The strikeouts kept coming from Zac Lowther. For five innings before his removal from the game. Leaving him four on a chilly night to sweat out whether he’d earn his first major league win.
The Orioles manufactured a run in the fourth inning, Ryan Mountcastle hit his 31st homer in the fifth and Austin Hays clubbed his 22nd in the eighth, and the bullpen protected Lowther’s lead in a 3-0 victory over the Rangers before an announced crowd of 6,328 at Camden Yards.
Mountcastle took over the rookie home run lead in the majors with 31, breaking a tie with the Rangers’ Adolis García, and the Orioles improved to 49-104 overall, 3-1 versus Texas and 14-15 against the American League West. They have five shutouts.
Lowther blanked the Rangers on three hits, with two walks and a career-high seven strikeouts. A pitch count of 94 prompted his departure.
Tonight was the first home shutout since July 21, 2019, when Asher Wojciechowski started against the Red Sox.
“I thought Zac threw with a lot more confidence tonight,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “You saw that just everything was improved. His presence on the mound, I thought his stuff was sharper. I thought he had more life to his fastball. Showed more confidence in his off-speed stuff and did a nice job of mixing. Threw a ton of strikes and got us five big shutout innings.”
Where did that confidence come from?
“I think just the work during the week and then some of the discussions I’ve been able to have with Chris Holt, the pitching coach, and Brandon Hyde,” Lowther said. “Just kind of getting me back to attacking guys and being confident on the mound and trusting my stuff has been the message of the week, and being able to do what I’m good at consistently over and over is going to get me good results, and being able to trust that and just do it.”
Rookie Mike Baumann covered 1 1/3 innings before the Orioles optioned him to Triple-A Norfolk, Cole Sulser stranded two inherited runners in the seventh and retired the side in order in the eighth, and Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells notched his fourth save.
Dillon Tate began to warm in the fifth inning as Lowther’s count climbed. Yonny Hernández reached with two outs on a play first ruled as an error on Mountcastle before changed to a hit, but Leody Taveras grounded out.
Among the last five hitters in the Orioles lineup, three had averages below .200 and a fourth was at .206. But Ryan McKenna doubled to right-center field with one out in the fourth inning, raced to third base on Jahmai Jones’ single over shortstop and dived across the plate on Richie Martin’s sacrifice bunt near the mound, with Otto’s throw gong to first base.
Rookies were determined to influence tonight’s game, with McKenna and Jones also qualifying.
The Rangers (55-98), trying to avoid their first 100-loss season since 1973, had their own rookie on the mound, right-hander Glenn Otto, who allowed two runs and five hits and struck out seven batters in five innings. He was done after 81 pitches.
Lowther and Otto each struck out three batters in the first inning. Isiah Kiner-Falefa reached on an infield hit with one out and advanced on a wild pitch. Hays punched a single into right field with two outs in the bottom half.
Hays has a hit in 19 of 21 games this month and 27 of his last 29. His home run off Joe Barlow, the eighth in September, traveled 412 feet to left field per Statcast and caused him to hop out of the batter’s box upon contact.
“I think that we’ve seen flashes of how talented Austin is, we just haven’t seen it for a prolonged period because he’s been hurt the last few years on and off,” Hyde said. “It’s hard to get in a rhythm, it’s hard to get in a groove in the big leagues when you’re taking sporadic at-bats and your season is starting and stopping all the time.
“For him to get to that fastball and turn that around pull-side, incredibly impressive. Just shows you how fast his hands are.”
Nathanial Lowe led off the second with a single and Nick Solak walked, but Lowther struck out the next two batters on curveballs and fielded a comebacker to escape the jam.
The first three strikeouts came on fastballs clocked at 90-91 mph, the next two on 75-76 mph curveballs.
Not to be outdone, Otto got called third strikes on McKenna and Jones in the second inning and retired Martin on a ground ball.
Asked to explain his seven strikeouts, Lowther said, “I think the ability to get in on these guys. Got my fastball established inside and then was able to get some off-speed pitches over for strikes, and being able to put them away was a big focus this week. My ability to do that got me the strikeouts and my fastball command put me in position to get those strikeouts, so I was very happy with that.”
Cedric Mullins walked with two outs in the third and Mountcastle singled, but Hays flied to right. Mullins bounced to the mound to end the seventh and strand Kelvin Gutiérrez on second base, and he remains stuck on 29 home runs and at the doorstep of the 30/30 club.
Lowther walked Lowe with one out in the fourth, but Mullins raced in to snare Solak’s sinking liner and Austin Wynns threw out Lowe trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt.
The young lefty watched as Solak reached on an infield hit leading off the seventh, with Jones making a nice backhand stop and floating a throw wide of the bag. Baumann walked former Orioles minor leaguer Jonah Heim with one out, Sulser entered and the rally fizzled on a fielder’s choice - initially ruled a double play - and ground ball.
“Biggest outs of the game,” Hyde said.
The last four Orioles starters, including opener Conner Greene, have combined to allow one run with four walks and 21 strikeouts in 18 innings.
“For the most part, I think it’s just a matter of, I think, guys are attacking a little better right now and really pitching with some confidence and going out there and throwing their best stuff,” Sulser said. “I don’t know if it’s just things clicking a little bit late right now in the season, but I think guys are throwing the ball really well and they’ve been looking really good.”
Note: Bruce Zimmermann started tonight for Triple-A Norfolk in Game 1 of a doubleheader and allowed two runs and four hits in four innings, with no walks, six strikeouts and a home run. He threw 51 pitches, 38 for strikes, and the Tides defeated Charlotte 8-4.
Adley Rutschman hit a three-run homer in Game 2, his fifth with Norfolk and 23rd overall. Robert Neustrom added a three-run homer. Kevin Smith allowed five runs and three hits and walked six batters in 2 1/3 innings.