The same organization that preaches the importance of never looking too far ahead happily spun its attention to the past before tonight’s game against the Rays.
The division race came with a pause button.
To honor Adam Jones on his official retirement after signing a one-day contract, the Orioles brought back former teammates who have experienced postseason baseball. Fan favorites from previous years.
An emotional distraction before the 2023 Orioles were stung by reality again.
The division lead is down to two percentage points. The losing streak has reached four games to match a season high. The reunion was special, but they need a reset.
Jack Flaherty tossed three scoreless innings before Brandon Lowe led off the fourth with a home run, and he didn’t record an out in the fifth. The Rays’ Zach Eflin didn’t surrender a hit until Heston Kjerstad’s leadoff homer in the sixth, and the Orioles lost 7-1 before a sellout crowd of 43,359 at Camden Yards.
Tampa Bay improved to 92-57 and the Orioles fell to 91-56, landing in a first place tie for the first time since July 21.
Their bullpen wasn’t the solution. DL Hall was charged with three runs in the sixth. Bryan Baker inherited two runners from him, threw one pitch to pinch-hitter Harold Ramírez and watched it sail 419 feet to left field with an exit velocity of 112.5 mph.
Ramírez approached first base and chucked his bat high in the air. An emphatic flip. Similar to what might be happening in the division.
"Nobody said this was going to be easy," said manager Brandon Hyde. "These things happen. You've just got to stay positive, and tomorrow's a new day and we've still got a lot of baseball left."
Kjerstad collected his first hit in his third major league at-bat, having struck out twice before sending Eflin’s cutter 418 feet to right-center field. The Orioles had gone hitless in nine consecutive innings, including last night’s game, when Jordan Westburg reached on a bunt single in the fifth.
"He put a great swing on it. Something he'll never forget," Hyde said.
Kjerstad is the 11th Orioles player whose first hit is a home run, per STATS. Gunnar Henderson was the last, on Aug. 31, 2022 in Cleveland. The list also includes Trey Mancini in 2016, Nick Markakis in 2006, Ed Rogers in 2005, José Morban in 2003, Calvin Pickering in 1998, Craig Worthington in 1988, Dan Graham in 1980, Larry Haney in 1966 and Buster Narum in 1963.
"(Henderson) did it his second AB and not the third one, so he had me beat on that," Kjerstad said.
"That was surreal, honestly. I just wanted to get the first hit out of the way, and to have it be a homer and see it go out of the yard and everything, it's really amazing. Truly something you dream of and really awesome to be able to experience that. You wouldn't want to do it anywhere else. The stadium was sold out, packed out. O's fans really showed some love to the team and everything like that. And to be able to thrive in that atmosphere was a lot of fun for me, and to be able to put on a show like that, too. Get the first one out of the way."
The ball was retrieved from the fan that caught it. Kjerstad traded a signed bat and a few other items, and he met the family down the hallway from the clubhouse entrance.
"I appreciate the fan giving that back to me and everything," he said.
Flaherty was shoving until the fourth. He retired nine of the first 10 batters before Lowe’s 405-foot shot to center field. Randy Arozarena doubled, Isaac Paredes walked, and Manuel Margot – reinstated today from the injured list - singled with one out for a 2-0 lead.
The 32-pitch inning left Flaherty at 73, and he faced only two more batters before Hyde pulled him. René Pinto and Yandy Díaz singled, and Jacob Webb entered.
"First time through the order, for me that was the best stuff he's shown, especially since the Toronto game," Hyde said. "Great fastball, two good breaking balls. Just kind of ran into trouble there a little bit in the fourth and the fifth. But his stuff was really good the first time through the order."
The Orioles don’t have a long reliever after optioning Cole Irvin. And they don’t have any answers to why Flaherty hasn’t matched his debut.
"Give them credit," Hyde said of the Rays. "They swung the bat really well. And they're hitting the ball to all fields. Lowe kind of got him there on a pitch in the middle of the plate. Good hitters."
