BALTIMORE — Loaded bases giveth, and loaded bases taketh away.
That’s what the Orioles gleefully and painfully learned on Tuesday evening. They rode the highs of Cedric Mullins’ first career grand slam and stayed the lows of what did them in: three consecutive strikeouts with the bases loaded in the eighth and two more punchouts with a runner in scoring position in the ninth.
“We’re doing a good job of creating opportunities,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “We’re just not cashing in.”
Tuesday was a tale of two bases-loaded chances you have to dissect to believe, a microcosm of the Orioles’ micro 2022 season through just five games.
The fateful chance
When you face a deficit in the final two innings against the Brewers’ dreaded duo of Devin Williams (the best eighth-inning pitcher in the game) and Maryland-born Josh Hader (the best ninth-inning pitcher in the game), your chances are already slim. And when you strike out five times against the pair, it’s hard to establish any sort of threat.
But the Orioles did, and they mercilessly had nothing to show for it.
The most promising circumstance came against Williams in the eighth, when Baltimore loaded the bases off the “airbender” and forced him to throw 12 pitches without recording an out. But just as efficiently as the O’s set themselves up for success, they saw it squandered.
Chris Owings, Jorge Mateo and pinch-hitter Ryan McKenna made contact with just one of Williams’ next 11 pitches. That one pitch was a foul tip Mateo didn’t even make enough contact with to escape catcher Omar Narváez’s grasp.
Knowing the risk of leaving the game up to Williams and Hader, Hyde had burned Rougned Odor as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning, forcing the Brewers to bring in a left-handed reliever, and then turned to Mateo. He knew the immediacy of the moment.
“You’re facing Williams and Hader in the eighth and ninth. It’s a tough task, regardless if there’s no runners on or runners on,” Hyde said. “These are premier, premier relievers. That’s why you got to score early, you got to try to cash in early.
“I went for it in the sixth a little bit with Mateo … knowing that those two guys are in the back end of their ‘pen. We just didn’t get it done offensively at the end of the game.”
Mullins is doing all he can. Through two home games, he’s provided all the offense.
Two consecutive days. Two consecutive bases-loaded at-bats in the second inning. Two consecutive run-scoring swings.
Tuesday’s was far larger. With spot starter Spenser Watkins conceding two first-inning runs, Mullins’ 413-foot blast boomed through Camden Yards, providing the Orioles just their second lead of the season.
Set up by two walks and a catcher’s interference, Mullins’ slam was the first time since May 2011 at Tampa Bay that the O’s tallied at least four runs in an inning while recording exactly one hit.
“It was incredible for him to step up like that,” Watkins said. “He’s our guy.”
It hadn’t been an easy go for Mullins before Monday. In Spring Training, he went 5-for-30 with 11 strikeouts. Through the first three games against the Rays, he went 2-for-11 with seven punchouts.
Mullins did this to himself, though. He was too good last season, and others took notice. He preached displeasure with his approach in Spring Training, but pitchers have also made adjustments, now with a year’s worth of Silver Slugger-caliber video to work off of.
And Mullins appears to be adjusting right back.
“Teams have a long time to game plan for good players,” Hyde said pregame. “Teams now have departments of people to dissect how to get hitters out. They’re going to expose your weaknesses, and that’s what good hitters do in this league, is constantly making adjustments. Ced’s in that category right now where there’s going to be adjustments he’s got to make back to the league.”