The Orioles have largely avoided these sorts of games, which is why they’re playing meaningful baseball in the middle of August for the first time in years. But with anemic offense coupling with a bullpen that has cracked two days in a row, their playoff aspirations took another hit Thursday against the Chicago Cubs.
For the second straight game, Baltimore wasted a strong outing from a starting pitcher and the bullpen allowed the opponent to push that game out of reach. On Wednesday, it was a series-finale loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in which six runs crossed in the seventh inning. On Thursday, it was two solo home runs off right-hander Joey Krehbiel that put the Cubs ahead — just far enough ahead to withstand an immediate answer from the Orioles in the bottom of the eighth inning
With the two long balls in the top of the eighth from Rafael Ortega and Willson Contreras, Chicago held on for a 3-2 victory at Camden Yards in a makeup game for a rainout on June 8.
“We’re just not stringing enough good at-bats together right now to give ourselves a chance,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
The Orioles didn’t manage a hit the first time through the order, continuing a trend of slow starts. They broke up a perfect game bid from Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Drew Rasmussen in the ninth inning Sunday, then finally reached base against Toronto right-hander Ross Stripling in the seventh inning Wednesday.
Asked whether he’d consider some sort of shake-up to jumpstart his offense, Hyde said “you just got to grind it out. I mean, there’s nothing you can do. You’re going to keep putting the work in, and hopefully we get out of it here pretty quick.”
Cubs left-hander Brandon Hughes had to navigate a rocky ninth inning Thursday, as Austin Hays reached to start the inning on a throwing error from third baseman Zach McKinstry. Rougned Odor popped up his bunt attempt, and while Jorge Mateo singled, a broken-bat bloop from Cedric Mullins led to a game-ending double play.
The Cubs took a 3-0 lead in the eighth with a pair of solo homers off Krehbiel, but Baltimore quickly got back into it. With walks from Mullins and Adley Rutschman to lead off the frame, Ryan Mountcastle found a hole through the right side for an RBI single. Anthony Santander drove home another on a sacrifice fly.
But the Orioles (61-57) also had two runners thrown out at the plate. The first was Hays in the fifth, when he attempted to come home on a squeeze play from Mateo. Cubs right-hander Adrian Sampson flipped the bunt with his glove to Contreras, and the ruling on the field stood after Baltimore’s challenge. Mountcastle attempted to score on a sharp grounder to third base from Ramón Urías in the eighth and was thrown out.
“Anything on the ground there, I was going,” Mountcastle said. “Unfortunately, it was right at their third baseman. Made a good play. Not much you can do there.”
On Wednesday, the Orioles couldn’t back up six scoreless innings from right-hander Austin Voth. On Thursday, it was right-hander Spenser Watkins on the losing end of a game in which his only mistake was a four-seam fastball that Contreras hit off the top of the right field wall and out in the sixth. That was Watkins’ only run allowed on five hits in 5 2/3 innings.
“Gotta make a better pitch there to [Contreras],” Watkins said. “As prolific as a hitter as he is, it’s just a mistake there. I’d like to have that one back, but I’ll move forward and learn from it.”
Barring that, Watkins was solid in his return to the rotation; he had served as a piggyback reliever for left-hander DL Hall on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Since returning to the majors from the injured list, these are the sort of performances Watkins has made a habit of throwing. In those nine appearances, he holds a 2.81 ERA.
“You want to go out and give your team the best chance and hand it over to a bullpen that’s done a great job all year,” Watkins said. “Today is just one of those days. It happens. I trust my bullpen over anybody else. I trust my bats over anybody else.”
Hays aiming high
Hays has waited for this.
The Orioles outfielder spoke pregame about how he was driving too many hard-hit balls on the ground, and “it’s hard to find holes on the ground.”
Hays hoped to add more line drives to break out of a .158 slump between July 26 and Wednesday. He wanted to focus on the middle of the plate, eliminating swings at pitches on the edge of the zone early in the count. Hays focused on shooting the balls he did make contact with through the middle of the field, avoiding roll-over grounders.
He did so Thursday, roping a double to left-center field in the fifth inning before lining out to deep left in the seventh.
There were few positives to take from Baltimore’s performance at the plate, but Hays’ ability to launch a few balls was one.
After trading Trey Mancini to the Houston Astros earlier this month, the Orioles have found themselves experiencing almost daily open tryouts at first base to find additional options in case Mountcastle needs a day off.
Tyler Nevin is the most experienced option, but Baltimore has given chances to Terrin Vavra and Santander — the latter of whom has taken grounders at first for much of the season. Santander said he felt comfortable at first base following his on-field workout Thursday, in which he received short-hop throws from infield coach Tony Mansolino.
“Just to increase versatility, flexibility,” Hyde said before the game. “More guys that can play more positions on your roster, the better.”
The experimentation extends beyond the major league roster. Shortstop Gunnar Henderson, the top-ranked prospect in the game according to Baseball America, started at first base for the first time Thursday with Triple-A Norfolk.
Henderson most regularly plays shortstop and third base, and those will remain his main positions. But a source with direct knowledge of the organization’s thinking told The Baltimore Sun that Henderson will likely play first once or twice a week for the Tides. The source said it’s about adding experience and positional flexibility and also provides more options for whenever Henderson reaches the big leagues.
Friday, 7:05 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Source: Berkshire mont
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