TORONTO — For the last three or four weeks, Robinson Chirinos has spoken up even more than usual. The 38-year-old catcher is one of three players in the Orioles’ clubhouse to have appeared in a major league postseason game. He knows what it’s like to feel pressure, to feel the impact of every decision on the diamond, and he wants to make sure a roster full of rookies understands it, too.
Last week, in particular, he offered his perspective to a group of players in a meeting.
“When you hate to lose, and you know how it feels to win games and get to the postseason, you’re never gonna be the same,” Chirinos said. “You’re gonna do everything you can to get to the postseason and play for a World Series.”
Baltimore remains on the outside looking in at the final wild-card spot. By completing a late comeback against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, the Orioles (76-69) kept themselves within striking distance, four games behind the Seattle Mariners with 17 games to play.
Each game will loom larger, with pivotal moments in what feels like the playoffs before October officially arrives. Take Sunday, for example, when catcher Adley Rutschman stepped to the plate with bases loaded and no outs in the ninth inning. He’s played in All-American games and won a College World Series with Oregon State, but against closer Jordan Romano at Rogers Centre, Rutschman faced what could be the biggest moment of his career thus far.
He came through with a go-ahead, two-run single. Afterward, he said he tried to ignore the circumstances, relaxing as much as he could. But as left-hander DL Hall said before the game, the high school tournaments and showcases don’t quite compare to a major league playoff race.
“Nothing can prepare you for up here,” Hall said.
That is, until you experience it.
No matter how the remainder of the season unfolds for Baltimore — falling short or overachieving even their wildest dreams — the experience of playing meaningful games in September sets the organization up for success in the future. In Sunday’s comeback victory, five rookies played key roles, including closer Félix Bautista against All-Star caliber hitters.
Next season, as the Orioles aim to ramp up the pressure on the established American League East clubs, the core group of players will have already undergone the pressure of a postseason push.
“Just the experience alone, I don’t think you can put a value on it, getting these guys into big games early on in their careers,” right-hander Jake Reed said. “It’s going to set them up in the future for even more success. … It’s huge. It’s scary, I think, for other teams in the league that this team has this kind of core group of young guys.”
Aside from Chirinos, the only other players with postseason experience are first baseman Jesús Aguilar and second baseman Rougned Odor. Between the three of them, they have played in 42 playoff games — including seven in the World Series, when Chirinos played for the Houston Astros in 2019.
That knowledge base is useful. Gunnar Henderson, playing a pivotal role for Baltimore despite being the youngest position player in baseball, said he’s leaned on those veterans for advice. Chirinos has served as a mentor to Rutschman. The pitching staff gravitates toward right-hander Jordan Lyles, who despite not pitching in the postseason, played for the Milwaukee Brewers during the 2018 season, which ended in the National League Championship Series.
It’s a similar approach to what outfielder Austin Hays felt when he was promoted in 2017, with Baltimore in the mix for a wild-card spot. As he tried to find his footing, he credits Manny Machado and Adam Jones as figures who led him through the challenges of a first MLB season coinciding with a playoff push.
In 2017, however, the Orioles fell apart. Hays remembers how difficult that was to endure, experiencing a team slide out of playoff contention. This season could still finish differently.
“Just the idea of playing meaningful games that matter at the end of the year, you’re basically fighting for your life every day. I mean, that’s what you want as a baseball player,” Hays said. “You want meaningful games. You want to be playing in games that will get you to that next level. So it’s definitely meaningful for us right now to be able to go through that, just playing a game that matters every single day. Just trying to get to that next step.”
That next step could arrive as quickly as next season. After the trade deadline, when the Orioles parted with first baseman Trey Mancini and closer Jorge López, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said “it’s liftoff from here.”
They’ll arrive at the launchpad with an advantage, having experienced the highs and lows of a postseason chase, no matter how this season resolves.
“I have no idea how long I’ll be in one place. I’ve learned that over the last couple years,” Reed said. “But I know that wherever I’m at in five years, this team is going to be a problem.”
The Orioles return to Camden Yards for a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers before facing a gantlet to end the season. After the Tigers, the AL-leading Houston Astros arrive for four games. Then Baltimore will finish the regular season with three series against AL East foes: The Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto.
By the end of it, the postseason picture will be clear. To reach October, the Orioles will need to go through some of baseball’s best teams.
For the first time this season, manager Brandon Hyde started four rookies in the same lineup Saturday: Rutschman, Henderson, Terrin Vavra and Kyle Stowers. Those four all produced against the Blue Jays. Stowers’ pinch-hit single in the ninth Sunday helped spark the comeback. Rutschman drove in four runs, Henderson drove in three and Vavra drove in one.
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There have been plenty of promising signs for Baltimore this season. But the rookies performing at a high level in a big series is up there.
The clutch hitting was spotty this week, as it has been for much of September. Barring the 3-for-9 performance with runners in scoring position on Sunday, the Orioles entered hitting .210 with runners in scoring position since Sept. 1 — the sixth-lowest mark in the majors.
High-A Aberdeen began its first South Atlantic League Championship Series on Sunday, losing 5-3 to the Bowling Green Hot Rods. The IronBirds will host Bowling Green at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium on Tuesday, and if necessary, Game 3 will be played Wednesday in Aberdeen.
Monday, 7:05 p.m.
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