[Baltimore Sun] Five things we learned from the Orioles’ week, including the wildly improbable Albert Suárez and a welcome showcase vs. the Phillies

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The Orioles swept four road games from the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise first, then returned home to take two of three against the Atlanta Braves.

Here are five things we learned from another winning week as Baltimore prepares for a pair of monumental series against the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees.

The Orioles have taken on an indestructible glow

If ever they were set up for a schedule loss, Tuesday seemed the day.

The Orioles were coming down from the high of sweeping a four-game series in Tampa Bay for the first time ever. They had reached the back half of their rotation with a bullpen weakened by the disturbing news that Danny Coulombe would be sidelined by elbow inflammation. Manager Brandon Hyde sat his “exhausted” American League Most Valuable Player candidate Gunnar Henderson, depriving the club of its most powerful bat and its top table setter against the Atlanta Braves’ perennial Cy Young Award candidate, Max Fried.

And the Orioles still won, 4-0, thanks to another stellar outing from reclamation All-Star Albert Suárez and a three-run homer from substitute shortstop Jorge Mateo in his first game back off the concussion list.

Read that sentence again.

This is the kind of stuff that happens for teams humming at greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts efficiency.

The Orioles are on pace to win 107 games. How does that stack up to great teams from the franchise’s past? Through 68 games, they have the same record as the 1966 World Series champions and the 1971 AL champions and sit one game behind the 1979 AL champions and the 1997 AL East champions. In other words, Baltimore baseball fans are witnessing a team they won’t soon forget.

We knew general manager Mike Elias had put together an excellent roster with power up and down the lineup, range to spare in the field, a trio of power arms at the front of the rotation and more standout players pushing their way up from Triple-A all the time. The Orioles were ahead of schedule in 2023. This year, everyone expected them to be good.

So yes, much of what this club is accomplishing can be explained through cold logic. But there is also a collective sense of purpose we see in the way the Orioles respond to a loss, in the way they keep the pedal down when they have a chance to sweep instead of merely being satisfied with a series win.

They say the words we hear from so many professional athletes about living in each moment, reveling in process, refusing to let the big picture corrupt the littler ones. But these guys seem to mean it, and they genuinely enjoy navigating each day — so many days, even in the most exhilarating major league season — as colleagues.

There will be weeks less successful than the past one. They’re still chasing the impossibly hot Yankees and the most powerful hitter in the world, Aaron Judge, in the AL East. There might come a day when outside expectations, baseball economics or other unforeseen forces fray the bonds of this harmonious clubhouse.

But the Orioles keep telling us more about themselves every week, and the story keeps growing more promising.

No, really, the Albert Suárez story defies belief

The one start would have been charming enough.

A 34-year-old firing 96 mph fastballs over 5 2/3 scoreless innings in his first major league outing in seven years? That’s what an ebullient Suárez did April 17 against the Minnesota Twins, and it was fantasy land material.

The Orioles could not have expected a greater payoff after they plucked Suárez from the discard pile of the Korea Baseball Organization and helped him tweak his mechanics. Major league pitching staffs are packed with journeymen, but few who’ve journeyed as far for as long as Suárez. When we tossed around scenarios for the club’s starting rotation in March, his name hardly came up. Even for a front office that pulled Ryan O’Hearn out of Kansas City limbo, this discovery seemed far-fetched.

Or maybe not. Because two months into his Orioles career, Suárez is far more than testament to the power of persistence. He’s one of the best pitchers on the club, with a 1.61 ERA that leads all major leaguers who’ve thrown more than 40 innings and a 1.7 Baseball-Reference pitching WAR that ranked 15th in the AL after his most recent start.

Suárez worked past early trouble to get through 5 1/3 scoreless innings against the Braves for his fourth win of the year. Afterward, Hyde spoke of him less as a revelation than as a hardened pro.

“I think steady is a great word for him,” he said. “He just seems like the heart rate doesn’t vary much. I think he’s always in control. It’s never too up, he’s never too down. He just pitches like a veteran pitcher where he’s not afraid of the moment or gets nervous.”

That’s the kind of phrasing you expect to hear about a guy who’s been hanging around major league rotations for a decade, not one who was trying to hang on with the Samsung Lions a year ago. It’s a testament to Suárez, who has pitched equally effectively from the bullpen and the rotation.

In a league in which most teams are desperate to scrape together five viable starters, the Orioles looked well outside the common scope to find the guy who has filled in brilliantly for several sore arms. We might take Suárez for granted the longer he piles up effective outings, but what he’s doing is not normal.

Cade Povich probably won’t ever be such a prolific strikeout artist in the majors, but he doesn’t need to be to help the Orioles. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

Cade Povich’s second start showed how impressive he can be with good feel for his curveball

We talked last week about how Povich’s major league debut got away from him because he lost command of his offspeed stuff.

