As his teammates celebrated their AL East championship last week, Baltimore outfielder Austin Hays took a moment to reflect on the Orioles’ journey from 110-loss doormat to top seed in the American League playoffs.
“It’s as satisfying as it could ever be,” he said. “When you’re going through those rough days, those hundred-loss seasons, it’s like you almost can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we’ve reached the light at the end of the tunnel, and all that dark stuff is behind us now.”
Now the Orioles enter the postseason in an unusual position. It’s not often a 101-win team is a sentimental favorite among neutral fans who like rooting for the underdog, but at this stage in its climb, Charm City’s team is still pretty darn … charming?
Baltimore isn’t the favorite in the AL — that’s defending champion Houston — and the Orioles don’t have much postseason experience. What they do have is a young, athletic roster that has shown remarkable consistency and adaptability throughout the 2023 season.
“A huge part of our success this year is how athletic we are, how versatile we are,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Guys can play all over the field.”
When the Orioles host Texas in Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Saturday, they’ll enter a postseason that already feels a little different. Three teams — Baltimore, Texas and Arizona — have reached this quarterfinal round after losing at least 100 games two years ago. This is also a season in which payroll doesn’t seem to matter that much. Of the 12 teams that reached the playoffs, six had payrolls in the top half of the major leagues and six were in the bottom half.
So the Orioles, who lost 110 games in 2021 and still rank 29th in payroll, fit right in. There may be some frustration in Baltimore in the years to come if the team doesn’t spend enough to keep these talented players together, but for now the Orioles are an up-and-coming bunch just arriving on the scene — with all the excitement that entails.
The Orioles had 48 come-from-behind victories this season, tied for the most in the majors. They had only 27 losses in which they blew a lead, tied for the fewest. They went 30-16 in one-run games, which is a thrilling way to succeed even if it’s difficult to sustain. The bottom line: You’d be hard pressed to find a city that’s had more fun with its baseball team this year than Baltimore.
They won with athleticism — Cedric Mullins robbing home runs in center field and rookie Gunnar Henderson showing off his defensive ability at shortstop and third base. Although Henderson and catcher Adley Rutschman look capable of being franchise cornerstones for a while, Baltimore’s balance and depth means the Orioles haven’t relied too much on one player.
“There are days that we might not have our power showing, but we’ve got our speed and we’ve got our athletic ability,” Mullins said. “I’d say the balance kind of comes in through everyone being able to step up. Even guys on the bench that day, might have a day off, can come in late, make something happen.”
For such a young team, the Orioles have had remarkably few big performance swings. They went the whole season without being swept in a series and never lost more than four games in a row. There was concern about the number of innings the young starting pitchers were accumulating, but Kyle Bradish finished third in the AL in ERA (2.83) and rookie Grayson Rodriguez posted a 2.58 ERA after the All-Star break.
“To me, both those guys haven’t lost anything throughout the course of the entire season,” Hyde said. “Maybe even jumped up a little bit. Credit to those guys for staying in shape and pushing through maybe some things that they’ve never had to experience before from an innings standpoint.”
Hyde announced Friday that Bradish will get the start in Saturday’s Game 1, and Rodriguez will start Game 2 Sunday.
The Rangers announced Friday night that Andrew Heaney will start the series opener Saturday, followed by Jordan Montgomery in Game 2. Texas used Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi in their sweep of Tampa Bay in the Wild Card Series, which seemed to make Dane Dunning the likely starter to begin this matchup with Baltimore.
Instead it will be Heaney, who was 10-6 with a 4.15 ERA this year in his first season with the Rangers.
Carlos Correa leads Twins vs. former team
Houston manager Dusty Baker admitted this week that Carlos Correa is one of his favorite players.
That goodwill toward the former Astros star turned Minnesota mainstay won’t extend into this weekend, when Houston hosts the Twins in the AL Division Series.
“Personally, I don’t care if it’s my brother or my mama or dad or anybody on the other side,” Baker said. “If they’re on the other side when the game time starts, well, they are the opposition.”
Correa was drafted first overall by Houston in 2012 and spent seven seasons with the Astros before signing with the Twins prior to the 2022 season. He remains close with many Astros players and coaches, but agreed with Baker that he’ll push that aside when the best-of-five series starts Saturday.
“We’ll be friends again after this series,” Correa said Friday. “Right now, we’re both … focused on winning this series. It’s an important one.”
The Twins swept the Blue Jays 2-0 in the first round to win a playoff series for the first time in 21 years and get the chance to face the defending champion Astros, who are in their seventh-consecutive Division Series.
