Pennant race baseball in Buffalo. Another unexpected touch to the 2020 season.
The Orioles are playing meaningful games in the last weekend of August for the first time in three years. They trailed the Blue Jays by 1 1/2 games for the last playoff spot as the teams prepared to get back on the field after their respective postponements.
The expansion of qualifiers made the impossible seem a little more attainable. The rest was up to the Orioles.
Four games above .500 on Aug. 15 and beginning to attract national attention, the Orioles lost six in a row and eight of 10. As if reality grabbed them by the collar and delivered a backhand across their face.
To stay in the hunt and prove the doubters wrong likely requires John Means to rediscover the touch from his rookie season. To regain the feel for his changeup. To be John Means again.
Means retired the first eight batters tonight and posted three scoreless innings, though he really had to work for them. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernández homered on his first two pitches of the fourth, the Orioles tied the game in the sixth on a sloppy bases-loaded throw by Travis Shaw and gave the lead back to the Blue Jays on a wild pitch.
Pennant race baseball felt more like an obstacle course.
Renato Núñez crushed a Jordan Romano slider with the count full and two outs in the eighth inning to tie the game again, the Orioles ran into two outs in the ninth, Hanser Alberto’s fourth hit scored Rio Ruiz in the 10th and Randal Grichuk struck again with a two-run homer off Cole Sulser to give the Blue Jays a 5-4 win at Sahlen Field.
The Orioles have dropped three in a row and are 14-17.
Romano allowed one earned run in 14 innings before tonight. The right-hander retired the first two batters in the eighth and Núñez delivered his seventh home run of the season on a 397-footer to left field.
Ruiz stood at second base to begin the top of the 10th and advanced on Cedric Mullins’ sacrifice bunt against Rafael Dolis. Alberto’s soft single, one of his specialties, moved the Orioles ahead.
Sulser caught Joe Panik’s popped up bunt to open the bottom of the 10th, got a fly ball and watched Grichuk’s ball clear the center field fence for the walk-off.
Grichuk hit four home runs in the three-game series in Baltimore and tonight raised his career total against the Orioles to 17 in 34 games. He can’t even be contained.
“It’s tough,” Alberto said in his Zoom conference call. “Every time I see this guy in the batter’s box, my heart, it feels a little weary because he’s been really good against us. Pretty much he knows what we’re going to throw him and he’s ready for the pitch. But we’ll keep fighting and hopefully tomorrow, a new day and hopefully we keep him out of the damage.”
The Orioles pitched to Grichuk with Guerrero on deck.
“Well, there’s a pretty good hitter hitting behind him, too,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “I know Grichuk has been doing damage against us, but I like the matchup, Sulser against him. Guerrero is swinging the bat really well against right-handed pitching this year, better than left-handed pitching, and Sulser was throwing the ball great and just didn’t execute a pitch.”
Extended to four innings and 74 pitches tonight, Means allowed two runs and four hits with one walk and three strikeouts in his second-longest outing of the season.
He shook his head in disgust after a couple of outs, getting the desired result but unhappy with the location and movement on his pitch.
“I thought it was improved over his other outings,” Hyde said. “Just gave up those two solo homers. Besides that, I thought he threw the ball really well. I like the changeup kind of came back tonight, flashed some good changeups, so that was good to see. And his breaking balls are getting better, too.”
Tanner Scott had a little too much movement on his slider in the bottom of the sixth after inheriting a runner at third base with two outs. Dillon Tate got a double play to almost escape the jam, but Scott replaced him and Guerrero came home on the wild pitch, with Pedro Severino unable to get in front of the ball.
Rowdy Tellez struck out, but Scott had allowed an inherited runner to score in his third straight appearance. He’s now permitted three of 17.
Panik doubled with two outs in the third inning for the first baserunner against Means. Cavan Biggio walked and Grichuk struck out on Means’ 62nd pitch.
Guerrero jumped on a changeup leading off the fourth and Hernández drove a 94 mph fastball over the center field fence.
Means has surrendered six home runs in 14 2/3 innings and four have come from the changeup.
“It was progress,” he said. “It still wasn’t good enough. I’ve got to stop giving up the longball. But I thought the changeup was better tonight than it has been. Still a lot of work to do on it, but it was better. Fastball command wasn’t great, but I thought I pitched well enough to get by. I thought the one to Guerrero was a good pitch and the next one was just a little up and middle, but it is what it is.”
The Orioles collected five hits off Jays left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu in four-plus innings and still couldn’t score. They put the leadoff hitter on base in four of the first six innings.
Their persistence finally paid off.
Alberto opened the sixth with his third hit of the night, raising his average to .407 against left-handers, and raced to third base with one out on José Iglesias’ single. Iglesias came off the injured list and had two more hits.
Iglesias advanced to second base on a poor throw to the infield, getting his hand on the bag despite the ball beating him there, and Núñez worked a full-count walk. Severino struck out, but Shaw fielded Ryan Mountcastle’s grounder and bounced the throw past Guerrero to tie the game.
The official scorer actually gave Mountcastle and single and two RBIs.
Mullins walked with one out in the seventh to represent the tying run and was thrown out trying to steal. Mountcastle reached on an error leading off the ninth and was thrown out trying to steal. Pat Valaika singled and was thrown out trying to advance on a ball in the dirt.
Perhaps a missed hit-and-run with Mountcastle breaking for second on a pitchout. Valaika didn’t get a good read. Bad outs in a tie game in the ninth.
“Cedric, that was a straight steal earlier in the game,” Hyde said. “That was a tag on the butt that was pretty unlucky. Just didn’t get his best jump there. Valaika was a dirt ball read. We’re trying to be aggressive with the bottom of the order, trying to do something to get in scoring position. Pat read the dirt ball and it didn’t get away from (Danny) Jansen very far.”
Alex Cobb starts for the Orioles Saturday night and the Blue Jays counter with newly acquired Taijuan Walker.
Notes: Last night’s postponed game with the Rays is rescheduled as part of a Sept. 17 doubleheader at Camden Yards starting at 5:05 p.m. The Orioles will be the home team for the first game and the visitors in the nightcap.
Both games are seven innings.
Also, the starting time for Wednesday’s game against the Mets at Camden Yards has been moved up to 4:05 p.m.