Hyde said he’d seen enough good from the rookie to give him another chance against the Braves, and the 24-year-old rewarded that faith with six scoreless innings. The curve, which Povich considers his best pitch, was star of the show.

“A big difference from the last time is that I was on attack,” he said. “I was able to land my curveball much better today, and for me, that’s the pitch when it’s on, it sets up the fastball and everything else. I think that’s a little bit what I was missing the last start.”

It was the pitch he used to strike out slugger Marcell Ozuna to end the first inning and catcher Sean Murphy to end the second. He didn’t walk a batter (after issuing four free passes against Toronto) despite mixing the curve liberally with his fastball, changeup and sweeper.

This was the Povich who stuck out 11.9 batters per nine innings for Triple-A Norfolk with a fastball that peaks around 93 mph.

He probably won’t ever be such a prolific strikeout artist in the majors, but he doesn’t need to be to help the Orioles make up for the loss of John Means and any other injuries that might strike their rotation over the next four months. Dean Kremer is expected back fairly soon, and if he returns smoothly, Hyde would again have seven viable starters thanks to Povich and Suárez.

That’s the cushion a contender needs in a sport shaped by arm injuries.

Danny Coulombe’s inflamed elbow is no small matter

Coulombe almost begs to be underestimated with his 5-foot-10 stature and a fastball that averages 91 mph. His pitching numbers over 77 1/3 innings with the Orioles — 2.68 ERA, less than a base runner per inning, 10 strikeouts per nine — tell a more compelling story.

The two scoreless, hitless innings he pitched in Tampa Bay last Saturday typified Coulombe’s steady excellence. He rarely gets himself in trouble with command lapses and sneaks the ball past hitters despite below-average velocity. He’s a lefty who can be used to match up, but his stuff works even better against right-handers, so Hyde doesn’t hesitate to keep him in for an entire seventh or eighth inning.

Now, the Orioles have to hope those two innings against the Rays weren’t the 34-year-old’s last for a long time. Hyde didn’t offer much detail after the veteran went on the injured list Tuesday, but Coulombe said the next day he’s optimistic his elbow trouble isn’t serious.

As we discussed when Craig Kimbrel lost his command for a week, any hole in the club’s collection of high-leverage relievers can have a destabilizing effect on the entire bullpen. Teams usually need at least three relievers a night in the modern game, and one major goal of a contender’s season is to identify the three who can be trusted to lock down the seventh, eighth and ninth innings come October.

Coulombe was on that short list. Tyler Wells, already lost for the season, was another potential high-leverage candidate.

The day Couloumbe hit the IL, the bullpen continued its recent excellence with 3 2/3 scoreless innings against the Braves. Left-hander Cionel Pérez pitched the eighth. The next evening, however, Braves first baseman Matt Olson thumped a game-tying home run off Keegan Akin. A healthy Coulombe probably would have been on the mound to deal with Atlanta’s top left-handed masher.

Elias was already likely to shop for a powerful bullpen arm before the July 30 deadline. He knows the Orioles can’t have enough and that a deal could probably be completed without sacrificing one of the club’s elite positional prospects. Coulombe’s potential absence would only increase the urgency of that endeavor.

Orioles vs. Phillies is the rare June series that will get our blood pumping

We’re crawling through the vast middle of the season, when it’s easy to see the Orioles are destined for October baseball but impossible to gauge the implications of each win or loss.

From that perspective, three games against their I-95 neighbors won’t mean much more than the three they’ll play next weekend in Houston.

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But life isn’t a math problem. Sometimes, it’s invigorating and just plain fun to shine the spotlight on a small sample of games against a worthy measuring stick.

The Phillies went to the World Series in 2022 and fell a game short of making it back last autumn. If there are two teams ahead of the Orioles in an up-to-the moment power ranking, it’s them and the Yankees. They have two of the top five starting pitchers in the National League — Ranger Suárez and Zack Wheeler — both of whom are scheduled to start at Camden Yards in head-to-head matchups with the Orioles’ top two of Corbin Burnes and Kyle Bradish.

The Orioles have the power advantage, while the Phillies reach base at a much higher clip — different formulas for achieving near-equal production as top-five offenses. Philadelphia is dealing with injuries to catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Trea Turner, but Bryce Harper is as terrifying a hitter as ever.

These two heavyweights will trade blows in a packed stadium, likely dotted with plenty of bellicose, red-clad Philadelphians.

It would be wrong to say the series will mimic the excruciating tension of postseason baseball, because what does? But it will be a weekend for Baltimore to reside dead center in the baseball world, and isn’t that part of what we missed during those long years when the Orioles were dreadful?

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