After clinching a spot in the 2023 postseason and splitting their critical four-game series with the Rays this past weekend, the Orioles arrived at Minute Maid Park in Houston hungry for more. Making the playoffs was not the goal; winning the division is. The Orioles demonstrated their desire to win the division in spades, taking two out of three on the road against the Astros, the defending World Series Champions and arguably the American League's third-best team.
As things currently stand in the junior circuit, the Orioles would be the first seed in the AL, while Houston would be the second seed, putting them on a crash course for an ALCS meeting in October. Not bad for a team that Fangraphs bewilderingly places in its "third tier" of baseball teams in its latest power rankings.
1. Game 1: Orioles 8, Astros 7
What. A. Game.
John Means, the Orioles ace during the rebuilding years, squared off against Justin Verlander, the Astros' ace during their dominant 2017-2023 streak and two World Series Titles. Means held his own, allowing only one run over five innings of work. Means exited with the Orioles leading 3-1, having scratched across three runs off of Verlander.
In fact, Means pitched with a lead for the first time since September 20, 2021, in Philadelphia, a game in which he had a double. Pitchers do not bat in Major League Baseball anymore. In other words, it's been a minute.
Despite Means' solid start, the Orioles' bullpen struggled, surrendering four runs in the bottom of the sixth and allowing Houston to take the lead. Shintaro Fujinami started the inning and, after inducing a fly ball from Jose Abreu, gave up a booming triple to Kyle Tucker into left-center field. Chas McCormick singled Tucker home, before stealing second and advancing to third no Fujinami's wild pitch.
After Jeremy Pena tied the game with an RBI single, Brandon Hyde summoned Jacob Webb. Webb, unfortunately, was not much better, walking the light-hitting Mauricio Dubon before allowing a two-run double to lead-off man Jose Altuve.
The Orioles rallied to tie the game in the seventh on Adley Rutschman's RBI double and Cedric Mullins' RBI double. But again, the bullpen could not get out of its own way. Orioles relievers allowed runs in the seventh and eighth inning, giving Houston a 7-5 lead heading into the ninth.
The Orioles chances went from bad to worse when Adley Rutschman was called out on strikes to start the frame. But Ryan O'Hearn smacked his fifth hit off the game, a single into right, to bring the tying run to the dish. Austin Hays singled, bringing Cedric Mullins to the plate. Like he has done so many times this year, Mullins delivered in the clutch, launching a 425-foot three-run home run to right center, giving the Orioles the lead back at 8-7.
In the bottom of the ninth, Cionel Perez and Yennier Cano worked around a two-base error by Ramon Urias to secure the impressive, hard-fought 8-7 win over Houston. Reliever Mike Baumann won his 10th game in the process.
2. Game 2: Orioles 9, Astros 5
I texted my friend Henry in the fifth inning of the Game 2 of this series, stating that this game, so far, had been less stressful than Game 1. His response: "Sarcasm?" I was being serious, but I can see what he meant - there is no such thing as a stress-free game when the Orioles play in Houston.
With that said, this game was in hand a little earlier than Game 1 was for the Orioles. The Orioles bats came out hot against Houston starter Hunter Brown, with Ryan O'Hearn and Austin Hays smashing home runs to give the Orioles a 5-3 lead entering the sixth inning. Each team scored two runs to keep the Orioles' lead at 2, 7-5.
In the top of the seventh, Hays and rookie Heston Kjerstad went back to back, with Kjerstad drilling his second home run over the Crawford Boxes in left field. To my colleague Justin Long, who on Monday predicted a Kjerstad home run into the Crawford Boxes during this series: Come on down and collect your prize.
With two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, Cionel Perez came on and froze Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez on three straight called strikes to earn his second save of the season (the first came in Philadelphia). Two straight road wins in Houston. Not bad, but Fangraphs is probably still not convinced that this team is any good.
3. Game 3: Astros 2, Orioles 1
In a bit of a matinee slumber, the Astros beat the Orioles, 2-1, on Mauricio Dubon's walk-off single off of Danny Coulombe in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Orioles took a 1-0 lead three batters into the game on Adley Rutschman's double and Anthony Santander's single, but were otherwise shut down by Astros' right-hander Christian Javier.
Despite the loss, Kyle Bradish turned in another incredible outing, firing six scoreless innings against the powerful Astros and striking out 9 batters (it should have been ten, but Rutschman was called for catcher's interference on Jeremy Pena's strikeout-non-strikeout, allowing Pena to reach base). After Jacob Webb threw a clean inning, Shintaro Fujinami struggled for the second time in as many outings, walking the leadoff batter in the bottom of the eighth inning.
After coaxing a lineout from pinch-hitter Jon Singleton, Fujinami walked Jose Altuve on four pitchers, and the Orioles summoned Mike Baumann. Jeremy Pena worked a full count before smashing a ringing double off the right field wall, scoring Mauricio Dubon and tying the game at 1. So much for Bradish's great start. This also does not bode well for Fuji's chances of making the Orioles playoff roster, as his inability to consistently throw strikes renders him unreliable out of Brandon Hyde's bullpen.
Baumann recovered nicely though, striking out Kyle Tucker and coaxing a ground out from Jose Abreu, on a ball that nearly skipped past a jumping Adam Frazier into centerfield for a hit.
After a quiet top of the ninth inning, the Orioles brought in Danny Coulombe, who immediately allowed a double to catcher Yanier Diaz. Diaz advanced to third on a ground out and ultimately scored the winning run on Dubon's RBI single. It was all over pretty fast, and in a game where the Orioles stopped scoring runs after the first three batters, it might have been the most merciful ending to this game.
The Orioles fell 2-1 but can take solace in winning two games out of three in a tough environment against a tremendous opponent. In addition, with the Rays losing at home to the Angels 8-3, the Orioles' magic number to clinch the AL East decreased to 7.
The Orioles close out their road schedule with a four-game series against the Guardians, starting on Thursday night.