Five things we learned from the Orioles’ week, including the Craig Kimbrel dilemma and the meaning of the sweepless streak (2024)

The Orioles swept the Cincinnati Reds and outlasted the Washington Nationals over 12 innings to pull out a split and extend their steak of not being swept in the regular season to 103 series.

Here are five things we learned from a 4-1 road trip.

The sweepless streak is an oddity that also says something about these Orioles

We all had our obituaries ready. The Orioles’ Wednesday night back-and-forth with the Nationals felt long and strange enough to make for an appropriate end to a streak that goes back two years.

They erased a 1-0 deficit, blew two-run leads in the ninth and 11th innings, had to get an out with a runner on third just to make it to the 12th. Seven relievers in, their bullpen felt at the end of its rope against a fast, feisty opponent that kept coming.

We all saw the statistics. A dozen times since May 2022, the Orioles had been one loss away from a sweep, and they had won those games by a combined 41 runs.

But it seemed a two-game series would inevitably be their undoing, and sure enough, they were a wild pitch or a well-placed dribbler away from seeing the streak end in Washington.

There are those who say we shouldn’t even be talking about this because the Orioles were swept by the Texas Rangers in the playoffs, only the most important series they’ve played in the past three seasons.

Well, those people are grumps. This hasn’t happened since World War II. The teams ahead of the Orioles on the sweepless list — the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1906-1909 Chicago Cubs and the 1903-1905 New York Giants — were among the greatest in baseball history, featuring the likes of Stan Musial, Christy Mathewson and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. This is the stuff that links us to our baseball-loving grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

We’re too early in this run to know precisely how we’ll remember these Orioles. But there is a resourcefulness, a will to forget the previous day’s tepid at-bats or the previous inning’s mistargeted pitches. The streak seems to encapsulate those qualities.

So, was it a surprise when they cobbled together two runs in the top of the 12th out of a ground ball single by Jorge Mateo, an errant throw and a wild pitch? Or when Jacob Webb buckled down to get the last three outs after he began the bottom of the 12th surrendering an RBI double?

Not really, because the streak has taught us to expect such Houdini behavior. Wherever it goes from here, long may it live in Orioles lore.

At least for now, the Orioles have a Craig Kimbrel problem

The hope was that upper-back tightness explained Kimbrel’s loss of command when he blew a pair of saves in Oakland. A clean, three-strikeout inning last Friday in Cincinnati suggested he might be back on track.

In two save opportunities since then, Kimbrel has gotten just three outs, allowing three hits, three walks and a home run. That the Orioles went on to win both those games is a tribute to their depth and resilience. But there’s really no arguing that the Kimbrel we’re watching now is the same pitcher who reeled off nine straight scoreless appearances in April.

His velocity is fine. His mastery of the strike zone is not.

So what do the Orioles do?

We’re better off setting aside the term “closer.” This isn’t about one man’s hold on an over-mythologized job. The Orioles need a few relievers they trust absolutely in high-leverage innings. They signed Kimbrel to be one of those. He’s made a mess of four of his last five appearances, an untenable rate of failure.

“We’re going to stick with him,” manager Brandon Hyde said Wednesday. “This guy has got a big-time track record. He’s a Hall of Famer and we need to get him right. He’s big for us. So, it’s important that we get him right.”

There is wisdom in these words.

A baseball season is long. The Orioles are 24-12 with the third-best run differential in the sport, by no means a team in crisis. Kimbrel has 425 career saves because he found ways to adapt and move past failure in the years after he torched the league as a bullpen phenomenon for the Atlanta Braves.

Hyde has time to let the 35-year-old right-hander try to find himself. But he’s also correct that the Orioles need Kimbrel, or someone else, to lock down those high-leverage innings three or four times a week. Their entire pitching operation could wobble without the pillar they’re counting on him to be. So yes, it’s an issue.

Five things we learned from the Orioles’ week, including the Craig Kimbrel dilemma and the meaning of the sweepless streak (1)

Opponents are successfully attacking the Orioles on the basepaths

The Nationals steal bases as aggressively as any team, and they swiped four in four attempts in their 3-0 win Tuesday over the Orioles. Two of those led directly to run-scoring singles, that were the difference between a good outing and a mediocre one for Corbin Burnes.

This highlighted a problem fans have viewed with concern despite the club’s overall success at preventing runs. Each time catcher Adley Rutschman bounces a throw or a runner takes off after dancing to a huge lead against Burnes — opponents have stolen 12 bases in 14 attempts with him on the mound — these gripes intensify.

The Orioles have allowed 25 steals on 32 attempts, a 78% success rate that’s almost exactly league average. They’re on pace to give up 112 steals. Last season, they allowed 88 steals at a success rate of 74% (Rutschman’s percentage is about the same, while backup James McCann’s is down from an excellent 34% in 2023). So they’re being attacked on the bases more often and with more success than they were a year ago.

Rutschman was thought to have a plus arm in scouting parlance when he was the No. 1 prospect in the sport, and he did throw well as a rookie, catching 31% of would-be base stealers. He’s nailed runners at an average rate the past two seasons.

Watch the games and it’s apparent runners are targeting specific pitchers more than they are Rutschman or McCann. Burnes was asked about this after the Nationals ran wild with him on the mound, and he said holding runners can’t be his primary focus.

“That’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m out there. For me, it’s kind of secondary as far as what I’m trying to do,” he said. “If I’m going to walk guys and make bad pitches, it’s not going to matter what I’m doing holding runners.”

