The Baltimore Orioles have completed arguably their most important regular season series of the year and can walk away with their heads held high. The Orioles welcomed the Tampa Bay Rays into town for a four game series between the two best teams in the American League. Both teams have been incredible this season and are pulling away from the pack in the race for the top overall seed in the American League playoffs.
With the stakes being as large as they could be, the Orioles and Rays gave the fans everything a baseball fan could ask for. The O's started the series with a two game lead in the East and they left the series the same way, but it was one crazy ride.
Orioles clinch playoff spot with series split against Rays
Game 1: Orioles 3 - 4 Rays
The opening game of the series was a sign of things to come. Both teams performed well, and the game came down to the last batter in this back and forth affair. The Orioles got off to an early lead with a home run from Ryan O'Hearn, as he continues to be the team's biggest surprise, in the bottom of the second inning off Rays starter Aaron Civale.
The lead didn't last long as the Rays scored three runs top of the third inning on an RBI single from Brandon Lowe and a two RBI triple from the Orioles nemesis, Randy Arozarena. The O's fought back getting a solo Gunn shot in the fourth and an RBI groundout from Adam Frazier in the fifth to tie the game. Luke Raley broke the tie with a home run of his own off of Orioles ace Kyle Bradish in the seventh and the Rays bullpen shut down the Orioles from there.
Even though the Orioles lost the game, there was one thing worth celebrating: the major league debut of Heston Kjerstad. The 2020 second overall pick entered the game as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning and even though it wasn't a story book tale, he can now call himself a major league baseball player for the rest of his life. He is one of the best stories in baseball this season and he only made it better in second game.
Game 2: Orioles 1 - 7 Rays
Game two of the series was a beat down. Orioles starter Jack Flaherty only completed four innings and failed to record an out in the fifth. He was replaced by Jacob Webb, who got out of the fifth and was able to keep the game within striking distance. The Rays then blew the game wide open with a four run sixth inning, capped off by a three run homer from Harold Ramirez.
As if being down 7-0 wasn't bad enough, Rays Cy Young hopeful, Zack Eflin, was almost unhittable, literally. Eflin didn't allow a hit until the bottom of the sixth inning when Kjerstad again provided the best Orioles story of the day. After entering the first game as a pinch hitter, Kjerstad made his first major league start in the second game as a DH.
In the sixth inning he got his first major league hit when he blasted a ball 418 feet to right field. Unfortunately, that was all the struggling Orioles offense could muster and the Rays took a 2-0 series lead and tied the Orioles for first place in the AL East.
Game 3: Orioles 8 - 0 Rays
Game three saw a complete reversal of fortunes. The Orioles came out swinging and scored early and often in this game. O'Hearn continued his career year and drove in a run in the first. The Birds added three more runs in the second inning with an Adam Frazier RBI single and another Gunnar Henderson two run home run.
The Orioles offense did not let up and added two more runs in the fourth inning on RBI singles from Henderson and Adley Rutschman. Cedric Mullins and Ramon Urias got in on the action in the fifth inning with RBI singles of their own to put the game way out of reach.
Even with all the offense from the O's, the story of the game was the start of rookie pitcher Grayson Rodriguez. GrayRod has been pitching well since being recalled from the minors, but his start in this game was easily his best, and it could not have come at a more important time. The Birds were on a four game losing streak, just their second of the season and had blown the lead they had built up in the AL East over the Rays. Rodriguez would not allow that to continue as he pitched a career best 8.0 innings, surrendering only five hits, no walks and striking out seven batters.
Game 4: Orioles 5 - 4 Rays (11 innings)
The last game of the season between these two teams was certainly not the least. In fact, it took extra innings to settle this one. The Rays jumped out to a lead before the O's even had a chance to bat when Lowe homered in the top of the first off Dean Kremer. Kremer was able to settle in and only allowed one more hit in 5.0 innings.
The Orioles tied the game in the fourth with an RBI single from Austin Hays and then the bats went quiet for a few innings. The Rays broke through in the eighth with back to back homer by Christian Gray and Christian Bethancourt off Jorge Lopez. It should be noted that it was Gray's first career home run after he made his major league debut the day before.
Adley Rutschman homered in the bottom of the eighth off of Rays closer Pete Fairbanks to cut the lead to 3-2 heading into the ninth. After Shintaro Fujinami and Yennier Cano held the Rays scoreless in the top of the inning, the O's came to bat in the bottom looking to do damage. Fairbanks got the first two outs but Austin Hays singled to keep the inning alive. Jorge Mateo came in to run for Hays and Adam Frazier sliced a ball down the left field line. Mateo, who was running on the pitch, came around to score easily and the game was tied.
Cano stayed on for the tenth and got two soft ground balls from the first two batters he faced for easy outs. Because the balls were hit so softly, Manuel Margot, the Rays ghost runner who started the inning on second base, was able to advance on each ground ball and scored the go ahead run. But there's no quit in this Orioles team and Rutschman delivered a game tying single in the bottom of the tenth.
DL Hall entered the game and pitched a perfect eleventh inning without allowing the Rays to score. Needing just one run to win, O'Hearn led off the bottom of the frame with a beautiful sacrifice bunt to get Rutschman to third and Mullins walked it off with a sacrifice fly to center.
When the Orioles lost game two of the series the sky seemed to be falling. It was their fourth consecutive loss, and the division lead was gone with it, but this team of youngsters showed tremendous resolve. This very balanced team got significant contributions from almost every member of the team and came back to not only win the last two games of this series, but now lay claim to the season series against the Rays earning them the tie breaker should both teams finish the season with the same record.
With this win the Orioles also clinched a post season berth for the first time since 2016. However, there's no time to rest, as the O's start a seven game road trip with a three game series against the Houston Astros on Monday night.