HOUSTON – The homer hose is curled up like a snake on the Orioles’ bench, retaining its name and purpose. Only water is poured into it unless the celebration is tied to a clinching. And it can strike at any moment.
Ryan O’Hearn chugged from it in the first inning tonight, and Austin Hays took his turn in the third. Hays guzzled again in the seventh, as did rookie Heston Kjerstad. Hydrating in Houston and hoisting the Orioles closer to a division title.
O’Hearn and Hays accounted for five early runs, twice providing leads, and the Orioles kept mashing in a 9-5 victory over the Astros before an announced crowd of 35,050 at Minute Maid Park.
The magic number is eight to claim the first American League East title since 2014. The Rays also won and remain 2 ½ games behind the Orioles.
The bullpen covered 4 1/3 innings, including two by Jack Flaherty, and the Orioles won their 95th game and 31st series. They’ll attempt to record their 10th sweep before flying to Cleveland.
Kyle Gibson surrendered two homers within the first three innings. The Orioles needed length, longer than the hose, but manager Brandon Hyde removed him at 83 pitches with two runners on base and two outs in the fifth. It’s the fifth time this season in 31 starts that Gibson didn’t complete five innings.
DL Hall retired Yordan Álvarez on a slow roller. Gibson was charged with three runs and five hits in 4 2/3 to leave his ERA at 5.00.
"Just because of where they were in the lineup," Hyde said of his decision to pull Gibson. "I had DL ready for those two lefties, and DL did a great job. ... I thought (Gibson) battled, but then they get in that spot in the order third time through and I've got DL there trying to keep the score right there."
"I think I only had 84-85 pitches but that's the right move," Gibson said. "Bring in the lefty and get Yordan. If it's a different hitter up there I might be able to navigate that and get out of the inning, but offense and defense are playing good. They're taking a lot of pressure off the pitching staff, being able to score those runs, get us a lead and keep the lead, right? And then add on. They way they add on in games is really, really impressive."
Jorge López inherited a runner from Hall in the sixth and surrendered a two-run shot to rookie catcher Yainer Díaz that reduced the lead to 7-5. López gave up back-to-back homers Sunday in his last outing.
Flaherty, removed from the rotation for an indefinite period, tossed two scoreless innings in his fifth career relief appearance in 130 major league games. He struck out Kyle Tucker in the seventh to leave two runners in scoring position and got a double play in the eighth.
"To me, Jack Flaherty won us the game in a lot of ways," Hyde said. "Being able to cover two innings like that. I almost tried to get the third one out of him there, but we were struggling a little bit in the 'pen, and for him to come in and put two zeros up against a really good offense was huge for us."
"I've talked to him quite a bit since he got over here," Gibson said. "I've been in the situation where you get traded and you don't throw as well as you want. It's frustrating. But he looked really good tonight. His stuff looked sharp. Velo was good on his heater, both of his breaking balls were really good. His slider looked a lot better. I've been in that spot where just a couple good innings can do a lot for your confidence and do a lot for you mentally.
"With me not even getting through five, we needed him to go out there and eat a couple innings, and he did a great job."
Flaherty didn't resist the change in assignments. He seems to embrace it.
A starter at heart, a pitcher who wants to make an impact however he can.
"I think I can help them in any way, whatever that role is, whenever I get a chance to get the ball. I'm looking forward to it," he said.
"It was nice to go out there and throw some innings and put up some zeros. It was a total team effort. I think everybody played a part. ... I know my job there is to go and make pitches until he says that's it. That's all I can do. It was fun. Contributing in a win, I'll do whatever it takes."
Mauricio Dubón singled to lead off the ninth and Hyde summoned Yennier Cano, the first reliever this season to pitch on three straight days. Jeremy Peña also singled, but Jose Altuve bounced into a 5-4 double play.
Hyde used five relievers, with Cionel Pérez striking out Álvarez on three pitches to record the save after Cano walked Alex Bregman. Pérez also worked for the third day in a row.
"For me, I feel like I had no choice there," Hyde said. "Where we are in the season, even though I had C up a couple times yesterday, unfortunately, minimal pitches that they both threw. So, for me, they were both options tonight if we needed them. I was hoping we weren't going to need them, but we ended up needing them."
Hyde has gone to the bullpen 17 times in the last three games.
"There's fatigue all around the league now," Hyde said. "We just played a really tough series with Tampa, we pitched the bullpen a lot. We pitched the bullpen a lot last night, we pitched the bullpen a lot again tonight. It's the games we're playing right now and this is the end of the year and we're all sucking it up."
