Young Orioles growing up as rebuild turns a new corner

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In Tuesday’s game against the Washington Nationals, the Baltimore Orioles didn’t get a chance to break out the homer hose. This season, whenever a Baltimore player hits a home run, they come back to the dugout and celebrate by chugging water funneled through an orange-and-black hose that teammates hold up high. But no homers were hit, so the hose stayed tucked away. 

The Orioles settled for a 1-0 win instead.

“We haven’t played many one-nothing ball games,” manager Brandon Hyde said. 

The victory, though, was another sign of Baltimore’s development. After years of rebuilding, the Orioles appear ready to finally turn a corner and have embraced the next stage of the process — and the expectations that come with it. General manager Mike Elias said before the season that Baltimore’s rebuild is over. And indeed, the Orioles’ core of catcher Adley Rutschman, shortstop Gunnar Henderson and pitcher Grayson Rodriguez are now all in the majors. 

Though Baltimore still has other elite-level prospects in the minors — including 2022 first overall pick Jackson Holliday — the Orioles believe they have enough talent to win now after finishing last season a surprising 83-79. Baltimore finished the season 66-53 upon Rutschman’s debut May 21.

The Nationals, going through their own rebuild, is a team that struggles to hit. But for Baltimore, it was important to see its young pitching staff be able to control a game on a night when its bats were relatively quiet. 

“It’s a lot of fun showing up to the ballpark trying to win games,” Rodriguez said. “Just knowing that the rebuild is over, it’s kind of a relief for a lot of guys. It’s full speed ahead from here on out.” 

There are still growing pains, to be clear. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Nationals, Rodriguez had posted a 6.91 ERA across starts and is part of a staff whose starters have given up a collective 6.21 ERA. The latter is the fourth-worst mark in MLB. Hyde has had to deal with a rotation in flux as the Orioles already demoted struggling starter Cole Irvin, a veteran who was supposed to help Baltimore make a leap when he was acquired in the offseason from Oakland. 

But the Orioles were 10-7 entering Wednesday’s action. They’ve found a way to gut through games in part because of encouraging performances from players such as first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and Rutschman. Mountcastle’s six home runs are tied for the fifth-most in MLB, while he is tied for the second-most RBIs with 20. 

Rutschman, meanwhile, has looked like an early MVP candidate. The first overall pick in 2019, Rutschman entered Wednesday hitting .323 and has an OPS of .995 — both dramatic improvements from his rookie season. He’s also drawn an AL-high 16 walks. 

As a team, Baltimore is drawing a walk 12.3% of the time, which ranks third. Last year, that percentage was 7.9 — good for 16th.

“A lot of us have experience now and have a lot of trust in ourselves that we belong,” said outfielder Austin Hays, who has been with Baltimore since 2017. “We’re having a lot of fun.”

That fun is starting to manifest by implementing creative celebrations like the homer hose or “the sprinkler,” which involves batters replicating a sprinkler-like motion when recording a double or triple while the players from the dugout spit out water. “When you have a team that knows one another and trusts one another, you start seeing those fun things show out there on the field,” Hays said. 

Despite the lightened moods, the Orioles have still been able to come through in clutch moments. Against the Nationals on Tuesday, closer Felix Bautista maintained his composure and threw 101 mile-per-hour fastballs to shut the door on Washington making a bottom-of-the-ninth push. On Sunday, the Orioles used a 3-run eighth inning to storm back against the Chicago White Sox. 

Hyde said he started to see signs of Baltimore’s resilience last season — when he said the Orioles were one of the better-hitting teams in the last three innings. 

According to Baseball Reference, the Orioles hit the 10th-most home runs last season between innings 7 through 9 in the major leagues.

“When you know you have a chance to win every day,” Hays said, “it’s more fun going to work. “

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