As the Chicago White Sox continue their never-ending quest to get back to .500, the Baltimore Orioles have overtaken them in the AL wild-card race.
Let them soak for a minute.
The Orioles, a team that lost 110 games last season, including 19 in a row in August, have a payroll of just under $45.5 million, the lowest in baseball. The White Sox are coming off an American League Central Division title and consecutive postseason appearances and have the seventh-highest payroll at $195.6 million.
Something is wrong with this image. How can a team as talented as the Red Sox stay afloat while a rebuilding team full of cast-offs and kids competes for a wild-card spot?
“In our division, if you can’t pitch, you get criticized, and our pitching is much better this year,” manager Brandon Hyde said before Wednesday’s 7-1 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. “I had no idea our bullpen would be the way it is.
“There is definitely a different feeling. Our guys have gotten a lot more confident and we’re playing a better brand of baseball. It’s starting to change, and we’ve got guys coming up in the system that are going to be here in the next year or two and the No. 1 pick again (in Sunday’s draft).”
The Orioles won their 10th straight on Wednesday, their longest winning streak in a season since 13 in 1999, and are at or above .500 this late in the season for the first time since Sept. 10, 2017. Only others Three teams have had at least a nine-game winning streak the season after finishing with the worst record in the majors: the 1902 St. Louis Browns, the 1993 Los Angeles Dodgers and the 2001 Cubs.
While the Orioles are still in last place in the AL East, a wild-card spot is suddenly within reach for a franchise that was a laughing stock not long ago.
“We were nine games under .500 a week and a half ago,” Orioles first baseman and outfielder Trey Mancini said. “It’s been great. I’m very proud of this team and the way we’ve been playing, how we’ve gotten closer every day.”
Mancini pointed to the leadership of Hyde, the former Cubs coach who signed for the rebuild in 2019 and suffered 108- and 110-loss seasons in two of his three years. Hyde is the same person now that he was in August when the The Orioles couldn’t buy a win.
“That was tough,” Mancini said. “He doesn’t ride the wave. He doesn’t ride the emotional roller coaster that can come with baseball. He is someone we love to play for and all respect. He is a great coach, and the whole world is starting to see that this year. I have always thought that he deserves to be here for a long time, and this year he is proving it”.
Hyde is signed through 2023, but he obviously knows there are no guarantees in baseball. He was the bench coach under Rick Rentería when the Cubs manager was abruptly fired and replaced by Joe Maddon after the rebuild had turned the corner in 2014. And Hyde knows Rentería was replaced by Tony La Russa when the Red Sox were apparently on the verge of victory. being annual contenders after 2020.
Hyde said the front office, led by general manager Mike Elias, has supported him all along.
“I’ve just gotten indications that they like what I do and that I’m going to be here,” Hyde said. “I have never felt different. I think they’re happy with the way we’re playing right now.”
And why not? The Orioles’ 21-9 record since June 11 is second-best in baseball behind the Houston Astros (21-8). Mancini said the clubhouse culture has been a factor in the increase.
“We hang out away from the field and make sure we get everyone together,” he said. “It matters a lot when you’re friends with the guys you play with. You care more about them than baseball. That has a lot of weight. That has been… our MO this year, myself and (Robinson) Chirinos and Rougned (Odor) teaching that to the youngsters.
“Some of us may not be here much longer, and we want you to know what winning teams do and what the atmosphere should feel like. It’s been great experiencing it.”
Mancini, whose return from a fight with cancer last year earned him an ESPY Award nomination for Best Athlete Comeback, could be one of those players on the move. He will be a free agent after the season and is a potential trade deadline target for teams looking for a veteran bat who can fit into any clubhouse.
“I’m here now,” Mancini said. “And I’m going to give my best for these guys every day.”
Elias is unlikely to become a major buyer at the trade deadline, but trading Mancini could be a blow to the clubhouse if the Orioles are in contention at the Aug. 2 trade deadline. It’s a tough call for Elias, who knows rebuilding has a long way to go before the Orioles can become yearly contenders in the division’s strongest.
“I don’t know what his focus is going to be,” Hyde said. “I think this came out of the blue a little bit, and Elias will do what’s best for the organization.”
It’s hard to cheer on the Orioles, who have been the talk of baseball as we head into the All-Star break.
Let’s hope the Sox are watching… and taking notes.