled manager Brandon Hyde with bottles raised.
“We wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he said. “This is the first step of many celebrations.”
Then, he shouted those magical words, with the magic number at zero, that turned the bottles upside down, sideways and shaken.
“Here we go!”
Rookie Jordan Westburg ran behind rookie Gunnar Henderson and poured a full bottle of champagne over his head. A sneak attack. Baseball kids will be kids.
Heston Kjerstad has been with the club for less than a week, but players surrounded the young outfielder and covered him in bubbly. They called for Elias, then Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Angelos, who stood in the back of the room with wife Margaret and members of the partnership group.
“John, John, John,” they chanted. “I’m good,” he said, smiling.
Seconds later, he was soaked in champagne and beer. They wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
“I’m really happy to see the recognition that Mike and Sig (Mejdal) and Brandon are getting here for what they’ve established here,” Angelos said. “They’ve created a culture, they created an atmosphere for success. What I hear people say about the team is, win or lose, they always have a character and they have an enthusiasm about them that other people love to watch. So, seeing them have this success earlier than maybe anticipated, and at a higher level than maybe anticipated, I’m just happy for everybody who’s lived and breathed it every day.
“All good things, and all good future things, as well.”
Yennier Cano retired all three batters he faced in the 10th, but the go-ahead run scored on Harold Ramírez’s chopper to the mound. Former Orioles reliever Shawn Armstrong was an out away from stranding automatic runner Aaron Hicks, but Adley Rutschman grounded a single up the middle for a 4-4 tie.
Mullins had raced back to the fence in front of the bullpen in the eighth inning, leaped and tried to pull back a ball that increased the odds that the Orioles would need help to clinch.
Tristan Gray homered off López with one out in the eighth inning, in his second major league game, to break a tie. Christian Bethancourt followed with a home run. Meanwhile, the out-of-town scoreboard in right field showed the Rangers losing 9-1.
The announced crowd of 37,297 didn’t care about the overcast sky or the possibility of the Orioles backing into the playoffs. Just get in, baby.
They erupted after Rutschman’s two-out solo homer off Pete Fairbanks in the bottom of the eighth, the barrel crashing into a 100.8 mph fastball. The fastest pitch an Orioles player has homered off in the tracking era that began in 2008, per @SlangsOnSports.
Hays singled off Fairbanks with two outs in the ninth and Adam Frazier, after falling behind 0-2, poked a 101.1 mph fastball down the left field line to score pinch-runner Jorge Mateo.
Absolute bedlam. Maybe fans did care.
“It was inspiring just to be here,” said James Matthews of Severna Park, who watched from the club level. “The atmosphere was electric.”
A few minutes earlier, the Rangers also were down to their last out. Their game ended on a called third strike while Frazier batted. Some weird symmetry.
The Rays clinched their ninth playoff berth and had their own celebration on the visitors’ side.
The Orioles split with Tampa Bay, lead the American League East by two games and own the tiebreaker. They want the division title and will take those next steps on a road trip to Houston and Cleveland.
They fell out of the wild card race last year with five games left, their 83 wins shocking the industry. They exceeded that total on Sept. 2 in Arizona.
Five losses in the last six have slowed their roll, but they aren’t done. And they won’t be on Oct. 1.
Hays made his major league debut in September 2017, the month that hinted at the rebuild to come. A collapse that ran the Orioles out of the playoff picture, followed by the 115-loss season in 2018 and Hays’ return to the club in 2019 – the first under a new front office, manager and coaches.
Hays tied today’s game with a two-out single that scored Ryan O’Hearn in the fourth inning.
“So amazing,” he said. “I got to take a picture with Cedric and Santander and we were talking about in 2018, when we were in Double-A. Tony, during a mound visit, got us together in center field and he’s like, ‘This is the future right here, boys. We are the future.’ So, to see that outfield be able to stick together for this long, especially through those losing seasons, this organization having trust and faith in us that we were going to be able to develop and be a part of something that was coming, it’s awesome. It’s really, really special.”
