TAMPA - A trip that showed so much promise and offered the chance to inflict further damage within the division following a four-game split in Boston threatened to crumble beneath the dome at Tropicana Field.
The Orioles were 2-0-1 in road series before losing two of three to the Rays, but avoiding a sweep last night and winning in such thrilling fashion - 11 innings after fumbling a three-run lead - put them in a celebratory mood.
Music blared in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field as players rushed to shower, get dressed and head out for their return flight home. One Oriole approached me, leaned in and whispered, “Let me tell you something. I hate to lose. This was (expletive) sexy.”
There’s T-shirt potential here. And I totally understood what he meant.
No matter where the Orioles finish in the standings, they keep gaining admirers for the way they grind through at-bats, innings and games. They took down the Rays last night just when it appeared that they were headed for a brutal defeat after taking a 5-2 lead into the eighth and 5-4 lead into the ninth.
The first-place Rays, the team with the best record in baseball.
The Orioles have ditched the opener concept after signing Dan Straily and going with a traditional rotation, which Alex Cobb rejoins tonight after he comes off the injured list and the club makes a corresponding roster move that manager Brandon Hyde said would be discussed further last night. Meanwhile, the Rays keep demonstrating how it should be done if a team is inclined to try it.
Ryne Stanek is exceptional at it. He’s retired 18 of 20 batters faced and struck out 11 in his four “starts.” A blazing four-seam fastball that averages 98 mph with a slider and splitter mixed in to keep them honest.
He’s like a closer blowing away hitters in the first instead of the ninth. And then he steps aside and the next reliever is counted upon to consume innings.
It worked again Wednesday night with Yonny Chirinos shutting out the Orioles on one hit over five innings. Hunter Wood went two innings as last night’s opener and Jalen Beeks followed with three, but he allowed three runs and six hits and walked two batters.
No Orioles reliever has gone more than 3 1/3, with John Means used from the fourth to the seventh on March 31 in New York. Jimmy Yacabonis and Evan Phillips each worked three innings in separate games, the latter a 13-2 loss to the Athletics on April 9.
These are the exceptions. Hyde seems to prefer keeping his relievers available with shorter spurts, though given no choice at times when someone needs to be bailed out.
I thought Josh Lucas might have to take one for the team Wednesday night after replacing David Hess with no outs in the third inning and the Orioles down 6-0. Lucas, Tanner Scott and Mike Wright each went two innings in an 8-1 loss.
Scott and Wright pitched on back-to-back nights and were praised by Hyde for saving the bullpen.
Paul Fry and Mychal Givens have each gone back-to-back once this season. Miguel Castro appeared in three consecutive games beginning Sunday in Boston - throwing six, 12 and 21 pitches. Otherwise, Hyde has managed to spread out the workload.
Four relievers were used behind Straily in Monday’s 8-1 win over the Red Sox. Straily worked five innings, followed by Yacabonis (1 1/3), Fry (two-thirds), Phillips (one) and Castro (one). They combined for four shutout innings.
Hyde had to use five relievers last night, only in part because the game stretched past regulation.
Orioles relievers have logged 88 1/3 innings to lead the majors. The Athletics were second last night with 78.
Having an extra pitcher is making some choices easier for Hyde, but no arrangement is perfect. A short bench can handcuff him and Chris Davis’ illness really put him in a bind.
Davis replaced Renato Núñez at first base last night in the eighth inning and singled and scored in the 11th, one of the key moments his hustle going from first to third on Rio Ruiz’s blooper to left. Davis lowered his head rounding second and kicked into another gear, gambling with two outs that he’d make it.
Another Oriole brought up Davis to me in the postgame clubhouse, saying above the music that he fumes each time a fan is critical of the first baseman. He cited the at-bat, coming on the heels of a stomach virus, and the trip around the bases. How Davis has heart and more people should appreciate it.
“He’s the reason we won this game,” the Oriole said.
The same might be said for Cedric Mullins after he charged Willy Adames’ sinking fly ball with one on and one out in the 11th and made a lunging catch. Mullins is 5-for-56 this season and 1-for-32 since April 8, but his offensive issues aren’t infecting his glove.
“Ced’s grinding, there’s no doubt about it,” Hyde said. “He’s not off to the start he wanted to start the season with. He just continues to play good defense out in center field. He made a huge play to help us win and contribute, and happy to see that.”
Now for some leftovers:
* Orioles hitters broke at least five bats in the series against the Rays. I lost count.
The five were obvious. There could have been more. It sounded like Joey Rickard might have cracked one last night on a single.
Jonathan Villar led off last night’s game by lining weakly to second as his bat exploded. Trey Mancini shattered two of them in Tuesday’s opener - once getting jammed and once at the end the barrel - and said afterward that he couldn’t remember doing it in any other game in his career.
We’re not talking about a break where it’s audible but the bat stays in one piece. Rays pitchers were making kindling.
* Straily had a bullpen session on Tuesday with an Edgertronic slow-motion camera set up behind him.
* Dwight Smith Jr. stayed in the lineup throughout the series, but his left hand was heavily wrapped in ice prior to Wednesday’s game.
Tyler Glasnow jammed Smith with a pitch the previous night - let’s assume it was a 98-99 mph fastball - and ice was applied to the hand to prevent swelling.
Pérez could ask for his release if unhappy with the arrangement. He’s 28 and has played for three major league teams. The Eastern League might not suit him.
I’m hopping on a 5:45 a.m. flight home, again making the veteran move of returning my rental car last night and checking into the Tampa airport Marriott. A short walk to my gate. On less than three hours’ sleep, but a short walk.
See you back in Baltimore.