Reliever José Urquidy was victimized twice in the seventh. Hays produced his fifth career multi-homer game, and first since September 2021, with a 422-foot blast to left field. Kjerstad hit his second major league home run, needing only 337 feet going to the opposite field.
"Ball comes off his bat hot," Hyde said of Kjerstad. "Big, strong kid with a ton of power and it's been fun watching him down the stretch."
"It's unbelievable," Hays said of Kjerstad's power. "I don't even know if I've seen him not hit a ball hard yet. Every ball he's put in play has just been crushed. He's barreling everything. He looks really solid at the plate right now."
Anthony Santander hit his team-leading 38th double in the first inning. O’Hearn worked the count full against rookie Hunter Brown and drove the seventh pitch, a 95.8 mph fastball, over the center field fence for his 14th home run, tying his career high in 2019 with the Royals.
O’Hearn was 9-for-14 in four games after the at-bat. Five hits came last night.
Santander and O’Hearn singled in the third and Hays pulled a knuckle-curve into the left field seats for his 15th home run and a 5-2 lead. The 16th would come later.
"What an amazing game by Hays," Hyde said.
"I feel like I'm hitting the ball hard consistently right now," Hays said. "I'm hitting one or two balls hard every game, which is what I was doing earlier in the year when things were really firing. I'm in a good place right now."
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, O'Hearn is the first Orioles player with a hit in his first seven plate appearances in a series since first baseman Derrek Lee in June 2011 versus the Nationals. O’Hearn grounded out in the fifth inning.
"Unbelievable," Hays said. "They guy's hitting (.311) right now. Mounty (Ryan Mountcastle) has gone through a couple different things this year and O'Hearn was right there to step in when we needed him the most. He's doing that again right now. He's been so big for this team all year, hitting in the middle of the lineup, just quality at-bat after quality at-bat.
"Especially guys like me that have been hitting behind him. I haven't hit at the top of the order too much this year, so he's been on base a lot and he gives us a lot of opportunities to drive him in. He's been key for his lineup."
Altuve led off the bottom of the first with a double, Gibson retired the next two batters and Tucker tied the game with his 28th home run – and his seventh hit in 18 at-bats against the Orioles this season, including a double, triple and three homers.
Altuve walked in the third and was thrown out trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt. Bregman followed with a home run, the second failed attempt by Gibson at a shutdown inning.
"It's a tough lineup over there," Gibson said. "I felt really good. Very rarely do you get beat on just a couple mistakes you make, for the most part. Had pretty good fastball command. That's a tough lineup to navigate and I just felt like I had a little bit of traffic there each inning. But overall felt pretty good."
Dubón led off the fifth with an infield hit and advanced on shortstop Jorge Mateo’s throw that sailed over O’Hearn. He began his break toward third base on Altuve’s grounder to Gunnar Henderson and got caught in a rundown, with Frazier chasing him and applying the tag.
Cedric Mullins singled, walked and swiped two bases, his first multi-steal game since Opening Day in Boston. He led off the sixth with the walk, stole second, moved to third on Kjerstad’s fly ball to deep left-center field and scored on James McCann’s bunt single against reliever Phil Maton.
McCann had an eventful night. Hit by a pitch on the left hand, drilled by a foul ball in what appeared to be the inner leg area, and his sixth career bunt hit and first since 2021. He slid into first base to avoid a collision on the safety squeeze.
"It's not a bunt on his own," Hyde said, "and it wasn't at his face, so he appreciated that."
Henderson followed with a run-scoring single to give the Orioles a 7-3 lead. That one was more conventional.
The game had room for some small ball, too. There’s just no hose for it.
"Our offense has been really picking us up a lot," Gibson said.
No letdowns after Sunday's playoff clincher.
"It's just kind of been who we are all year," Hays said. "It doesn't matter what happens the day before, whether it's good or bad. We just move on to the next day and turn the page and just prepare for whatever we've got that day."
"It could have been easy to show up here after celebrating and having fun and not play our best baseball, and we've kind of played just like we did the last two games with the Rays," Gibson said. "To lose four in a row and swing right around and win four in a row, I think it just shows this team is pretty good."
* Triple-A Norfolk second baseman Connor Norby’s 19th home run was a grand slam. Josh Lester hit his 23rd homer. Jackson Holliday singled three times and walked, and he’s slashing .450/.542/.650 during a five-game hitting streak.
Norby’s 157 hits lead the International League and his 98 runs are second.
Justin Armbruester allowed two earned runs (three total) and three hits in six innings.