No doubt, the end hurt—and it arrived earlier than expected. The scenes of a sudden finish late Tuesday night to an otherwise joyous, six-month season told the entire story. Adley Rutschman just stared at the Texas Rangers jumping up and down near the pitcher’s mound. So did Gunnar Henderson and everyone else in the visiting dugout after the Orioles lost 7-1 in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
These O’s were swept out of the team’s first postseason since 2016, losing every game of a series against a single opponent for the first time since May 2022. And it happened at the worst time, in the postseason, which magnified various coaches’ decisions and player performances and left plenty of room for second-guessing.
Why did O’s manager Brandon Hyde pull starter Kyle Bradish in the fifth inning of Game 1 when he was pitching well? How in the world did veteran Aaron Hicks miss a hit-and-run sign in the bottom of the ninth, leaving Henderson out to dry on a steal attempt and scuttling the O’s chances of a comeback win, down just one? Why couldn’t the O’s other starting pitchers, Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer, last longer than two innings in Games 2 and 3? In general, how was it that a team that won 101 games in the regular season couldn’t win a single matchup in the postseason—after having five days off to prepare?
We have our ideas, but you can bet the Orioles’ Bird Braintrust will be working on addressing these questions all offseason. And while an early playoff exit, “sucks”—as Hyde said after the O’s season-ending loss Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas—for the guys who actually play the game, the abrupt playoff exit could galvanize them heading into next year. Practically, there’s the baseball part of things. As Hyde explained: “Something we need to work on as a pitching staff going into spring training next year [is] making more competitive pitches with two strikes.” Pitching doomed the O’s in myriad ways, with key pitches landing in the seats rather than hitting Rutschman’s glove.
Then there are the questions about who will be back or added. Surely, some veterans who were on one-year deals (or less, initially) like pitcher Kyle Gibson, who didn’t see action until the end of Game 3; second baseman Adam Frazier; and Hicks, a midseason free-agent signing from the New York Yankees’ scrapyard; may not be back at all, even though the latter was one of the O’s better postseason hitters.
Will the O’s bring in a top-line starting pitcher that it looked like they very much could have used in these playoffs? (See: the Rangers’ Nathan Eovaldi—that’s a postseason pitcher with experience.) If they’re willing to spend the money, sure, but the O’s front office hasn’t shown the inclination to do so, and it remains a (big) open question whether O’s managing partner John Angelos has given them the flexibility to sign a big-time free agent at any position if desired. Banking on pitchers like Bradish, Rodriguez, Kremer, and others to further develop seems more likely.
There’s also the overhanging issue of the Orioles’ lease at Camden Yards, which remains unresolved except for an agreement between the state and the team to come to another agreement. But O’s players fortunately seemed immune to that situation throughout the year. Maybe they are too young to care.
But let’s not let all these lingering uncertainties, and the gut punch of a jarring stop to an otherwise terrific season, obscure the bright big picture, either.
If you said, “There’s always next year,” anytime since 1983, the last time the organization won a World Series, you’ve likely been disappointed. Unless you had hope before a pair of playoff runs in 1996 and 1997, or during the prime of the Buck Showalter years, which peaked in 2014 on Delmon Young Double Day. The O’s haven’t won a playoff series since that play helped them beat the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series.
Now, after a 101-win season, you can talk about the future and actually believe more good things are to come in six months when the next season starts. This season, the Orioles won their most games since 1979, when the club won 102 and reached the World Series. Forty-plus years ago, that more veteran group used coming up short in the playoffs as fire for a run at a championship over the next several years, which they did in 1983. The O’s core of talent today has even more runway ahead of it. Rutschman and Henderson are just getting their feet wet in the majors, and the way baseball contracts work, they will both be under “team control” through 2027 and 2028, respectively.
Others haven’t even felt the water yet, like the top prospect in all of baseball, 19-year-old Jackson Holliday, who rocketed through the minor leagues to Triple-A a little more than a year after the O’s picked him first overall in the 2022 MLB Draft. Infielder Jordan Westberg got his first taste of the postseason. Outfielder Heston Kjerstad didn’t see any action, but made the playoff roster, too. The O’s minor-league system is stacked like it hasn’t been in decades.
“We have a lot of guys who have never been to the postseason before,” Hyde said. “So this hurts, and it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to have this kind of fuel to your fire in the offseason. It’s going to take a while for us to get over this, but I think our guys will come in hunting and hungry in spring training. The guys coming back, especially the young guys, know what this feels like, they know what it tastes like, and it sucks. If they did soak it in a little bit, they’re going to be better for it down the road.”
Also remember, the O’s success this year arrived ahead of schedule. A year after the data-crunchers and prognosticators gave the O’s little chance of winning more than 80 games and even making the playoffs, they could be a favorite to make next year’s postseason. In other words, there is a next year for these Orioles. Likely a very good one.
Anyone can say what they want about being ready for the postseason, but until you actually are in it—fans screaming nonstop, heart-pounding, stomach tense, senses leaving your body—you don’t know what it feels like. (I sure don’t. My Little League travel tournament games were nerve-wracking enough for me, but I’m relying on what other people have told me about the pros over the years.) We saw a lot of deep breaths being taken by these O’s, who now have what they call in the business, playoff seasoning.
Here’s what Henderson said Sunday night, after the O’s dropped Game 2, but he hit his first postseason homer near Eutaw Street: “I felt like once I got out of the first couple pitches in the first game yesterday, I settled down, and I felt like I was treating it just like any other game now. Felt like I got my feet up under me. The crowds are a bit louder, they’re more energetic. I feel like you just got to try your best to treat it the same way as a normal game.”
If these playoffs showed anything, other than the obvious disappointment, it’s that Henderson, who finished 6-for-12 hitting, is an undeniable superstar in the making. Hyde said of Henderson: “He’s going to be a bright spot in this league for a long time.”
Gunnar Henderson hit .500 in his first career playoff series.
The rookie on what he learned about postseason baseball. pic.twitter.com/vwauzZAEdf
— Orioles on MASN (@masnOrioles) October 11, 2023
“That is a great young player that Baltimore is going to get to see for at least the next five years,” Hall-of-Fame pitcher-turned-television analyst John Smoltz said during FOX’s broadcast of Game 3. “And these Baltimore Orioles are in good hands with a lot of their young players. Regardless of what happens in this series, they’re going to learn a lot through this experience.”
Rutschman had a bit of a hitting slump in the postseason, but those happen. And everyone in Baltimore should feel fortunate he’s in an Orioles uniform, too. His presence at the plate has been proven tremendously valuable since he was called up to the majors last year, which began the O’s sweep-less streak and was the catalyst for a 10-game win streak that started to get people’s attention.
Then there’s the O’s prospects not even on the team, or who have made little impact thus far. We can’t know what’s going to happen next year, but the point is: for the first time in a long time, you can think about it already—and not feel helpless.
“Now we have experience,” Hyde said. “This team going forward—heads up—it’s going to be a really good club.”