Britton’s struggles, rotation crunch lead to latest demotion

July 10, 2013 | Luke Jones

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BALTIMORE — Zach Britton knew his time with the Orioles was likely up for the time being following his Tuesday start, but his performance against the Texas Rangers didn’t make the decision very difficult in an 8-4 loss.

He and rookie right-hander Kevin Gausman were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk following the game, creating roster space for the returning Wei-Yin Chen and likely another pitcher to work out of the bullpen on Wednesday night. Britton allowed eight hits and walked three while surrendered five runs in his five innings of work before giving way to Gausman in the sixth inning. The latter allowed two earned runs in 1 2/3 innings and threw 36 pitches, meaning he likely would have been unavailable for the next game or two if the Orioles had elected to keep him in Baltimore.

Britton is 2-3 with a 4.76 earned run average in six starts this yeaer while Gausman is 1-3 with a 6.21 ERA in nine appearances, five of them starts.

Though Britton’s final results in his previous three starts were acceptable, Tuesday saw the continuation of a disturbing trend for the 25-year-old as he again struggled immensely going through the opposing lineup a third time. The fatal blow was a three-run homer from Adrian Beltre in the fifth that followed two walks — one to No. 9 hitter Leonys Martin and the other to rookie shortstop Jurickson Profar — and two singles earlier in the inning. The sequence transformed a 2-1 lead at the start of the fifth into a 5-2 deficit the Orioles’ struggling offense would not overcome.

The opposition is batting .455 (15-for-33) with a homer, three doubles, and eight walks the third trip through the order against the southpaw, which explains why Britton hasn’t been able to complete six innings in four of his six starts with Baltimore this season. It’s natural for a pitcher to labor more later in the game as the pitch count increases and the opponent has seen him a few times, but such drastic decline in performance isn’t indicative of a pitcher that will have prolonged success as a starter.

Britton has also struggled to miss bats as he failed to record a strikeout Tuesday and has just 12 in 34 innings of work with the Orioles this season. A sinkerballer like Britton can typically get by with fewer strikeouts when he’s inducing groundball outs, but an anemic rate of 3.18 strikeouts per nine innings pitched means too many balls are being put in play, increasing the probability that some will find holes in any defense over time. Of course, it certainly didn’t help that Britton threw two poor pitches to Beltre on each of his two home runs, eliminating any possible excuse of it being bad luck.

For now, both Britton and Gausman are expected to rejoin Norfolk’s starting rotation, but it remains to be seen who will be accompanying Chen to the 25-man roster for Wednesday’s game. After Tuesday’s game, manager Buck Showalter alluded to the possibility of wanting another arm in the bullpen, presumably with some length.

Japanese lefty Tsuyoshi Wada is scheduled to start for the Tides on Thursday and right-hander Josh Stinson last pitched for Norfolk on Saturday, meaning both would likely be available in some capacity for a long-relief role on Wednesday. Both pitchers are also on the 40-man roster, which factors heavily considering this could just be a short-term move to take the club into the All-Star break.

(Update: Stinson has been recalled to pitch out of the bullpen.)

Chen will make his first start since May 12 on Wednesday and will also attempt to give the Orioles a much-needed lift after losses in five of their last six games.

Roberts, Reimold struggling in respective returns

Since their return from the disabled last week, Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold have gone a combined 7-for-42, leading some to wonder if their presence has sent the Orioles into their current tailspin.

It’s true that neither has performed well in a small sample size of at-bats, but this theory is too simplistic and places too much blame on two easy targets due to their well-chronicled injury problems. To suggest Roberts and Reimold are the reason the Orioles suddenly can’t win provides an excuse for the rest of the lineup’s struggles and also discredits the mental toughness this club has shown over the last two seasons.

The Orioles are 3-for-19 with runners in scoring position in the Texas series and are hitting .138 (8-for-58) in that department over their last nine games. The individual struggles of Roberts and Reimold only account for a small piece of those overall failures.

First baseman Chris Davis has one hit in his last 21 at-bats to go along with 12 strikeouts.

Center fielder Adam Jones is 8-for-37 over the last nine games.

Matt Wieters is 6-for-26 and J.J. Hardy is 5-for-33 since June 30.

The point is few hitters in the order are clicking at the moment, making it unfair to single out two players coming off extended absences as the reason for the club’s struggles over the last 10 days. If Roberts were suddenly inserted in the No. 2 spot in the order and caused dramatic changes with other spots, I’d be more willing to listen to the argument. If any other player had provided consistent production at the designated hitter spot over the first three months of the season, the argument against Reimold would have more merit.

But neither of those points can be made. Roberts’ return has forced a hot-hitting Ryan Flaherty out of the lineup, but the latter’s regular role was chastised for the first 2 1/2 months of the season and Showalter has shown a willingness to find creative ways to give Flaherty at-bats. The Orioles won plenty over the first three months of the season despite little production at second base.

Roberts and Reimold will both need to produce sooner rather than later like anyone else — I’ve shared my doubts about each player — but a sample size of less than two weeks is premature to make any rash decisions. And it’s a major stretch to conclude the correlation between their returns and the Orioles’ current struggles is anything more than coincidental.

Fans’ frustration over their inability to stay on the field over the last few years is completely understandable, but there’s no evidence within the clubhouse that either player’s return has suddenly created a dark cloud over the club.

As Showalter often likes to say, the solution is for everyone to play better than they have to start the month of July, particularly the players on which the Orioles have leaned most heavily this season.

Little worry over Davis in the Derby