MLB Playoffs 2023: Despite the Orioles’ ALDS loss, the future looks bright

Tim KurkjianESPN Senior WriterOctober 11, 2023, 12:28 AM ET6 minutes of reading

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

ARLINGTON — The quiet exit from Camden Yards Sunday after a disappointing loss to the Rangers in front of 46,000 Baltimore Orioles fans was not anger, but sadness. Fans of Baltimore — a provincial town, a brick town, a neighborhood town — have waited nearly a decade to celebrate the return of October baseball after such a painful rebuild. Instead, after 11 walks, a giant orange crowd went into the darkness in stunned silence.

The 11-8 loss — which was 9-2 in the third inning — put the Orioles up 2-0 in the best-of-five American League division series against Texas, with the series headed to Arlington. Many of those fans felt there would be no baseball at Camden Yards this season, given the unrelenting spell the Texas Rangers have played this season.

They were right. The Orioles’ 7-1 loss in Game 3 on Tuesday ended the season and marked the first time the Orioles had been swept in any stretch since star catcher Adlee Rutchman debuted on May 21, 2022. But when the season ended Tuesday night at Globe Life Field, the Orioles clubhouse wasn’t in stunned silence. Yet it was in the sense that a remarkable season did not end as expected.

Did manager Brandon Hyde consider it a successful season?

“How could I not?” he said. “We won 101 games. We conquered the East. We defied the odds. No one gave us a chance. We have played well all season,” he said.

And they did: Two years after finishing 39 games out of fourth place, far behind the next-worst team in the league or division, the Orioles were quickly revitalized with the swashbuckling style of Baltimore baseball: young, hungry and athletic, every night, on the bases, at the plate and They pushed the action on the mound. Two years after having the worst record they had the best record in the American League, joining the Mets in 1967–69 as the only two teams to win 100 games in the same three-year span, joining the Mets in 1967–69. Fans thought this momentum could carry the Orioles to the AL Championship Series and the World Series.

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“It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but it was a special season,” said outfielder Austin Hayes, who suffered a lot of losses last year before the Orioles broke through. “It was fun, it was overwhelming. I’ve seen a funnier team. That first playoff game at Camden Yards was amazing.

But then they ran into a more experienced Rangers team in October, a payroll nearly $150 million higher than the Orioles and playing well at the most opportune time.

“We’ve had great growth throughout the year,” said new shortstop Gunnar Henderson. “It’s a good step in the right direction and it’s fuel for next season. We have to do well to make a World Series.

Compared to other 2023 postseason teams, the Orioles were young and inexperienced in October, though Hyde refused to fault those traits — “Our guys play.”And despite another round of questions about whether five days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason is good or bad for a top seed, Hyde refused to blame it. To keep things sharp, the Orioles played two intersquad games, one of which was open to the public — about 2,000 fans attended.

However, the Orioles looked young and rusty against the Rangers, nothing like a team that had a winning record every month of the season (except for 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, making the Rangers only the second team to win a nine-inning game with 16 hits. The Rangers became 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 a single game. But the Orioles didn’t get a runner in scoring position. Down one run against a hapless bullpen in the eighth inning, the Orioles put runners on first and second — and didn’t score. They turned on the leadoff man in the last three innings and did not score.

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The Orioles’ ninth inning was also confusing. Henderson opened the innings. On a 2-1 pitch to senior outfielder Aaron Hicks, Henderson was thrown out trying to steal thanks to a big exchange and throw by Rangers catcher Jonah Heim. “What the f—!?” Hyde was caught on TV cameras. After the game, Hyde called it a “little bit of miscommunication.” Henderson said, “I saw the steal sign.

The next day, Hyde confirmed, “[Hicks] He missed the hit-and-run mark on a hitable pitch.”

As Game 1 ended, Game 2 started even worse. Grayson Rodriguez of the Orioles, one of the best young pitchers in the game, allowed four walks and five runs in the second inning. The Rangers’ Mitch Carver hit a grand slam in the third inning, suddenly giving the Rangers a 9-2 lead. The crowd of vendors that had been so loud and happy when the playoffs began suddenly fell silent. The Orioles rallied, 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 by the Rangers broke it open, essentially ending a magical season. The Orioles became the fourth team in history to fail to win a playoff game in a 100-game season, joining the 1971 A’s, ’76 Phillies, ’80 Yankees and 2019 Twins. It’s certainly a dysfunctional way to end a season, but the 2023 season can’t be viewed as a disappointment for the Orioles, let alone 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 could be in the postseason for years. Over the past two years, the Orioles have gotten ahead of schedule in their rebuild, going from 52 wins to 83 in 2022 and then 83 to 101 in 2023. It’s very difficult to make a huge leap like last season — it’s difficult to make another vault next year.

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The Orioles did both, and even now their future looks exceptionally bright. Henderson, who will win the AL Rookie of the Year award, “will be a star in this league for 15 years,” Hyde said. Rutchman is one of the best catchers in the game and will continue to do well. Outfielder Heston Gerstad, who was on the playoff roster, “can mash,” Hyde said. Outfielder Colton Cowser, third baseman Kobe Meyer and infielder Joey Ortiz are among the other prospects in the organization. The best player in all of minor league baseball is 19-year-old Jackson Holiday, who could be the Orioles’ everyday shortstop next year (moving Henderson to third base): Imagine the left side of the infield for the next five to 10. years.

Rodriguez is a star in the making, with great stuff and great maturity. Bradish has a 2.81 ERA over his past 38 starts and this year became the first Oriole to finish in the top three in ERA since Mike Mussina in 1992. John Means, the staff’s ace 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 underwent Tommy John surgery in August; Losing him during the pennant race was a huge setback. Still, the pen has power weapons. DL Hall, a left-hander, moved out of the bullpen this season. And pitching is underway.

“It wasn’t a fluke,” Hayes said. “This team is on the rise.

“This,” Henderson said, “is only a shadow of what we can do.”

Come next season, the Orioles 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 in 2024, they should be excited about the direction the team is headed. It will be a happy day, not a sad one.

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