Dean Kremer is the only player remaining from the Manny Machado trade with the Dodgers in 2018, the beginning of the teardown. The first move that confirmed the organization’s plans.
Kremer started this afternoon and held the Rays to one run and two hits in five-plus innings. Brandon Lowe hit a home run with one out in the first, pulling a curveball 402 feet to right-center field.
“The goal is not just to go to the postseason but it’s also to win the East,” Kremer said. “This is a big step in that direction.”
Kremer looked like he just stepped out of the shower still wearing his clothes.
“This is different than anything I’ve experienced,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be a winner in the minor leagues, but this is different, this means so much more. And I know it does to everybody else in this room.
“It’s a huge accomplishment. It’s a testament to the group that’s been here all year and just the next man up. If something happens to go wrong, then flip the switch the next day and restart.”
“Honestly, it’s amazing, it’s awesome,” said Rutschman, the first-overall pick in the 2019 draft and a major piece in the redesign of the Baltimore Orioles. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this, but it just shows how close the guys are. Guys are pulling for each other every day. They show up day in and day out for the last seven months, and just leading up to this, there was a lot of emotion. I know guys aren’t satisfied with this, but we’re going to celebrate this today.”
Ryan O’Hearn laid down a sacrifice bunt in the 11th to put Rutschman on third base
“I’m glad it worked out the way that it did,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can for this team to help us win, and if that means getting a bunt down in the 11th, then (heck) yeah.”
Hyde met with the media before the game and offered perhaps his best quote of the season. Maybe of his tenure.
“We were disrespected, honestly, going into this year,” he said. “Just from where we were from projections, smart people thinking they know what the records are gonna be at the end of the year, casinos, etc. I thought we were underappreciated. Everybody thought we were going to have a setback this year. I wanted our players to be offended by that a little bit, the guys that were here last year. I thought that wasn’t accurate. I thought we were going to be better than everybody thought.”
A lot better, as it turned out.
“I’ve seen it before, I’ve lived through it before,” Elias said of the turnaround from a 52-110 record in 2021. “If you just keep pushing in the right direction, the door just pops open suddenly. And so, in the same way that we knew we were on track even though we were having a rough season in 2021, we know that we’ve got some adversity coming our way in the next few years. We just try to stay process-oriented, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop and smell the roses tonight, because these guys earned it.
“It’s really, really, really hard in our division and where we started from.”
Besides the bottles, the Orioles also made good use of the homer hose, pouring beers through it and recruiting employees to join them. Jack Flaherty grabbed the microphone from MASN’s Kevin Brown and began interviewing him as various liquids were dumped on his head.
The initial plan called for a low-key response to clinching a playoff berth, with the craziness reserved for winning the division. If it happened.
The morning began with no changes to how the Orioles wanted to proceed, but they’re also a flexible group. The score mattered in more ways than one.
“We had a couple meetings about it,” said Elias, who was watching the game from a radio booth with family and friends. “Some veteran players talked us through it, and if we had lost today’s game, I think we would have done a toast, something a little more subdued. I think they wanted to celebrate after a walk-off win, so this worked out perfectly.
“It was a foregone conclusion that we were going to make the playoffs, so it was nice to see the Rangers (score), but I was just wrapped up in this game. We’re trying to win the division, so this is a big game.”
“They announced it (the Rangers-Guardians score) in the ninth inning, we were down at that point, and I don’t think guys are satisfied,” Rutschman said. “They want to win every day. That’s just the identity of this team. So, I’m very proud of the character of the guys in this locker room.”
The last few reporters left the clubhouse and players had to get ready for their charter flight. The cleanup crew had a long night ahead of them.
The Orioles reached one of their goals, but they want home-field advantage. Greed is good. Don't try to convince them otherwise.
As Hyde said earlier, here we go.
“I ad-libbed,” he said. “I don’t know what I said. Right now, I don’t know what I said.”