Houston’s Justin Verlander opposes Minnesota’s Bailey Ober in the opener. Ober went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 26 starts this season. He was sent to Triple-A for about a month before returning to the Twins on Sept. 15.
Ober was strong after his return and went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in four starts. It will be the first career postseason start for the big right-hander who was not included on the wild-card roster.
Verlander will be making his 35th career postseason start after returning to the AL West champion Astros in a trade from the New York Mets this summer. He was 13-8 with a 3.22 ERA in 27 starts this season. The three-time Cy Young Award winner was 7-3 with a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts for Houston after the trade.
The Astros will start left-hander Framber Valdez in Game 2 Sunday night in Houston, against the Twins’ Pablo López.
Braves seek vengeance vs. Phillies
The Atlanta Braves walked off the field a year ago a thoroughly beaten team, their defense of the World Series championship wiped out in less than a week.
Now, they’ve got another shot at the team that delivered the playoff heartache.
The 104-win Braves romped to their sixth straight division title with the major leagues’ best record and a power-packed lineup that tied the major league record with 307 homers.
They open the best-of-five NL Division Series on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies in a much-anticipated postseason rematch.
“A really cool series on paper, right?” Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber said before a workout at Truist Park. “I’m sure a lot of people wish that this could be a seven-game series.”
Led by MVP favorite Ronald Acuña Jr., the first player with 40 homers and 70 stolen bases in a season, the Braves are eager to replicate their run to the World Series championship in 2021.
They’d prefer to forget what happened last October. After finishing 14 games behind Atlanta during the regular season, the Phillies stunned the Braves in the NLDS.
It wasn’t that close, either. After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Phillies finished off the series by winning the final two on their home field by a combined 17-4.
“What happened last year is in the past,” Acuña, sporting a 40-70 T-shirt, said through an interpreter.
Philadelphia’s upset of the Braves was part of an improbable postseason run that didn’t end until the World Series, when the Phillies finally ran out of steam in a loss to the Houston Astros.
They are determined to finish the job in 2023, and certainly looked up to the task by making quick work of Miami in the wild card round. Philadelphia swept the upstart Marlins by scores of 4-1 and 7-1, the clincher capped by Bryson Stott’s grand slam.
In an effort to maintain their edge while sitting out a first-round bye, the Braves — who won the season series with the Phillies 8-5 — played three intrasquad games at Truist Park. They hope the change in tactics will lead to a sharper performance against the Phillies this time around.
The Braves will start ace Spencer Strider in Game 1. The 24-year-old right-hander is also the major leagues’ only 20-game winner, finishing with a 20-5 mark, with 281 Ks in 186⅔ innings.
Against the Phillies, Strider has gone 7-0 with a 2.01 ERA over seven career regular season starts, including 3-0 with a 1.45 ERA against them this year. But, he was knocked out of last year’s NLDS Game 3 after giving up five runs in less than three innings.
The Phillies are going with Ranger Suárez, just as they did in Game 1 of last year’s NLDS, even though the left-hander went only 4-6 with a 4.18 ERA in a season plagued by injuries. Zack Wheeler (13-6, 3.61) and Aaron Nola (12-9, 4.46) will start the next two games for the Phillies.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw back for one more shot
Clayton Kershaw has never been one for making excuses. Whether it’s his health or velocity, both of which have taken hits in recent years, he would rather gut out whatever is going on in silence.
“He’s a survivor, he’s a competitor,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He just wills himself to great performance.”
The 100-win Dodgers will rely on their stalwart left-hander when Kershaw starts the NL Division Series opener Saturday against the 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks. He was 13-5 with a 2.46 ERA during the season.
Kershaw missed over a month with a shoulder injury that neither he nor the Dodgers have said much about. The team carefully managed his outings, which have not gone beyond five innings since he came off the injured list on Aug. 10.
At 35 and in his 16th season with the only big league team he’s ever played for, the three-time Cy Young Award winner could be in his final postseason.
The Dodgers will rely on Kershaw, veteran Lance Lynn in his first season in LA and a group of rookies who started 52 of the 162 regular-season games. Bobby Miller, who gets the ball in Game 2 on Monday, made 22 starts. Also in the mix are Emmett Sheehan, Michael Grove, Gavin Stone and Ryan Pepiot.
Arizona’s Merrill Kelly opposes Kershaw in Game 1. The right-hander is 0-11 with a 5.49 ERA in 16 starts against the Dodgers. Zac Gallen starts in Game 2. With an extra off day between Games 1 and 2, Kelly and Gallen could pitch in Games 4 and 5 if the series goes the distance.