In the grand scheme, he’s right. Stolen bases are relatively inconsequential to most baseball offenses. But we are seeing opponents such as the Nationals weaponize them under the right circ*mstances. It will be interesting to see if the Orioles adjust as the season goes on.

Five things we learned from the Orioles’ week, including the Craig Kimbrel dilemma and the meaning of the sweepless streak (2)

It’s the stuff, as much as the results, that tells us John Means and Kyle Bradish are in good places

We talked last week about Bradish’s impressive return against the New York Yankees after he spent the first month of the season rehabilitating a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Well, two days later, Means upped the ante on him with seven shutout innings and eight strikeouts against the Reds.

“To go out and do that and pitch seven shutout innings, first time off of rehab, not being on a big league mound for a while, that was way more than we anticipated and expected,” Hyde said.

Bradish then struck out nine in five innings against the Nationals, revving his sinker up to 98.1 mph when he needed to escape a first-inning jam.

In an age of rampant anxiety around pitching elbows, these were genuinely reassuring events for a club suddenly awash in quality starters.

The box scores were resplendent, but the radar gun told an even more satisfying story. Means, who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction in 2022 and has made just five starts since, threw his fastball at a 92.2 mph average, slightly better than in his 2019 All-Star season, per FanGraphs. His average slider, 86.7 mph, hummed 3 mph faster than it did back then.

Bradish is still fine-tuning his command; he has fallen behind in counts more than he’d like in his two starts. But the velocity and movement on all his pitches are in line with last season when he was one of the best starters in baseball down the stretch. That 98 mph sinker he threw to Jesse Winker was the second-hardest pitch of his career as tracked by Statcast, and he came right back with a 97.3 mph sinker for a called strike three on the next pitch. No lineup in the world will be comfortable against such filthy offerings.

You put Bradish and Means behind Burnes, with Cole Irvin and Dean Kremer pitching as well as they ever have in Orioles uniforms and Grayson Rodriguez confident he’ll soon be back from shoulder soreness — that’s about as optimistic a scenario as Hyde could have fathomed in March.

Take nothing for granted, because pitcher arms will break your heart, but Baltimore baseball fans have waited many years to watch a rotation with this much promise.

It’s not the uniforms

Do not consider this an aesthetic defense of the Orioles’ City Connect uniforms, though the Baltimore-forward hats and associated hoodies are pretty sweet.

Take it more as a plea for logic.

It was wild to see Orioles social media call for mass sacrificial burnings after the club showed up to play the Nationals in its black City Connects and managed to put just one runner in scoring position all night. Fashion angst grabbed center stage, especially as the Nationals stole base after base in their cherry blossom-themed finest.

Otherwise logical souls swore that data, not superstition, informed their rage against these garments. The Orioles are now 5-9 in City Connect mode with a minus-41 run differential. In other words, they’re almost as bad in this gear as they are good when playing to stave off a sweep.

Surely that’s enough evidence to merit discarding uniforms that many people did not like in the first place.

No, friends. No it’s not.

Fourteen baseball games tell us nothing. The 1927 Yankees were lousy in at least 14 games.

The Orioles have won 63% of their regular-season games over the past year. If they continue to wear the City Connect uniforms, their record in them will probably improve. But maybe not, because we’ll still be talking about a tiny sample. There is no sorcery at play.

Five things we learned from the Orioles’ week, including the Craig Kimbrel dilemma and the meaning of the sweepless streak (2024)

FAQs

What is the Baltimore Orioles series streak? ›

This was the 22nd consecutive divisional series the Orioles have either won or split, a streak that began in April 2023. It's the longest such run for any MLB team since divisions were introduced in 1969. The 17 runs were the most plated by Baltimore since an 18-5 win vs. Cleveland on June 6, 2021.

Who was the manager of the Orioles in 1988? ›

Manager Cal Ripken, Sr. was fired after an 0–6 start and replaced by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. The Orioles won their first game of the year against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park on April 29.

What year did the Orioles lose 21 straight games? ›

In the American League, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles hold the record at 21 games. The longest losing streak consisting entirely of postseason games is 18; belonging to the Minnesota Twins (2004–2023).

What is the longest streak of not being swept in MLB history? ›

The 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals went 124 series without being swept, and the 1906-09 Chicago Cubs went 115.

Who was the black manager of the Orioles? ›

Eight Orioles managers have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, including Frank Robinson, who was the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball; and Rogers Hornsby, who was a member of the cross-city rival Cardinals during the franchise's tenure in St. Louis.

Who owns the Baltimore Orioles? ›

Private equity billionaire David Rubenstein purchased The Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday after getting unanimous approval from Major League Baseball. The big picture: He becomes the club's first new owner in more than three decades and only its fifth since 1954.

Who managed the 1966 Orioles? ›

The team was managed by Hank Bauer, and played their home games at Memorial Stadium.

How many series have the Orioles played without being swept? ›

Baltimore Orioles: 105 series (2022 to present) New York Yankees: 83 series (1922-24) Philadelphia Athletics: 74 series (1904-06)

How long since Orioles have been swept? ›

Prior to Wednesday, the Orioles had not been swept in a multi-game regular-season series since falling to the Detroit Tigers on May 13-15, 2022. In all, they went 106 series between sweeps, tying them for the second-longest such streak in Major League Baseball history, and by far the longest since integration.

Have the Orioles never been swept? ›

The Orioles have now gone 105 consecutive regular-season series of at least two decisions (no ties) without being swept.

When was the last time the Orioles won a World Series? ›

Baltimore Orioles, American professional baseball team based in Baltimore, Maryland. Playing in the American League (AL), the Orioles won World Series titles in 1966, 1970, and 1983.

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