On the same night that the Orioles look to secure their 100th regular season win for the first time since 1980, the Norfolk Tides are also looking to secure their first International League Championship since 1985, when they were affiliated with the New York Mets.
In a winner-take-all game three at Harbor Park in Norfolk, the Tides will take on the Durham Bulls who are defending their 2022 championship. The Tides are starting the O's top left-handed pitching prospect in Cade Povich in the game and notable prospects such as Colton Cowser, Jackson Holliday, and Coby Mayo will be in the lineup against Jalen Beeks.
So how did the Tides get to this point? Of course, the Orioles have many high-level prospects who have passed through Norfolk at some point this season but many of their best players have had to help the Orioles in their own playoff run. For example, slugger Heston Kjerstad is unavailable to the Tides during the championship despite leading the team all season.
The International League is different from Major League Baseball in that the two teams who represent the league in the championship are the teams with the best records in each half. The Tides clinched their Postseason spot back in the middle of summer, since they were first half champions with a 48-26 record where they beat out the Iowa Cubs and St. Paul Saints for the honor.
The Bulls had the best second half record, ahead of teams like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, which earned them a berth against the Tides in the IL championship. Overall, the Tides carried their strong first half to the best overall record in the International League at 90-56 as well as a league-best +152 run differential.
As a team, Norfolk relied heavily on strong offense, which is not surprising given the amount of depth the Orioles system has in the upper minors in that area. The team had the fourth-best OPS in the International League at .822 along with 201 homers and 828 RBIs. Interestingly, the team had the third-fewest walks in the 20-team league, ahead of only the Rochester Red Wings and Charlotte Knights.
The Tides were also relatively strong in the pitching department. They had the fourth-best ERA in the IL as well as the second-most strikeouts. They also had the most saves, second-best batting average against, and were one of six teams who had multiple complete games pitched. All in all, the team was well-rounded all season in a hitter-friendly league and environment which led to their 90-win season.
Individually, Norfolk had plenty of strong performances on the season. Connor Norby had the most impressive offensive season in Norfolk. The second-year professional out of East Carolina hit .290/.359/.483 in 138 games where he led the team in hits and doubles. Norby never got the opportunity to prove his worth in Baltimore, largely because of the immense infield depth already in Baltimore but also in part because of his worrying strikeout rate.
He struck out 137 times in 138 games which was the most on the team by a good amount. The only other hitters who played at least 100 games in Norfolk were Daz Cameron, Lewin Diaz, and Josh Lester. Cameron led the team with 23 stolen bases while Lester led the way with 23 home runs and earned a cup of coffee in Baltimore earlier in the summer.
There were numerous top prospects who made their mark in Norfolk this season as well. Most notably, Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad, and Joey Ortiz all had extremely strong seasons in Norfolk and each earned opportunities in Baltimore at various times throughout the year.
In 88 games, Ortiz hit .321/.378/.507 with 30 doubles. The home run power has never been a huge strength for Ortiz, but he still has shown great extra-base potential with his doubles and four triples.
In 87 games, Cowser hit .300/.417/.520 but, as we know, was not effective at the Major League level which made him the ultimate quad-A weapon for Norfolk. Finally, in 76 games, Kjerstad hit .298/.371/.498 with 10 home runs and 34 extra-base hits. His success has carried over to some extent in Baltimore as he has hit two home runs in limited time in the majors.
On the pitching side, there was much more of a revolving door in Norfolk and no players stood out too much in Norfolk specifically. Bruce Zimmermann had the most success of any starter with the Tides as he led the team in innings pitched and strikeouts.
Him and Drew Rom were the only two pitchers who accumulated at least 100 strikeouts with the Tides and, of course, Rom is no longer in the organization due to the Jack Flaherty trade at the deadline. In 99.2 innings, Zimmermann had 110 strikeouts, a 4.42 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. Kyle Dowdy also had some success as he led the team with eight wins. Dowdy had a 4.38 ERA and 1.59 WHIP with 74 strikeouts in 63.2 innings.
For much of the season, the bullpen was led by pitchers such as Eduard Bazardo, Joey Krehbiel, and Nick Vespi. Vespi spent a part of the season as the closer and collected seven saves with a 2.33 ERA in 38.2 innings and 36 appearances.
He had several stints in Baltimore and the lefty was a regular member of the "Norfolk Shuttle." Similarly, Krehbiel had a 3.89 ERA in 35 games and 39.1 innings and also spent some time in Baltimore. For Bazardo, his time in Norfolk spanned the early part of the season where he was successful with a 3.05 ERA in 27 games and 38.1 innings.
On Thursday night, the Tides took care of business, shutting out the Bulls 7-0 to win the International League championship in deciding fashion after losing the first game. They now advance to the Triple A championship, where they will face the Pacific Coast League winners, the Oklahoma City Dodgers. Best of luck for the Tides as they look to push for a title!