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BALTIMORE — Trying to stop a five-game losing streak on Monday with the surging New York Yankees coming to town for a three-game series isn’t the easiest of chores, but the Orioles know it begins with their starting pitching to right themselves in the American League East.
Every starter not named Chris Tillman is either injured or struggling, but the Orioles must find a way to shorten the chain to the end of the game, evident by the heavy workloads of their top relief pitchers and back-to-back blown saves by closer Jim Johnson. Baltimore entered Monday’s game with the 25th-ranked starting earned run average (4.90) in the majors and had averaged just 5.64 innings per start. In comparison, the St. Louis Cardinals have the best starting ERA (2.63) in baseball and average 6.43 innings per outing.
The starting pitching needs to improve for a club with postseason aspirations and intentions of preserving its biggest asset — the bullpen — for the entire season.
“That falls underneath the ‘Capt. Obvious’ thing,’” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s one thing to identify it; it’s how you do it. Pitch better.”
As of now, the Orioles have few answers with Tillman the only reliable commodity currently in the rotation. Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez returns Tuesday from a stint on the 15-day disabled list due to a blister on his right thumb, but lefty Wei-Yin Chen will just be leaving for Sarasota on Tuesday to begin his rehabilitation. Showalter didn’t paint a rosy picture on Monday that Chen would be returning in a timely fashion.
Stricken with a Grade 2 right oblique strain, Chen is at least a week away from picking up a baseball as his type of injury is a tricky one from which to recover. Setbacks are frequent with oblique injuries as you never really know how well a pitcher is recovering before he starts trying to throw again.
“I couldn’t tell you that he’s making any great progress,” Showalter said. “He’s still sore, but he’s doing some things as far as sleeping through the night and rolling over where it’s not bothering him like it was. But I don’t think there’s some definitive date. There’s an unknown to it.”
When Chen and Gonzalez dealing with injuries this month, the Orioles have been forced to turn to veteran Freddy Garcia and former Atlanta pitcher Jair Jurrjens to stabilize the back end of the rotation. Speculation persists that Garcia could be reaching the end of his run with the Orioles after turning in poor outings against Kansas City and San Diego to follow up his surprising debut in Anaheim at the beginning of the month.
Jurrjens figures to receive at least a couple more starts after allowing four earned runs in five innings in his 2013 debut against Tampa Bay over the weekend, but the Orioles appear close to moving on in their quest for rotation stability.
Recalled over the weekend to serve as an extra arm in the bullpen, Jake Arrieta is not in line to receive a start and could be optioned to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for Gonzalez on Tuesday. However, another pitcher in the Baltimore bullpen could be next in line for a shot in the rotation.
Left-hander T.J. McFarland turned in a scoreless performance over 2 1/3 innings to keep the Orioles within two runs of the Rays on Sunday, and Showalter acknowledged prior to the start of the Yankees series that the 23-year-old Rule 5 selection has been considered as a starting option.
“He was impressive again yesterday,” Showalter said. “I’m real proud of our scouting department. So far, so good with him. He’s a guy we’ve thought about starting, too, but right now it’s Freddy and Jair.”
McFarland has a 2.61 ERA in 20 2/3 innings over 10 appearances. The lefty has allowed 23 hits, struck out 22, and walked seven coming out of the bullpen.
Gonzalez chomping at bit
The Orioles will welcome the Tuesday return of Gonzalez, who hasn’t pitched since leaving his start in Anaheim early with a blister on his thumb on May 3.
Sporting a 2-2 record with a 4.58 ERA in six starts this season, a healthy Gonzalez would help soothe the rotation concerns if he can look more like the pitcher who went 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 18 games (15 starts) last season. The 28-year-old threw briefly on Sunday just to work on the spin of his curveball and feels confident after throwing roughly 80 pitches in completing a simulated game on Friday.
“I’ve been telling the guys it was frustrating not being able to be out there because of a blister,” Gonzalez said. “You know, it’s not an injury, but you just have to wait and heal.”
The right-hander said he shouldn’t be limited to any limited pitch count and would be able to throw 100 or more pitches if necessary on Tuesday night.
Hardy moving up
Shortstop J.J. Hardy saw his 13-game hitting streak come to an end on Sunday, but his .360 average that includes five home runs and 10 RBIs since May 3 hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Hardy was elevated to the No. 3 spot in the order against left-hander CC Sabathia on Monday night, but that was also the result of his numbers against the burly Yankees starter. The 30-year-old entered the game with a .321 career average against Sabathia with one homer and five RBIs.
Showalter was looking for any edge he could get against Sabathia, who held a 10-3 career mark with a 3.38 ERA in 15 career games at Camden Yards prior to Monday’s game.
“It’s hard to find anybody that’s had some success against certain guys,” Showalter said. “This just fits a little bit better for us [Monday night].”
According to Baseball America, the Orioles signed catcher Ronny Paulino and right-handed pitcher Austin Urban to minor-league contracts.
Paulino was released by the Seattle Mariners on March 30 while the Chicago Cubs released Urban on March 12.
Of course, the 32-year-old Paulino served as the Orioles’ backup catcher for a good portion of the first half of last season, hitting .254 in 63 at-bats and appearing in 20 games.