Lowe’s sacrifice fly put a third run on Flaherty’s line, leaving him with 25 in 31 2/3 innings with the Orioles for a 7.11 ERA.
"You want to go out and give the team a chance and the goal is to get ahead and stay ahead, and I did a good job of that early on, kind of throughout the game," Flaherty said.
"It's a good team and I made some good pitches they put some good swings on. You saw the ball Randy hit, below the zone and away. They put good swings on balls. That's what they do. I ended up making good pitches to get out of it and leave it right there at two."
Flaherty insists that his confidence is intact.
"Rough stretches happen," he said. "It would be like asking the same question for this team, like where's our confidence at? It's still through the roof. You go through rough stretches no matter what. I wouldn't put tonight into that same category. I threw the ball well at certain points."
Hall faced three batters in the sixth and didn’t retire anyone. Josh Lowe and Margot doubled and Taylor Walls reached on a bunt single, with Hall’s throw pulling Ryan O’Hearn off the bag. Baker, in his first game with the Orioles since July 29, threw a 96.2 mph fastball to Ramírez on the inner half of the plate and heard loud contact.
The Orioles’ offense managed only two hits, including Cedric Mullins’ single in the eighth, when the first two batters reached and Jake Diekman struck out the next three. They’ve totaled six runs in four games.
"Every team goes through ups and downs," said catcher Adley Rutschman. "Tomorrow's a new day and we're going to try to bounce back."
Asked if the club is pressing due to the situation, Hyde said, "I think that we're just in a little bit of a team funk, offensively. But I think you give Zach Eflin a ton of credit, honestly. I thought he was excellent and he gave us a tough time."
Tampa Bay’s bullpen recorded two more scoreless innings to run its streak to 36 without an earned run.
Eflin recorded his 15th win to lead the American League.
"I don't think he threw a ball where he didn't want to the entire night," Hyde said.
"He was pretty outstanding," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "Came up big. He's come up big for us all season long. To date you could probably make the case this is the biggest game of the year for us, had certainly the right mentality, the approach, the efficiency, the willingness to just kind of attack. They threw out a really tough lineup against him, he navigated it really, really well."
The night began with Jones running out of the bullpen with sons Axel and August. He bent at the waist to playfully catch his breath and resumed his trip to the mound. Always the comedian.
With an arm around wife Audie, Jones stood and watched video tributes from JJ Hardy, Luke Scott, Matt Wieters, Trey Mancini, Ryan Flaherty, Jim Johnson, Quintin Berry, head athletic trainer Brian Ebel, the clubhouse attendants, and current players Mullins and Austin Hays.
Former coach John Shelby and longtime head athletic trainer Richie Bancells filed out of the dugout with ex-teammates Markakis, Chris Davis, Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, Wei-Yin Chen, Stevie Wilkerson, Steve Johnson, Mychal Givens, Brian Bass, LJ Hoes, Vance Worley, Josh Rupe and Mark Worrell.
Davis and Markakis received thunderous ovations, the big first baseman’s eyes widening as if surprised by the reception. Markakis moved behind the plate to catch the ceremonial first pitch from Jones.
They hugged. The crowd roared again.
There were fewer reasons after the game started.
"It's disappointing to lose right now, regardless if there's (a big crowd)," Hyde said. "It was a great crowd and that was really cool. That was a great ceremony pregame, and fun for our players to watch that. Good to see some of the guys that were here, some of his teammates. That was a lot of fun. And the first few innings went OK for us on the mound and defensively. But starting with the fourth there, it didn't go our way."
How do the Orioles bust out of this slump?
"Just remember who you are," Flaherty said. "I mean, they've been good all year for a reason."
* Coby Mayo hit his 11th home run for Triple-A Norfolk. Kyle Stowers was reinstated from the injured list and doubled.
Kyle Dowdy struck out five batters in three scoreless innings, but Tyler Wells allowed three runs and three hits in two-thirds.
Double-A Bowie’s Jud Fabian singled, doubled and drove in three runs.