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Five observations after Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays split a series and clinch playoff spots together

Baltimore Orioles
Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

BALTIMORE — For the first time in their combined histories – dating back to 1998 when the “Devil Rays” debuted – the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays are going into the postseason together and will finish 1 and 2 in the American League East.

The exact order of finish, who wins the division title and who finishes as the top AL Wild Card is still to be determined. The Orioles (93-56) technically have a 2½-game lead over the Rays (92-59) for the East and the No. 1 seed, given that they won the season series (8-5) and will claim the tiebreaker if necessary. There are roughly two weeks of games left to figure that out.

If this four-game series in Baltimore is any indication, it’ll be a wild postseason, especially if these clubs match up in the second round. The sides split this four-game series, with the Orioles winning Sunday afternoon in a 5-4, 11-inning thriller.

As the Texas Rangers lost their contest in Cleveland on Sunday, the Rays and Orioles officially advanced to the postseason simultaneously with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a seesaw battle. The Orioles then added to the drama with a Cedric Mullins sacrifice fly in the 11th that triggered a celebration on the field and spilled into a champagne- and beer-spewing extravaganza in the home clubhouse.

It’s the first time the Orioles have made the playoffs since 2016 and the first time they could celebrate at home since 2014. Conversely, the Rays have now made it to five consecutive postseasons.

Barring an absolute collapse, these two clubs will finish with the best records in the AL and potentially will face off again in October.

Here’s five things we’ve learned — or believe anyway — about the Orioles and Rays from this epic series, which included two blowouts and two, one-run nailbiters.

Baltimore Orioles-Tampa Bay Rays similarities are glaring

tampa bay rays
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It’s no secret the Tampa Bay Rays have a formula that has worked for them for years: Keep the payroll low, use proprietary analytics to strengthen strengths, build a bullpen from the scrap heap, grow some studs in the minors and have a steady manager lead them through labyrinth of a full season.

It’s also no secret the Baltimore Orioles have borrowed that blueprint to an extent. Orioles general manager Mike Elias earned his stripes with the Houston Astros, but given the Orioles’ propensity to keep payroll down, the Rays and Cleveland Guardians may be more appropriate comps.

Watching this four-game series and talking to people on both sides, these clubs look and play similarly, too. They both have youthful aggressiveness, their lineups take great at-bats and the pitchers, for the most part, throw strikes. Of the 12 teams that will make the playoffs, there are probably no two as similar as the Orioles and Rays. Which makes for great, intense baseball.

Advantage Baltimore Orioles: Defense

ramon urias
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

If there is a primary difference that stood out in the series, it’s the quality of defense the Orioles rolled out in comparison to the Rays. Now, that’s a bit of an unfair assessment, considering the Rays were without three of their best defenders in center fielder Jose Siri (hand fracture), shortstop Wander Franco (restricted list) and infielder Taylor Wells (paternity leave).

For the season, the two defenses have been statistically similar, with The Fielding Bible listing the Orioles as seventh in the majors with 32 defensive runs saved and the Rays as eighth with 29.

The Orioles, however, are getting better defensively as the season progresses, especially with the emergence of first baseman Ryan O’Hearn and Gunnar Henderson’s maturation at shortstop. Ramón Urías, last year’s AL Gold Glove winner at third, is excellent defensively wherever he plays, Adley Rutschman is a stalwart behind the plate and rookie Jordan Westburg has looked great at second base.

Add in an outfield – especially when Aaron Hicks plays right – that covers a ton of ground, and this is an incredibly strong defensive unit. And, as manager Brandon Hyde said Sunday, that’s not including Jorge Mateo, who is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game but hasn’t played much recently due to offensive shortcomings.

Advantage Tampa Bay Rays: Bullpen — slightly

pete fairbanks
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These are two of the best in the AL, and statistically, the Baltimore Orioles have the advantage with the second-best relievers’ ERA (3.52) in the league compared to the Rays’ 3.68, which is fifth. Both units consist mainly of pitchers who have bene discarded by other teams – the Rays, for instance, have Shawn Armstrong, who was released by the Orioles in 2021 and is having a tremendous season for the Rays.

The big difference is that the Rays have fireballing closer Pete Fairbanks shutting down games and the Orioles have fireballing closer Félix Bautista throwing a side session off flat ground. The hope is that Bautista, who has a partial UCL tear in his right elbow, can pitch through the injury and be available for the postseason. If he can, then I have the right to reverse this one. If not, then the slight edge goes to the Rays, especially if set-up man Jason Adam (oblique) returns for the playoffs.

Sunday’s game, though, was a perfect example of why this one is so close. The bullpens gave up just two earned runs each in six innings (not including the unearned ghost runs). The Orioles scored off both Fairbanks and Armstrong while the Rays nicked Jorge López, who won’t be pitching in the postseason for the Orioles. These are two strong units that will lengthen games for both clubs – and that’s key in the postseason.

Grayson Rodriguez is my No. 2 playoff starter

grayson rodriguez
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a lot to ask of a 23-year-old rookie who has made just 21starts and thrown 111 1/3 innings as a big leaguer. But this isn’t your typical rookie. Rodriguez has the composure of a veteran and the stuff of an ace.

On Saturday, Rodriguez was ace-caliber, throwing eight scoreless innings in his longest outing as a big leaguer. It was playoff-type baseball in front of nearly 40,000 and Rodriguez handled a strong Rays’ lineup easily. Hyde and company may want to ease Rodriguez into the playoffs, maybe as a third starter on the road. But I say go with your best, and that’s Kyle Bradish first and Rodriguez second.

Assuming he is healthy, I’d make John Means my third starter. I want a lefty in there and I know Means won’t get rattled. The only question is whether he can build up his arm strength in the next couple starts after missing nearly two seasons due to elbow surgery. My fourth starter is Dean Kremer or Kyle Gibson. I’ll let that play out until the end. That’s a good dilemma to have. At this point, I’m not considering Jack Flaherty for the rotation or bullpen, no matter how much playoff experience he has. He just hasn’t been impressive after his first start with the Orioles.

Zach Eflin is my No. 1

zach eflin
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People who know a lot more about the Rays than I do expect Tyler Glasnow to pitch Game 1 of the postseason. Glasnow looks like an ace, with his 6-foot-8 frame, his 96-mph fastball, hard slider and his flowing mane. He’s also dominated in the past; he was arguably the AL’s best pitcher in 2021, when his season was cut short due to elbow surgery. Plus, he typically pitches deep into games, which would be a huge boost in a Game 1 performance, and he has thrown 40 2/3 playoff innings in his career. So, as long as Glasnow is healthy, he’s the Rays’ de facto ace with Shane McClanahan out for the year.

But this weekend, it was Zach Eflin that looked like the better pitcher. He lasted seven innings, gave up only one hit and one run to earn his 15th victory of the season. He doesn’t have the same track record of dominance as Glasnow, but his consistency all year has been tremendous. Glasnow has a 3.53 ERA in 19 outings, yet he’s allowed 10 runs in his last 10 innings, including six in four innings against the Orioles on Saturday.

Eflin, who is 15-8 with a 3.44 ERA in 29 starts, has allowed three runs or fewer in eight of his last nine starts. And he came up huge on Friday in Baltimore. So, he’d get my vote for Game 1.

Dan Connolly is an MLB Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.