BALTIMORE (AP) — With the division title still in doubt, it wasn't clear if the Baltimore Orioles would stage a big celebration when they merely clinched a postseason berth.
After a win like this, how could they not?
Cedric Mullins hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 11th inning, and the Orioles edged the Tampa Bay Rays 5-4 on Sunday after both teams clinched spots in the playoffs. Cleveland's win over Texas meant Baltimore and Tampa Bay were both in — but Orioles fans ended up with more to cheer about than just that.
Moments later, Adam Frazier doubled home the tying run in the bottom of the ninth off Pete Fairbanks to send the game to extra innings. That was the first of two occasions when the Orioles tied it while down to their last out. Adley Rutschman hit an RBI single for Baltimore in the 10th.
“That's exactly how we've played all year,” Mullins said after his team's major league-leading 47th comeback win. “We pass it off to the next guy, and even if one guy doesn't get through the other guy's going to.”
D.L. Hall (2-0) threw a scoreless 11th, retiring the Rays on a popup and two grounders. Ryan O'Hearn then sacrificed the automatic runner to third for Baltimore, giving Mullins a chance to win the game. His flyball to center off Jake Diekman (0-2) was easily deep enough to end it, touching off an on-field celebration in which the players wore orange shirts saying “TAKE OCTOBER” on them.
The Orioles eventually made it into their clubhouse where they held a bubbly party with plastic protecting their lockers from getting soaked.
“We had a couple meetings about it. The veteran players talked us through it,” general manager Mike Elias said. “If we had lost today's game, I think we would have done a toast, something a little more subdued. I think they wanted to celebrate after a walk-off win, so this worked out perfectly.”
There was plastic atop some lockers in the Tampa Bay clubhouse, too, but it wasn't unrolled and the atmosphere was quiet. The Rays are headed to the postseason for a fifth straight year.
“They're all special in their own way,” said Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash, ejected in the bottom of the ninth over a checked swing. “I just spoke to the club really briefly, congratulated the guys in the room, the guys that have contributed throughout that are not in the room with us. It's taken a lot to get here. I think everybody realizes that.”
The Orioles salvaged a split in this key four-game series at Camden Yards and took a two-game lead over Tampa Bay atop the AL East. Baltimore also holds the tiebreaker over the Rays.
“Two great teams going at it,” Cash said. “We did everything to win the game, and then they answered and kind of came back and they did everything to win the game.”
Tristan Gray homered in his second big league game to put Tampa Bay ahead in the eighth inning, and Christian Bethancourt followed with a solo shot to make it 3-1, but Rutschman hit a solo shot in the bottom half and Frazier tied it an inning later.
The Texas-Cleveland game ended shortly before Frazier's double down the line in left field made it 3-all. Between the ninth and 10th innings, a message appeared on the scoreboard announcing that the Orioles were in the playoffs, to the delight of the crowd.
Harold Ramírez put the Rays up 4-3 with an RBI groundout in the 10th, but Tampa Bay couldn't hold that lead, either.
Brandon Lowe hit his 21st home run of the season with one out in the first, but Orioles starter Dean Kremer allowed only one more hit in five-plus innings. Tampa Bay’s Yandy Díaz made a diving stop at first base in the third to rob Rutschman of a tying hit, but the Orioles scored an inning later.
O’Hearn hustled out a double when his comebacker caromed off Tampa Bay starter Zack Littell and went through the hole between second and third. He scored on a two-out single by Austin Hays.
The Orioles are postseason bound for the first time since 2016, marking another benchmark for a successful rebuild fueled by their excellent minor league system. Baltimore lost 110 games just two seasons ago before improving to 83-79 in 2022 and taking another big step forward this year.
“It's not easy,” said Mullins, now in his sixth season with the Orioles. “The way we're celebrating right now kind of shows just how difficult it is to get to this point.”
For Tampa Bay, a postseason berth has seemed likely since back in April, when the Rays looked dominant in winning their first 13 games. They were eventually passed by Baltimore, but they’ve been able to keep winning despite losing ace Shane McClanahan to Tommy John surgery. Wander Franco, Tampa Bay’s star shortstop, has been on administrative leave while authorities in the Dominican Republic investigate him for an alleged relationship with a minor.
By the end of the game, the Orioles had put their designated hitter (Rutschman) in the field, which meant the pitcher had to occupy a spot in the batting order. As it turned out, Hall's spot was in line to be the automatic runner in the 11th, but the rules allowed Baltimore to put Rutschman — whose spot was immediately before Hall's — on second instead.
The Orioles head to Houston for a three-game series with the Astros. John Means (0-1) starts for Baltimore on Monday night against Justin Verlander (11-8).
Tampa Bay is off Monday before a three-game home series against the Los Angeles Angels.
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB