ARLINGTON -- The looks on the faces of those 46,000 Baltimore Orioles fans as they quietly exited Camden Yards on Sunday after a discouraging loss to the Rangers was not one of anger, but of sadness. The fans of Baltimore -- a provincial town, a brick town, a neighborhood town -- had waited almost a decade to celebrate the return of October baseball after such a painful rebuild. Instead, 11 walks later, a giant orange mass of people walked into the darkness in stunned silence.
The 11-8 loss -- it was 9-2 in the third inning -- dropped the Orioles into a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five American League Division Series against Texas, with the series heading to Arlington. And considering the magic with which the relentless Texas Rangers have been playing in this postseason, many of those fans sensed there would be no more baseball this season at Camden Yards.
They were right. The Orioles lost 7-1 in Game 3 on Tuesday, ending the season and marking the first time since star catcher Adley Rutschman debuted on May 21, 2022, that the Orioles had been swept in a series of any length. But yet when the season ended Tuesday night at Globe Life Field, the Orioles clubhouse was not in stunned silence. It was awash in the feeling that a still remarkable season just didn't end as expected.
Did manager Brandon Hyde view it as a successful season?
"How can I not?'' he said. "We won 101 games. We won the East. We defied the odds. No one gave us a chance. We played really well all season.''
And they did: Two years after finishing 39 games out of fourth place, the second team ever to finish that far behind the next-worst team in a league or division, the Orioles swiftly revitalized baseball in Baltimore with swashbuckling style of play: young, hungry and athletic players who pushed the action every night, on the bases, at the plate and on the mound. They had the best record in the American League two years after having the worst record, joining the 1967-69 Mets as the only two teams in major league history to win 100 games in the same three-year period in which they lost 100 games. The fans thought the momentum might carry the Orioles to the AL Championship Series, and maybe the World Series.
"It didn't end the way that we wanted, but it was a special season,'' said outfielder Austin Hays, who had endured a lot of losing before the Orioles broke through last year. "It was fun, it was the most fun I've ever seen a team have. That first playoff game at Camden Yards was amazing.''
But then they ran into a Rangers team that is more experienced in October, has a payroll nearly $150 million more than that of the Orioles and was playing exceptionally well at the most optimum time.
"We made great development all year,'' rookie shortstop Gunnar Henderson said. "This was a good step in the right direction. This is going to fuel us for next season. We've got to get better to make a World Series push.''
Compared to many of the other 2023 postseason squads, the Orioles were just young and inexperienced for October, though Hyde refused to blame those attributes -- "Our guys just play.'' And despite another round of questions about whether the five days off between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the postseason are good or bad for a top seed, Hyde refused to blame that, either. To stay sharp, the Orioles played two intersquad games, one of which was open to the public -- about 2,000 fans showed up.
Still, the Orioles looked young and rusty against the Rangers, nothing like the team that had a winning record every month of the season (other than 0-1 in October). The Orioles lost the opener 4-3 with their best pitcher, Kyle Bradish, against Andrew Heaney, who had thrown 15 innings in the past 32 days. Orioles pitchers struck out 16, allowing the Rangers to become only the second team in postseason history to win a nine-inning game in which they struck out 16 times. The Rangers were the first team in postseason history to have their No. 3 hitter (Robbie Grossman) and No. 4 hitter (Adolis Garcia) each strike out four times in the same game. But the Orioles didn't get a hit with a runner in scoring position. Down a run in the eighth inning against a beleaguered bullpen, the Orioles had runners on first and second with none out -- and didn't score. They got the leadoff man on in each of the last three innings and didn't score.
The Orioles' ninth inning also brought confusion. Henderson singled to start the inning. On a 2-1 pitch to veteran outfielder Aaron Hicks, Henderson was thrown out trying to steal thanks in part to a great exchange and throw by Rangers catcher Jonah Heim. Hyde was caught on TV cameras saying, "What the f---!?'' After the game, Hyde called it "a little miscommunication.'' Henderson said, "I saw the steal sign.''
The next day, Hyde confirmed, "[Hicks] missed a hit-and-run sign on a hittable pitch.''
As badly as Game 1 ended, Game 2 started even worse. The Orioles' Grayson Rodriguez, one of the best young pitchers in the game, didn't get through the second inning, allowing four walks and five runs. The Rangers' Mitch Garver hit a grand slam in the third inning and suddenly the Rangers had a 9-2 lead. The sellout crowd, which was so loud, so joyous when the playoffs began, was suddenly hushed. The Orioles would rally, but the final score, 11-8, was misleading. Baltimore pitchers walked 11 batters, one shy of the major league record for a postseason game.
In Game 3, another five-run second inning for the Rangers blew it open, essentially ending a magical season. The Orioles became the fourth team in history to fail to win a playoff game in a season in which they won 100 games, joining the 1971 A's, '76 Phillies, '80 Yankees and 2019 Twins. It was indeed a deflating way to end a season, but the 2023 season cannot be viewed as a disappointment for the Orioles, not the way it would be for, say, the Dodgers or Braves, who entered the season with enormous expectations. It should be viewed as a building block, a learning experience, for a team that's likely going to be in the postseason for years to come. In the last two years, the Orioles have gone ahead of schedule in their rebuild, jumping from 52 wins to 83 in 2022, then from 83 to 101 in 2023. It is so difficult to make a huge leap like last season's -- it's harder to make another vault the next year.
The Orioles did both, and even now their future is exceptionally bright. Henderson, who will win the AL Rookie of the Year, "will be a star in this league for 15 years,'' Hyde said. Rutschman is one of the best catchers in the game, and likely will only get better. Outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who was on the playoff roster, "can mash,'' Hyde said. Outfielder Colton Cowser, third baseman Coby Mayor and infielder Joey Ortiz are among the many prospects in the system. The best player in all of minor league baseball is perhaps 19-year-old Jackson Holliday, who might be the Orioles' everyday shortstop next year (moving Henderson to third base): Imagine that left side of the infield for the next five to 10 years.
Rodriguez, with tremendous stuff and great maturity, is a star in the making. Bradish has a 2.81 ERA over his past 38 starts, and this year became the first Oriole since Mike Mussina in 1992 to finish in the top three in ERA. John Means, the ace of the staff in 2021, pitched effectively at the end of the season after returning from Tommy John surgery. Next year, the bullpen will be without Felix Bautista, who had Tommy John surgery in August; losing him during a pennant race was a huge setback. Still, there are power arms in the pen. Left-hander DL Hall became a go-to arm out of the bullpen this season. And more pitching is on the way.
"This isn't a fluke,'' Hays said. "This team is on the rise.''
"This,'' Henderson said, "is just a shadow of what we're capable of.''
When next season arrives, the Orioles likely will be the team to beat in the AL East. They will still be young, hungry and athletic, but more experienced than the team that finished 2023. And when those fans arrive at Camden Yards on Opening Day 2024, they should be thrilled about the direction the team is headed. It will be a happy day, not a sad one.