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This Is What Last Place Looks Like

The Baltimore Orioles were not supposed to be a problem this year. Apparently, they are.

2022 Little League Classic: Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

There wasn’t really any reason to know who Dean Kremer was coming into the 2022 season. He was never a top 100 prospect. His fastball only topped out at around 93 MPH. And he was absolutely brutal last year – the single hardest hit pitcher in all of baseball as measured by barrel percentage – surrendering a whopping 17 home runs in just 53 innings. Unless you were a Team Israel WBC superfan, your life wasn’t missing anything due to a lack of Dean Kremer awareness.

There was some reason to know who Jorge Mateo was coming into the 2022 season, but only if you had a kink for faded former prospects who once missed out on the Futures Game because they were rude to a Yankees front office executive (though now that I see it written out like that, I concede that that’s not such a bad kink to have). He’s one of the fastest players in baseball, sure, but that wasn’t of much use to a guy who only got on base via a hit or a walk 57 times throughout the entire 2021 season.

Frankly, there wasn’t really any reason to care about the Orioles at all coming into this year. Sure, we all knew that Adley Rutschman was coming eventually (though whether he’d be closer to Manny Machado or Matt Weiters on the Orioles Savior Scale was a complete unknown). And Cedric Mullins had been fun for a while, first in 2020 as one of the only players who’s ever had a highlight reel of bunts, then as a deserving, five-tool all-star the next season. But generally speaking, Red Sox fans had nothing to fear from the Orioles. This was a last place team.

Boston Red Sox v. Baltimore Orioles Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Last night, in front of packs of Little Leaguers who probably all thought they could bring some stability to the Red Sox outfield defense if they were given a shot, the Orioles improved to 7-5 on the season against the Red Sox, moving 4 games ahead of Boston in the loss column. Dean Kremer steadily breezed through the Sox lineup, striking out four and allowing just five hits as he pitched into the sixth inning. Jorge Mateo had the go-ahead hit in the eighth, lacing a three-run double off a gassed John Schreiber, as Garrett Whitlock, unavailable thanks to the Sox novel “let’s try to only use our best reliever twice a week” strategy, sat and watched. Mateo’s double capped off a series in which he was the best player on the field. He notched five hits including a triple and a homer, he showed great baserunning instincts in scoring on a wild pitch, and he played solid defense at the heart of the Orioles infield, turning four double plays.

Now, as school starts and September approaches, it’s the Orioles who are riding the good vibes into a playoff push, this thanks to a new format (which no one really asked for) that gives even the most mediocre teams hope. The Red Sox, apparently not quite mediocre enough, limp back to Boston and prepare to face the Blue Jays.

What’s so frustrating about this particular series and the Sox sub-par performance against the Orioles in general, though, is that we were, still, mostly right not to worry about Baltimore coming into the season. Despite their strong farm and solid play this year, the Orioles do not yet look like the 2008 Rays, or 2015 Cubs – young prospect-laden teams just taking their first steps toward contention. Rutschman is really the only player on the roster who looks like a future star. Kremer, their best starter this year by a considerable amount, owes a lot of his success to batted ball luck (he’s still in the bottom third of the league in barrel percentage). And even Mateo, for as dynamic as he is, remains extremely limited by his non-existent plate discipline. These aren’t two teams going in opposite directions, so much as much as they’re two flawed teams who have managed their flaws in different ways.

Boston’s flaws cost them a winnable series. On Friday night, they lost a sloppy, overstuffed game because a rookie pitcher who was no higher than eighth or ninth on the starting pitching depth chart on Opening Day performed exactly the way you’d expect a pitcher who’s eighth or ninth on your depth chart to perform. Last night, they lost a game because a roster that didn’t have a closer on Opening Day still doesn’t have one four-and-a-half months later.

The race isn’t over yet and the Sox recent play has given us some reason to believe the season could still be salvaged. Michael Wacha has been brilliant in his return from injury. Christian Arroyo is playing better than he ever has before. And Xander’s late-inning homer last night may mean that he’s on the cusp of digging out of a prolonged slump. But the Sox are running out of time and can’t be losing winnable games like this.

There wasn’t much of a reason for anyone to care about the Orioles as the 2022 season opened up. Now, as the 2022 season nears its end, we’re nearing the point where it’s time to wonder whether there’s anything left to care about in Boston.