BALTIMORE — Get ready to see a lot of these Orioles.
Entering the game on Monday, the Toronto Blue Jays had 54 games left, exactly one-third of their season. Of those 54 games, 15 were scheduled against Baltimore, a team that is legitimately in the AL playoff mix a year after losing 110 times.
So is this a young team with great achievements destined to regress? By trading first baseman Trey Mancini and closer Jorge Lopez at last week’s trade deadline, general manager Mike Elias tacitly acknowledged that possibility. And objectively, the projections agree, with FanGraphs predicting run-prevention problems for Baltimore down the stretch.
But what about the other possibility? The one the Blue Jays watched closely in a 7-4 loss at Camden Yards on Monday night? What if the Orioles are… good?
“They’ve got some exciting young players,” interim manager John Schneider said before the series began. “Gone are the days when you can say the AL East is anything but one.”
“The way I think about it, it’s like they really have nothing to lose,” added starter Kevin Gausman, who spent the first six seasons of his career in Baltimore. “While we do. The pressure is on us, obviously. We realize that. But we also have to play good baseball.”
Around the league, opinions differ on whether the Orioles can maintain a .500-plus pace this year.
“No,” said one baseball veteran. Not in a thousand years. Then I check the wild card standings and the number of teams actually trying is terrible. However, I don’t see the Orioles trying. I mean, they traded Mancini.”
But as one veteran scout put it, there’s no question they’re headed in the right direction.
“Good mix of youngsters and guys who need to prove themselves to stay in the big leagues,” the scout said. “Normally there are two motivated groups of players. They are going to be a real problem in the next couple of years in that division.”
Regardless of where he lands on the Orioles — and again, the numbers say they’ve improved, but not to the point of being a true playoff threat — these 15 games will have a major say in determining the Blue Jays’ placement in the American League. Wildcard race.
On Monday, the Orioles were decidedly the better team. His pitching limited the Blue Jays to four runs while his hitters made all kinds of hard contact against an ineffective Yusei Kikuchi. With the win, Baltimore moves within 1.5 games of the final AL wild-card spot and three games behind the Blue Jays, who remain the top seed. More than two thirds of the season, they are spinning.
As for Kikuchi, he went five-plus innings but allowed six hits while walking three. He maxed out at 96.5 mph, so speed wasn’t an issue, but he generated just seven strikes on 84 pitches. In total, he allowed five earned runs and his ERA rose to 5.13.
Afterwards, Kikuchi lamented the missed opportunity and acknowledged that he did not have his best material.
“Each one of those games is going to be very important,” Kevin Ando said through interpreter. “They’re fighting for a playoff spot.”
“I noticed last year that their lineup was filled with a lot of young and talented players,” he added. “As they get more experience at the major league level, they’re going to start playing well like they’re doing now.”
Although Ross Stripling is coming back from the disabled list, he needs to face live hitters or
While Ross Stripling is coming back from the disabled list, he needs to face live hitters or pitch in a rehab setting before returning to the major league rotation. Meanwhile, there’s no question the Blue Jays need Kikuchi, and that means embracing the inconsistency he delivers from start to finish. At this point, there’s no push toward a role change for the southpaw.
“Not right now,” Schneider said. “We like the progress he’s made. You get to a certain point in the year and you have to try to win every game, but right now he’s definitely giving us a chance.” I think (Monday) it was just a couple of bad pitches in a row, but right now he’s still going to have opportunities.”
Playing at Camden Yards for the first time since the Orioles removed the left-field fences, the Blue Jays hit two home runs, solo shots by Cavan Biggio and Matt Chapman. But Baltimore hit four home runs against the Blue Jays, three off Kikuchi and one off reliever Trent Thornton.
“It’s different,” Schneider said of the new dimensions. “This went from being kind of a sounding board to being the place where you really have to get it to get it out there. it seems far away. The wall is high. Home runs are going to be home runs and some home runs that would have been home runs are going to be fly balls. You have to figure it out and get used to it. It’s definitely different than the Camden we’re used to.”
These aren’t the Orioles we’re used to either. For the Blue Jays, that makes the prospect of these 14 games a little more uncertain, a little less comfortable.
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