A season that was in danger of stalling before it could move forward, and with its COVID postponements, unique doubleheaders and occasional designations of home teams as visitors, is down to the final 19 games for the Orioles.
The odds of getting this far didn’t appear promising, but it’s happened.
The Orioles are in the midst of their penultimate road trip, with the last homestand beginning next week. And they remain in playoff contention, defying another set of odds.
Tabbed as the worst team in baseball, they’re 20-21 heading into tonight’s series finale against the Mets. They’re doing more than nipping at the Yankees’ heels. By moving within a half-game of the last playoff spot, they’re leaving deep gashes.
The record isn’t supposed to matter in 2020, but that’s like being told average is a useless stat until a player has a chance to win the batting title.
So what else is worth tracking over these last three weeks besides the playoff race?
Let’s start with the prospects who left the alternate camp site.
How much more can Ryan Mountcastle do to impress us? He’s already shown that he can hit at this level, handle left field more comfortably than others and bust it up the first base line.
He isn’t just a power bat. He’s been able to wait on breaking balls and flick singles to right field. But when he does flex his muscle, the sounds can pierce the silence in the next county.
He also could break a few windows.
Mountcastle homered last night for the fourth time in 16 games and also doubled. He’s going to keep playing left field and will enter spring training 2021 as the favorite to start at the position. Forget the corner infield.
The only problem so far has been raising the bar so high. It isn’t really this easy.
The Orioles wanted to lift restrictions on Hunter Harvey this summer, the intent made easier in a 60-game season. But he’s back on a short leash due to the forearm strain the kept him on the injured list until Aug. 30.
Harvey isn’t expected to work on back-to-back days, but he still can be a high-leverage reliever for the rest of the month, whether he’s closing or getting three outs in the seventh and eighth.
The velocity hasn’t been hurt by Harvey’s stint on the injured list. His fastball is still averaging around 98 mph. He mixes in an occasional curveball and changeup, but the heater is what makes Harvey special. And the hair, of course.
Dillon Tate has a chance to inherit his share of high-leverage situations with trades removing Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro from the bullpen.
Is he ready?
We’re going to find out.
Tate’s fastball averaged 93 mph last year per BrooksBaseball.net, but it’s increased to 95.6 mph this summer. More important are the results.
Tate has allowed three runs and three hits with 12 strikeouts in 11 innings. Four of his last five outings are scoreless. He hasn’t surrendered a hit in the last three. And he’s been used for more than an inning in five of six, demonstrating that he can provide some length.
DJ Stewart was handed left field to start the season and had to be optioned after going 0-for-14 with eight strikeouts. Now he’s in possession of right field with Anthony Santander expected to miss the rest of the month with a strained oblique muscle.
The second act has been much better than the first.
Stewart homered in three consecutive at-bats over the weekend and also singled. He hit an upper-deck home run last night at Citi Field. The job belongs to him as long as he’s producing.
The Orioles want to keep evaluating Stewart after his work at the alternate camp site. A team that hands out opportunities like Halloween candy hasn’t given up on him.
Can Austin Hays lend a hand to the playoff push?
Hays expects to come off the injured list by next week. He’s supposed to play in a simulated game today at the alternate camp site. The pain from a fractured rib is gone.
Freak injuries keep haunting Hays. Can’t blame a guy for reacting poorly to a 96 mph fastball in the ribcage. And he kept playing through it until the CT scan revealed the fracture.
He isn’t soft.
He’s been unlucky, but he could provide a nice jolt to the lineup.
If he plays, what happens to Cedric Mullins?
The Orioles want him to stay in the majors, whether he’s a regular or a valuable fourth outfielder. His speed, defense and bunting are nice features. The impact of losing Hays has been lessened by Mullins’ play in center and his work at the bottom of the order.
Mullins had a double and triple last night before the game reached its midway point, and later reached on an infield single. The work done with private hitting instructor Rick Strickland in St. Louis to retool his swing is making a difference.
The Orioles were expecting this version of Mullins in 2019. They’ll gladly take him in 2020.
José Iglesias needs to keep playing in order to qualify for the batting title. That thing that suddenly becomes important during these moments.
The defense-first shortstop is now a terror at the plate. His latest multi-hit game last night improved his average to .396. The Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu was leading the American League at .362.
Keep getting Iglesias four at-bats a night and keep him in the lineup, which has been tricky with his sore quadriceps muscle, and he could really do something special
With nine multi-hit games in his last 12, he shows no signs of slowing down while playing on a painful leg.
Will Brandon Hyde become a finalist for Manager of the Year in the American League?
Give me one good reason why he shouldn’t.