Orioles beat Rays to clinch first MLB playoffs spot since 2016

BALTIMORE — An uncertain assembly of Baltimore Orioles in ski goggles and still-creased orange T-shirts slowly formed a circle, the players holding champagne bottles in their hands, waiting for a signal. Then, from the corner, came a pop. Then, from nearer the middle, another. Then another.

“You guys got to relax,” Aaron Hicks said, chuckling quietly as he ambled toward them like a proud and knowing uncle. “You’re not supposed to pop them yet.”

Hicks had his fair share of celebrations during his days with the New York Yankees. But almost everyone else in the Orioles’ clubhouse is still new to the norms of celebration choreography. The Orioles clinched their first postseason berth in seven seasons Sunday, their first since Mike Elias took over as general manager and led them through a lengthy rebuild and into a long-awaited era that is supposed to include at least a handful more.

The celebration was just about the only time this year the Orioles have looked out of place on an unfamiliar stage. They entered this weekend’s four-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays aware that it was the most important series played at Camden Yards in years — and in most of their young careers. And they left it with a gritty split and a two-game lead in the American League East with two weeks to play.

Technically, they clinched the playoff berth with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the tying run on first Sunday. They were losing when the Texas Rangers lost to the Cleveland Guardians several hundred miles away, providing the mathematical end to Baltimore’s drought.

But within an hour, they had rallied in the ninth and the 10th to beat the Rays and earn their MLB-leading 47th comeback win. For four days this weekend, the Orioles played under unprecedented pressure and hard-earned national scrutiny. By the end of it all, they were celebrating, having passed all available examinations again.

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“This is the first step,” Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde told his team as a few more corks popped around him. “We’re going to keep doing this.”

Hyde has managed the Orioles since 2019, but he is new to this, too. He used to be the guy trying to keep morale high when expectations were painfully low. Now he is managing meaningful baseball, charged with steering one of the sport’s most talented young rosters into title contention.

Over the years, he developed a habit of watching replays of each game after the fact. But with a late-night finish Saturday and an early start Sunday, he didn’t have time to review all of Saturday’s 8-0 Orioles win. So he watched a small part, though not the eight-run outburst that ended one of the more frustrating offensive droughts of their year. Instead, Hyde watched the moment 23-year-old starter Grayson Rodriguez began heading into unfamiliar late-inning territory under unprecedented late-season pressure.

“He was getting to a point where he hadn’t been before. Was he going to be able to keep his fastball? Was he going to be able to keep his command? Was he going to be able to keep his composure?” Hyde said.

Hyde has been watching the Orioles do that all season, ever since the end of their breakout 2022 campaign as people around the sport wondered whether Baltimore’s emergence was more cute than legitimate. No one questioned whether the Orioles’ organization had enough young talent to contend. The question entering this year is the same one that faces the team even now, after months of leading one of the deepest divisions in the sport. Could all that young talent immediately coalesce into a contender?

“I thought we were underappreciated. I think everybody thought we were going to have a setback,” Hyde said. “I wanted our players to be offended by that a little bit.”

Offended or not, the Orioles have proved they can get to the postseason. They have not been tested often, not by injuries, not by doubt. But every time they have been tested by inexperience, by the mere fact that they are doing some part of a competitive regular season for the first time, they have passed.

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Most recently, they entered Saturday’s game on a two-game skid that felt like six, seemingly on the verge of confirming that they were not quite ready to handle the rigors of the AL East from pole to pole. They responded with their largest margin of victory all season and a stunning comeback win against an annual contender.

Similarly, their rotation is built on pitchers who had never been year-long staples. Rodriguez, Kyle Bradish and Sunday’s starter, Dean Kremer, blew by their innings limits as Baltimore’s schedule reached its tensest point. But Orioles starters, who own a 4.35 ERA for the season, entered Sunday with a 3.98 ERA for the past 30 days.

And despite their lineup being led by two young players who have known the Orioles only as winners in the aggregate (Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson), the Orioles have not been quick to succumb to doubts spurred by short bursts of losing, either.

In fact, since Rutschman came up in May 2022, the Orioles have lost plenty of series, but they have never been swept. He and Henderson, two of the players projected to be cornerstones, have been just that, and both played crucial roles this weekend.

Rutschman delivered a two-out homer in the eighth inning Sunday that set the stage for the Orioles’ ninth-inning comeback, and it was his hit that tied the game for them in the 10th. The 22-year-old Henderson led off Saturday’s game with a base hit up the middle that seemed to swat away any doubt that might have crept into the Orioles’ offense after a few slow nights, then followed it with a second-inning homer that helped ignite the rout.

But Henderson, Rutschman and Rodriguez aren’t the only ones who have never popped bottles like this before. It is the first time Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and other longer-tenured Orioles had the chance to celebrate, too. Hays singled with two outs in the ninth to set up Adam Frazier’s game-tying double. Mullins, who has been at the heart of so many rallies and run-saving plays all year, provided the game-winning sacrifice fly. That trio hugged as the champagne flowed. Eventually Elias grabbed goggles and chugged beer from the Orioles’ trademark homer hose. Even owner John Angelos grabbed a bottle, but he stood well out of the way for a long time before finally joining the fray and chugging some himself.

They will all get used to this celebration thing in time, if everything goes to plan. To be sure, the hardest tests are yet to come. But the 2023 Orioles haven’t failed one yet.

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