Gunnar Henderson stood in front of his locker Sunday night after the Orioles’ 11-8 loss to the Texas Rangers, wearing the scars from it. A fresh bruise marked the corner of his right eye and dirt sprinkled across the chest of his orange jersey—the result of a head-first slide into home plate in the first inning in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. It “felt like a razor” hit his face, he said, as he hit the ground and his helmet went flying.
And that was when things were going well.
In front of a sold-out crowd at Camden Yards—desperate to see the O’s even their first postseason series in nine years—they went up by two early on Aaron Hicks’ bases-loaded single to right field, which whipped more than 46,000 fans into a unified frenzy. Henderson scored from second base, culminating an all-out sprint with a euphoric dive that left him worn afterward.
The Birds did what they had struggled to do the last few weeks of the season—and in a 3-2 loss in Game 1. Score early and take pressure off their pitchers. Still, the O’s hopes began to unravel shortly after.
Rookie starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez’s postseason debut did not go very well. He exited the game in the second inning, after giving up five runs, four walks, and “spraying” his fastball all over, he said afterward. And the bullpen was arguably worse. Bryan Baker walked the bases loaded in the third and Jacob Webb entered and gave up a grand slam to little-known Mitch Garver, the first hitter he faced, which dropped the O’s into a 9-2 hole and sent Webb looking to the sky in frustration—and maybe for some hope.
Help wasn’t coming from above, at least not enough. The early deficit proved to be too much, too soon for the Orioles to overcome. Eleven total walks from Rodriguez and the O’s bullpen, including an MLB postseason record five allowed to the Rangers’ Corey Seager, doomed them the most. Though the O’s hitters clawed back to make it close late.
“Tonight wasn’t our best night on the mound,” Hyde said Sunday. “Give [our guys] a lot of credit for being down 9-2 and then giving ourselves a chance, getting some baserunners, scratching away a little bit. We have to go to Texas and play well. We haven’t played our two best games here.”
The veteran Hicks—in something of a redemption after missing a hit-and-run sign in the ninth inning of Game 1—smacked a three-run homer in the ninth to cut the Rangers lead to three. Henderson, a rookie who played and sounded like a seasoned pro—especially by not sending any blame Hicks’ way in the wake of the Game 1 loss when asked about the puzzling play that Hyde initially labeled as “miscommunication”—launched his first postseason homer in the fifth Sunday, 401 feet to the Eutaw Street patio, sparking the almost-comeback. Jorge Mateo had the stadium buzzing with four hits.
With the crowd back on its feet and waving orange towels after Hicks’ late homer, the next batter, pinch-hitter Ryan O’Hearn, almost cut it to two, but his deep opposite field swipe couldn’t quite clear the left field wall.
“We kept fighting, and brought it back pretty close,” Henderson said in the Orioles clubhouse after the game. “No matter what the situation is, we’re going to keep fighting. You can never count us out.”
But the Orioles, after a sizzling, 101-win, American League East-winning regular season performance that gave them the top seed in the A.L. for the postseason, are suddenly on the brink of playoff elimination. They head to Texas for Game 3 of this best-of-five series on Tuesday night facing a must-win, and then another on Wednesday, should they want to bring playoff baseball back to Baltimore for a series decider Friday night. If not, all the fun at Camden Yards will be over as quickly as it arrived. Playoff MLB teams that have lost their first two games of a best-of-five series are 10-78, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
So, can the O’s save their season? Well, they’re certainly going to try. After the game Sunday, Henderson didn’t seem fazed, alluding to the Orioles’ presumed slim chances at even being in the playoffs at the start of the year, according to data crunchers and prognosticators.
“We’ve proved to ourselves it doesn’t matter where we are or what situation we’re in, we can overcome the odds,” Henderson said, “and we have that confidence because we’ve proved it throughout the year.”
Catcher Adley Rutschman was similarly even-keeled. Asked if the day off in between Game 2’s loss and Game 3 on Tuesday night would be a benefit, he said, “Honestly, I don’t know. We’re going to see. This is my first time doing this postseason thing. We’re going to work out tomorrow and try to get ready to go.” He also fielded questions about Rodriguez’s performance on the mound and the challenge of facing what appears to be a hot Texas lineup with aplomb, the type of reaction we (and teammates) have come to expect from Rutschman since he was called up to the major leagues in May 2022.
The Orioles haven’t been swept in a series since Rutschman’s debut (or Henderson’s)—a streak near 90, the third-longest in baseball history—and the O’s are seeking to draw on the belief that gives them.
“The moment is not too big for them,” outfielder Austin Hays said of the Baby Birds, also mentioning second baseman Jordan Westburg. “They’re all business. They come in and prepare the right way like they’ve always done, staying within themselves.”
Though, the more we hear anyone talk about how the Orioles came back from two games down against the Tampa Bay Rays last month to even that late regular season series and preserve their division-title chances, the more it concerns us they’re relying too much on that experience. After all, Texas just swept Tampa Bay in a best-of-three Wild Card Series to advance to face the Orioles.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Mateo said through a translator. “We’re going to fight the fight.”
Hyde still hasn’t named a starting pitcher for Game 3. “Pretty much everybody is going to be available,” he said. The starter likely would have been John Means, back from Tommy John surgery, had he not experienced some elbow pain after last Thursday’s two-inning practice appearance at Camden Yards. Veteran Kyle Gibson or Dean Kremer, who didn’t appear in Game 1 nor Game 2, figure to be in line to get the ball first. I asked Gibson, the 35-year-old who reached the World Series with the Phillies last year, on Sunday night if he’d be ready to go. “I feel confident in my ability to get outs,” he said.
That’s what they need if this revival season isn’t to end as soon as it seemed to captivate everyone’s imagination around town.
“It’s not how you want to start off your playoff series, but it’s not over,” Henderson said. “It’s never over until the last pitch is thrown. I feel like that’s how we treat it each and every day.”