CHICAGO — The last time the Baltimore Orioles took the field and were vying for their 10th straight win, Cal Ripken Jr. started at third base and Albert Belle occupied right field.
It was September 18, 1999. The oldest player in the current Orioles roster was 9. Most were 5 or 6 years old.
Yes, it’s been a while since the Birds have been the talk of baseball — at least for anything other than losing 100 games, a dubious feat accomplished by the O’s in each of the last three consecutive — sometimes maddening — 162 games became seasons (with the exception of the shortened 2020 campaign).
But that run could come to an end in 2022 – thanks to a very different kind of streak than this year’s O’s.
“It’s been about five years,” said longtime Oriole Trey Mancini of the last time the O’s had any sort of sustained win. “You forget how it is.”
The Orioles are reminded of this daily. The final celebration came on Wednesday when they won their 45th game of the season, a 7-1 win over the Chicago Cubs (last year the O’s won their 45th game on Sept. 8). It increased her winning streak to 10 and her record to over .500 for the first time this year. It’s the latest in a season they’ve had a winning record since 2017.
Just before the final series sweep, manager Brandon Hyde revealed his phone was buzzing while friends across the league shared their excitement about his team.
“I hear from ex-Cubs, other front office guys and all my friends,” said Hyde, who was the bench coach for the Chicago Cubs as they reached the postseason for four straight years in the last decade. “You are happy for me and our team and to read something positive from Baltimore where it has been difficult over the years.”
When Hyde was put in charge of rebuilding Orioles in 2019, the team had finished bottom for the previous two seasons. They had won just 47 games the year before, the lowest total since moving to Baltimore in 1954.
Hyde knew what he was getting himself into. Still, it wasn’t easy.
“No, no, no,” Hyde said with a grin. “There were a lot of things that surprised me in my first year here in Baltimore because I’ve been so used to winning for the past four years.”
It finally seems to be paying off. Eight games under the 500 on June 1, Baltimore has since gone 23-14. The squad has not lost a game since July 2. Baltimore is only the fourth team in league history to have at least 10 straight wins after ending the previous season with the league’s worst record.
They do it on the mound where they have the second best ERA (3.17) in the AL during the streak, and they do it on the plate – sometimes in dramatic ways. The Orioles hit .366 with two outs and runners in goal position. And they won three straight games for the first time since 1979 after falling behind in the ninth inning or later.
“We had two tough losses in Minnesota just before this series and bounced back immediately after that,” Mancini said. “But we were still competitive in those games. We looked in the mirror and saw that we developed as a team. We play well against good teams all year round.”
Bench coach Fredi Gonzalez said he could tell something was different in the early weeks of the season, pointing to a mid-April streak win over the Yankees. No one in the organization knew for sure what moves the Orioles would take in 2022 — particularly in the strained AL East — but they were determined not to be a pushover anymore.
“When we played the Yankees, we played hard against them,” Gonzalez said. “And now when they see us coming, they know it’s going to be a fight. We compete with the big boys every day. Those early series made a difference.”
Early victories over New York and even Tampa Bay set the tone in the clubhouse for what the Orioles are doing now. Hyde credits his pitching staff with making the difference. It’s a ragtag group that pulls it off — after ending up in Baltimore, after being DFA’d, fired, or just put aside by other teams.
“It’s a bunch of guys trying to prove they’ve got something left in the tank,” said right-hander Austin Voth. “It’s their time to come here and show and prove they can play in this league.”
Voth is one of those guys who was released from waivers last month by the Nationals, where he had a 10.13 ERA in 19 games this season. He has made eight appearances for Baltimore, including five starts, and has never looked better as he posted a 3.80 ERA and a 1.266 WHIP.
“That’s why I like her,” Hyde said. “These are guys who have been around for a while and may not have gotten the right chance. I think it’s great that they take all their chances.”
The Orioles’ pitching transformation — the O’s have finished bottom in three of the last four seasons in the MLB ERA — was a particular focus of Mike Elias’ regime, which led coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes to overhaul the system.
“I was kind of blown away by all the data that they have here,” Voth said. “The video guys and how to break down stats and pitches. And individual things for each pitcher. That was great for me.”
It’s part of a package of attributes Elias brought with him from Houston after his 2019 hiring, and Hyde brought with him a few months later.
“One of the things that struck me is the relationship that[Hyde]has with Mike,” Gonzalez said. “They trust each other. That’s what it takes when you lose 100 games a few years in a row.
“We’ve all seen it when the manager gets beaten for three years and suddenly when you’re ready to win they fire the guy and get someone else. That didn’t happen here. Hopefully he can be seen all the way here, from start to finish.”
Hyde has a year left on his contract, but there’s something within reach that even he probably couldn’t believe: a place in the playoffs later this season. The Orioles are just two games away from the wildcard spots, though bouncing the teams ahead of them — including three division rivals — won’t be easy.
On Wednesday, all five AL East teams had winning records, just the third time in the wild card era that all teams in a division are above .500 on July 13 or later. However, only the Orioles make it with the lowest payroll on MLB’s opening day. And that includes $23 million paid to Chris Davis, who retired last year.
“A lot of people will say that we seem to be a different team than we’ve been in years past,” Mancini said. “It’s a testament to what we’ve built here and what our manager has accomplished. You couldn’t tell anything about him during the hard times. I think he was a very, very big reason for our success.”
Of course, Hyde said, hiding the toll of losses from your players is sometimes easier said than done.
“It took a lot of patience,” he said. “It’s something I’m proud of. I’ve tried to be as patient as possible while having high expectations and holding the guys accountable.”
His team’s future only looks rosier from here. Baltimore has a stretched farm system – #1 in Kiley McDaniel’s rankings going this season – and is starting to make its way into the big leagues. 2019 Overall No. 1 Adleyrutschman made his debut this season and is proving he belongs; while the organization is sure to add another big talent this weekend if they draft first again.
Finally, the arrow points up for the formerly sad Orioles. And after four years at Hyde, they’ve adopted an attitude familiar to many recovery teams tired of sitting on the sidelines in October: simply being better than last year isn’t good enough.
“It’s nice that we’re being discussed positively, because every time we’ve been discussed nationally over the last few years, it’s been the opposite,” Mancini said.
“But that’s not the end goal. … There is no sense of contentment.”
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