BALTIMORE — A day after one of the wildest games in franchise history, the Orioles were forced to make difficult changes to their roster to add a couple bullpen arms to the mix with the powerful Texas Rangers coming to Baltimore for a four-game series.
Limited to just 4 1/3 innings in his shortest outing of the year on Sunday, starter Tommy Hunter was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk along with backup catcher Ronny Paulino to clear room for relievers Jason Berken and Stu Pomeranz. Manager Buck Showalter made it clear the moves were byproducts of the 17-inning series finale in Boston, but he also acknowledged some of the physical challenges that have hindered Hunter in recent weeks.
“Understand that Tommy had a slight oblique, which he’s 100 percent back from,” Showalter said. “He had the flu that everybody had. He had an ingrown toenail. So, he went about two weeks without being able to do some of his strength stuff.”
In six starts, Hunter is 2-1 with a 5.00 earned run average and has allowed 1.42 hits and walks per inning pitched. The 25-year-old right-hander has pitched up in the strike zone far too much, resulting in allowing a club-worst nine home runs in 36 innings.
With the Orioles needing bullpen help and Hunter having an option, he became an unfortunate casualty and creates the question of who will make Friday’s start against the Tampa Bay Rays. Barring a need to replace an injured player, Hunter must remain with the Tides for a minimum of 10 days. Showalter said Berken could be a candidate to make the start, but that will depend on how much the Orioles may need to use him over the next couple nights.
Showalter doesn’t anticipate a long stay in the minors for the club’s No. 2 starter entering the season, but he made no promises when breaking the news to Hunter.
“I look to see Tommy really getting back on track down there with one or two starts,” Showalter said. “We’ll see where it takes us.”
It appeared to be a foregone conclusion that third catcher Luis Exposito would be optioned back to Norfolk with the Orioles calling up at least one reliever, but Paulino received the surprising demotion instead. Showalter cited Paulino’s abbreviated spring training — due to work via issues — and his preference to get more time for Paulino behind the plate, which makes you infer the Orioles manager may not be enamored with Paulino’s defensive work.
“He’s done some good things for us,” Showalter said about Paulino. “We just want to let him catch every day down there and get back to where he’s comfortable. Build up some of his leg strength and get some consistent at-bats.”
As for Monday night, Showalter would not tip his hand as to who else would be available in addition to Berken and Pomeranz, but you can only imagine the list to be a short one. He essentially ruled out any pitchers who appeared in all three games of the Boston series — Matt Lindstrom and Troy Patton fall into that category — but it’s hard to imagine him wanting to go to Kevin Gregg or Jim Johnson.
Each threw two innings on Sunday, but neither is accustomed to going more than one inning under typical circumstances. With Gregg’s sporadic workload over the last month and Johnson’s recent bout with food poisoning zapping his strength, the Orioles would be wise avoiding those two if possible.
Considering the Orioles called up two relievers and made two unexpected demotions in the process tells all you need to know about the desperate state of the bullpen.
More than anything, Showalter is praying for a lengthy outing by left-hander Brian Matusz as the Orioles welcome the Rangers to town in a four-day meeting between two of the best teams — record-wise — in the American League. After recording his first win of the season in his last start in New York, Matusz will be expected to give the Orioles innings in the series opener — even if the results aren’t the prettiest.
Here are tonight’s lineups…
2B Ian Kinsler
SS Elvis Andrus
LF Josh Hamilton
DH Adrian Beltre
1B Michael Young
RF Nelson Cruz
C Mike Napoli
3B Brandon Snyder
CF Craig Gentry
SP Matt Harrison (3-2, 5.40 ERA)
2B Robert Andino
SS J.J. Hardy
RF Nick Markakis
CF Adam Jones
DH Matt Wieters
3B Mark Reynolds
LF Wilson Betemit
1B Chris Davis
C Luis Exposito
SP Brian Matusz (1-3, 4.67 ERA)