OAKLAND — In the visitors’ bullpen on Monday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum, as the night’s starters were warming up, O’s pitchers used one of the home plates in the bullpen as a target for bocce ball. Before team stretch and pitchers throwing session on Wednesday, they gathered in a circle and played hacky sack. Come the final out that afternoon, chests were pounded, gloves were clapped and emotions were run high.
This Orioles’ pitching staff, long criticized and questioned in the lead-up to this season, are casting away the expectations laid out for them. They are accomplishing AL- and MLB-leading feats in a variety of different ways. And they are, above all, having fun.
Who could blame them with the results they’re having?
Wednesday afternoon’s s 1-0 victory in Oakland, coming off dropping the first two games in the series, was a continuation of a revelation. Led by Jordan Lyles’ five shutout frames, the rotation’s 2.68 ERA stands as fifth-best in the Majors. Add in the bullpen’s dominance — four more shutout frames with just two baserunners against baseball’s hottest offense — and that mark drops to 2.57, also fifth.
The Orioles are tied for the Major League lead with three shutouts. All have come in the last nine days — a stretch of pitching that hasn’t been accomplished since the 2017 Orioles did so twice.
“It’s just contagious,” said right-hander Jorge López.
López’s afternoon might have been emblematic of Orioles pitching as of late, entering with a two-on, one-out situation in the eighth. He proceeded to strike out Christian Lopes with an unhittable 99 mph sinker in. He then evaded the threat with a groundout he fielded from first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, providing a little slap of his glove in exclamation after he stepped on first.
That emotion was only one-upped when he recorded the game’s final out.
“Our guys were fired up, the dugout exploded after the last out,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “What an amazing job by all of our pitchers, especially Lopey coming in at the end of the game. … Really happy with how all of our guys are throwing the ball.”
The Orioles are not just pitching capably, but admirably. Since April 11, the rotation’s 1.13 ERA is the best in the Majors. Since John Means, their bonafide ace, went down with a long-term injury on Thursday, starters have allowed one run in 23 1/3 innings — a 0.39 ERA in a full turn through the rotation.
“Guys are stepping up right now,” Lyles said. “Guys are — when their name is called — they’re ringing the bell. It’s time to go.”
“When the guys around you are throwing well, you want to be a part of it,” Hyde added. “They’re feeding off each other.”
Equally confounding about the dazzling performance of the pitching staff is the frustrating performance from the offense. The O’s have produced just one run in each of the three games thus far in Oakland, and have averaged just two runs per game and have yet to surmount five runs in an outing. On Wednesday, their one run only came because of an error.
That’s put indubitable stress on a pitching staff that, while finding its footing and exact roles, is excelling nonetheless.
And excelling perhaps because of it.
“You have a little pressure right there, have that 1-0 game — just remember that you create your own way to execute it,” López said. “I will say, it’s been really hard to get some runs going, but even that, we just need one run up to win a game. That’s all that matters.”
“We have all the confidence in [the offense],” Lyles said. “ … But we’re not worried about that. … We’re just here to do our job. We’re trying to throw strikes, trying to make our pitches as nasty as possible. And it’s playing out well right now.”
“We’d like to score some runs, though, to give them a little breathing room once in a while,” Hyde laughed.
Zeroes are building on zeroes, waiver claims and once-struggling arms in the bullpen are proving they have the stuff to play in the Major Leagues. There may be one day soon when some of the underlying numbers of Orioles pitching revert closer to the mean, but until then, there remains the presence of pregame fun, fist pumps and long-needed emotion.
“We know we’ve been having tough games, but just kind of go out there and have fun, every day, one day at a time, one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time,” López said. “Just kind of get out there and just be loose and keep communication going. You can see it’s contagious, and it just puts a good vibe to the team.”