Showdown series at the Trop: Orioles-Rays four-game set starts tonight

The year was 2021. Yes, it was that recently. On their way to an AL East title and a 100-62 record, the Tampa Bay Rays went 18-1 against the Orioles.

“That was rough,” Ryan Mountcastle remembered in the Baltimore clubhouse yesterday morning.

That Orioles team would finish 52-110. Tampa Bay wound up outscoring Baltimore by 79 (150-71) on the year - the second-largest run differential against a single opponent in the divisional era (since 1969), behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ +82 mark over the San Diego Padres in 1974.

Things are very different now.

After winning nine of 11 games while the Rays have lost 11 of 14, the teams were tied in the standings as of last night. But the Orioles have the AL East lead by percentage points at .611 (58-37) to the Rays at .606 (60-39).

This is the latest the Orioles have been in first place in a season since Aug. 12, 2016.

As they enter this huge four-game series beginning tonight at the Trop, the Orioles are a bit battle tested after ending last year contending until very late in the year and getting off to a good start this season. That includes their tough May schedule when, in a stretch of 22 games versus Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Angels, Toronto, the New York Yankees and Texas, they went 13-9. It was an early-season indicator that special things might be in store for the Birds in the 2023 season.

Does that prep them now for this big Rays series?

“You know last year was a wonderful experience for a lot of our guys and I think they took a lot of those positive things into this year,” manager Brandon Hyde said before Wednesday’s game with the Dodgers. “I think it was more of media talking about May than we were. I never even heard our team mention May honestly in a team meeting or advance meeting or anything like that. It’s just another series against a good club.

“We are facing good teams right now, winning records. I think winning a bunch of series in the past has helped and they have confidence in that. But I’m not going to put too much into who we are playing all the time like everyone else does. It is just one game at a time and one series at a time. We have to play well to win.”

And they all count the same, but this doesn't feel just like any other series. It might be the biggest series the O's have played in years.

Mountcastle, like the rest of us, has seen Tampa Bay come a bit back to the pack after starting this year going 13-0, 20-3 and 27-6.

“They almost seemed unbeatable that first month,” he said. “I knew we would play well enough to hopefully get a wild card spot. To have closed to within one game (as of pregame yesterday when we talked) is a lot of fun and this series will be huge.

“It seems all year we have played in a bunch of close games, no matter the opponent. That has helped us be comfortable in those situations. These games coming up will be tough battles and we’re excited for it."

O's reliever Danny Coulombe, who came up so big in the Wednesday win over the Dodgers, said he remained confident early in the year that over six months of baseball the Orioles could catch the Rays.

"I think so. There were high expectations for this team," said Coulombe pregame yesterday. "I had just joined the team at the beginning of the year and maybe didn’t even initially realize it, but the way they finished out last year and with all the talent coming up I don’t think anybody is shocked at all."

And he believes the O's got toughened up a bit by that May schedule.

“Absolutely. When you are playing the Rays, the Yankees, well everybody in our division and also I think that Atlanta series showed a lot. Getting battle tested and playing the best teams makes you realize you can play with all of them.

“The Rays are a really good team. We are too. It’s fun to be in this spot and play each other. There is a heighted sense of urgency. But you still have to take one inning, one game at a time. If you try to look at the long picture, it sometimes doesn’t work out. So, take it an at-bat, a pitch at a time. Don’t give away pitches and that is generally how you get to the point we are at right now," said Coulombe.

Mountcastle said the Orioles have further confidence in that they are 3-2 versus Tampa Bay this season with one series win and a two-game split.

“Yeah, for sure. I remember a couple of years ago, it seemed like it was impossible to beat them. So the fact we have a winning record against them this year gives us confidence,” he said.

And for Coulombe, acquired by the Orioles from Minnesota in late March, he said he has learned this year being an Oriole that he joined a team that went through a smart rebuilding process. One that could be winning for a while.

“I think it’s built right, it’s built for sustained success," he said. "They run things great here. They put you in position to succeed and I think that’s a huge part about just managing a team is putting guys in positions where guys can be the most successful and they’ve done a really good job of that here."

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