2The day after Orioles top prospect Adley Rutschman made his major league debut, right-hander Spenser Watkins took a line drive to the forearm. It gave him a unique perspective to watch Baltimore’s turnaround.
Watkins spent the next 15 days on the injured list, hanging around the team and watching games as a spectator. Optioned to Triple-A Norfolk once healthy, he followed along from a distance. Officially back in the majors Saturday, he contributed to the Orioles’ tide turning, holding the Chicago White Sox to one unearned run over five innings in Baltimore’s fourth straight win.
“There was always that sense of this team can really come together and be something special,” Watkins said. “Once Rutsch was added and everything, it brought us another energy aspect that really helped fuel everything. And you see it from the outside. When I was down there [in Triple-A], I was able to watch the games and see how much fun everybody has.
“This thing is really coming together, and it’s a really fun thing to be a part of.”
Two days before promoting Rutschman, the Orioles were 14-24. They are 20-15 since, their best 35-game stretch in five years. They’ve outscored opponents by nearly 20 runs in June en route to a 13-9 record.
In manager Brandon Hyde’s four-season tenure, the Orioles (34-39) have never had a winning month. One victory among their next four games would clinch the first.
“We come to the field every day, and we think we’re a really good team,” longest-tenured Oriole Trey Mancini said. “We don’t think about the rebuild or what expectations were for us before the year. We come to the ballpark and we expect to play well and expect to win. That’s just our mindset.”
A remade bullpen has been key to the Orioles’ improvement, pitching well even during the club’s slow start. Through 73 games last year, Baltimore relievers posted a 4.74 ERA. That mark is down to 3.07 this season entering Sunday’s series finale in Chicago.
“The vibes are pretty high right now,” reliever Bryan Baker said.
During Hyde’s tenure, the Orioles have seen leads evaporate more frequently than the rest of the league. But they’re 24-0 when leading after six innings this season after suffering 10 losses in those situations in both 2019 and 2021.
It’s a largely different bullpen full of self-described “misfits” driving that success, with Dillon Tate being the only member of the current group who made more than eight relief appearances for Baltimore last season.
Jorge López, Cionel Pérez, Joey Krehbiel and Baker all came to the Orioles as waiver claims from other teams. Félix Bautista took a decade to reach the majors after signing his first professional contract. Nick Vespi was an 18th-round draft pick seven years ago. Keegan Akin struggled as a starter in his rookie season but has become one of the top long relievers in baseball. López, Pérez, Bautista and Tate entered Saturday ranked in the top 20 in ERA among relievers who have made at least 25 appearances this season.
“When you pitch, your team gets confidence,” Hyde said. “You feel like you can finish games off, and that’s a good feeling in the dugout.”
It’s carried over to the offense. The Orioles struggled immensely with runners in scoring position through the season’s opening weeks, entering June with a .207 batting average in those situations that ranked 29th of 30 teams. They’re batting .298 with runners on second, third or both this month, which ranked third in the majors entering Saturday.
This stretch has the Orioles within five games of a .500 record. In the previous three full seasons, they were at least 27 games away from a balanced record at this point of the year.
Mancini made his debut late in the 2016 season, when the Orioles made the American League wild-card game. He had a strong rookie year for the 2017 club, one that played around .500 for much of the season before crumbling late, foreshadowing a disastrous 2018 campaign that prompted the teardown and rebuild.
The Orioles still have a losing record. They’re still in last place in the American League East, though they’d be at least fourth in every other division. In the sense it shows what direction they’re heading, Mancini believes playing near .500 is significant.
“I think so, with how the last however many years have gone for us,” Mancini said. “It’s been a while since we’ve really been close to .500, not that that’s any sort of ultimate goal by any means, but it’s definitely nice to be there. But again, that’s nothing we’re thinking about. We’re still a few games under, and then we’re going to go out there tomorrow and try to win another game and not really think about anything beyond that.”