ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Orioles have claimed sole possession of first place in the American League East twice in the past three days.
The first time, they scored three runs in the fourth inning, blew that lead, retook it with a small ball and held on thanks to Félix Bautista. The second time, they scored five runs in the fourth inning, blew that lead, retook it with small ball and held on thanks to Bautista.
The Orioles on Saturday defeated the Tampa Bay Rays, 6-5, in a battle for AL East supremacy behind Grayson Rodriguez’s solid start, manager Brandon Hyde’s decisions in the ninth inning and Ryan O’Hearn’s game-winning RBI single.
In his second start back in the big leagues, Rodriguez allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings for the second-best outing of his young career. Hyde tapped Adam Frazier and O’Hearn to pinch-hit in the ninth, and both came through with base knocks. After Frazier’s leadoff single, veteran catcher James McCann, who hit a two-run double in the fourth, bunted Frazier to second. O’Hearn then drove him in to give Bautista a one-run lead that he held with a three-up, three-down ninth for his 27th save.
Shortstop Jorge Mateo and left fielder Austin Hays also hit run-scoring doubles in the fourth as part of a five-run inning against Rays left-hander Shane McClanahan, who entered 11-1 with a 2.56 ERA as perhaps the best starter in the AL. The Baltimore-born McClanahan had never allowed more than three runs in his eight previous starts against the Orioles.
Baltimore (60-38) owns the best record in the American League, ahead of Tampa Bay (61-41).
When Rodriguez was optioned to Triple-A in late May, Hyde said the hope was that he’d come back a better pitcher.
Through two starts, that’s been the case.
The overall numbers don’t sparkle — six runs allowed in 10 2/3 innings — but he’s pitched like a 23-year-old who got better during his stint with the Norfolk Tides. The starts have come against two of the best lineups in the major leagues in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, and Rodriguez has displayed improved fastball command and composure.
“Nobody wants to see that, but I’ve seen it so many times that it can work to a player’s benefit,” Hyde said before the game about Rodriguez’s demotion about two months ago. “It doesn’t feel good at the time and nobody wants to see it and you feel terrible for the guy because of the high hopes and the hype and everything, but nobody’s going to remember that six years from now. He’s got big-time, top-of-the-rotation stuff, just had it for me, a great taste in the big leagues, some success, some struggles.
“I thought he did a great job going down with a great attitude, the right work ethic, the right message to work on the things that you struggle with up here, and he did those things.”
His start Saturday was the second best of his nascent big league career, behind only his nine-strikeout, five-scoreless outing against the Detroit Tigers in late April. In a pivotal AL East matchup, the 6-foot-5 right-hander did not allow a run through five innings and faced the minimum thanks to two double plays.
In his first 10 starts before his demotion, Rodriguez made five good starts and five bad ones. But he allowed six or more runs in three of his May outings and was sent down to Triple-A with marching orders to improve his fastball command and trust the pitch more. On Saturday, he generated a career-high 17 swings and misses, including eight on his four-seamer that he threw nearly 50% of the time. He also got four whiffs on his change-up, his main offspeed pitch.
After retiring the first seven batters, including three groundouts in the first, Rodriguez worked through a one-out single in the third and a one-out walk in the fifth with double plays. The first was a normal flyout to right field with Rays center fielder Jose Siri running on the pitch, ending with a 9-3 double play. Two innings later, third baseman Gunnar Henderson, who has made several highlight-reel plays over the past week, made a diving catch on a line drive and fired the ball to first to double up second baseman Brandon Lowe, thanks to a slick pick from first baseman Ryan Mountcastle.
Rodriguez’s day ended in the sixth after Wander Franco hit a two-out, two-run single through the Orioles’ shifted infield to put the Rays down 5-2. The top pitching prospect surrendered three hits and two walks in 5 2/3 with six strikeouts.
Around the horn
— The Orioles signed veteran left-handed reliever TJ McFarland to a minor league contract Saturday, and he was assigned to Triple-A Norfolk. McFarland, 34, returns to the organization he spent the first four years of his major league career with. The left-hander was a Rule 5 draft selection in 2013 and served as a long and middle reliever from 2013 to 2016, recording a 4.27 ERA in 198 1/3 innings. For the past seven years, he’s pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. He’s spent most of the 2023 season in Triple-A, but he was called up by Buck Showalter’s Mets in late June and designated for assignment a week ago.
— Right-hander Austin Voth will begin his minor league rehabilitation assignment Sunday with Double-A Bowie, the team said. Voth has been on the injured list since mid-June with elbow discomfort that he managed for most of the season. The trade for Shintaro Fujinami could complicate whether there’s a spot for Voth in the Orioles’ bullpen when he is healthy enough to return.