Orioles’ early-season slumber could lead to nightmarish awakening

April 10, 2010 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Dave Trembley and the Orioles continue to repeat the same cliches.

It’s early.

There are 162 games in the season.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

And they’re still right on all accounts, but with each passing loss, the frustration is beginning to show. It was a very somber clubhouse following Toronto’s 3-0 win on Saturday night, and while everyone continues to say the right things, it’s clear this team desperately needs a lift.

David Hernandez continued the same pattern of his fellow starters—sans Brad Bergesen—the first time through the rotation: good, but not great. The 24-year-old right-hander pitched six solid innings, giving up two runs, striking out five and walking four. The problem is Hernandez could have been perfect over nine innings and still wouldn’t have been in line for a victory.

“Hernandez went out there and threw a good game,” said centerfielder Adam Jones. “We put up
a doughnut for him. We didn’t really go out there and swing the bats the way we normally do.”

Toronto starter Dana Eveland stifled the Baltimore lineup over 7.1 innings, surrendering just five hits. The same lefty that posted a 7.16 ERA last season in Oakland—a pitcher’s haven—shut out the Orioles at Camden Yards, picking up his second career win against the team in the process.

In 14.1 career innings against the Orioles, Eveland has not allowed a run while surrendering just eight hits.

While Mike Gonzalez’s struggles have grabbed the early headlines, the Orioles’ inability to capitalize with runners in scoring position is a bigger reason why this team stands at 1-4 and needs a victory on Sunday to avoid a sweep in their first home series.

The Orioles hitters are just 8 for 46 with runners in scoring position, a .174 batting average. Last year, the Orioles finished second in the American League with a .284 average in that category. The opportunities were few and far between against Eveland, but it doesn’t take a math major to see an 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position won’t get it done against anyone.

“We haven’t gotten big hits when we needed them,” Trembley said. “And some games that we obviously could’ve won, we haven’t won them.”

The loss of Brian Roberts—who is day-to-day with an abdominal strain and did not play in Saturday night’s loss—sets a trickle-down effect on a lineup already lacking a genuine cleanup hitter in the middle of the order. Julio Lugo or Felix Pie or Cesar Izturis cannot bring what Roberts brings to the lead-off spot. You simply don’t replace 56 doubles no matter who you put at the top.

It’s too early to panic or call for anyone’s head (even Gonzalez’s), but this is the supposed easy part of a brutal April and early May schedule in which the Orioles play 16 games before their first day off and 21 of their first 28 against the American League East. With the expected dominance at the top of the division from New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay, aren’t the Orioles supposed to beat the Blue Jays, a team picked to finish last in the division?

Following Sunday’s finale against the Jays and a three-game set against the Rays, the Orioles travel to the West Coast for seven games against Oakland and Seattle, never an easy task.

But wait, it gets worse.

After finally getting their first day off on April 22, the Orioles then begin a stretch of 12 consecutive games against the Red Sox and Yankees. Baltimore went 7-29 against the two baseball powers in 2009.

So when you see a 1-4 record that should be 3-2, you only need to look ahead to see why this team needs to be concerned. If the Baltimore bats don’t awaken from their early-season snooze, the results will resemble a nightmare later this month.

It’s probably not the time for a players-only meeting or for Trembley to ream out the team behind closed doors, but it is time to stop hitting the snooze bar and finally wake up for the 2010 season.

It’s cost them at least two or three games already, a margin of error they simply cannot afford in this division.

Rise and shine, guys, or you’ll have a nightmare to deal with very quickly.

- Matt Wieters threw out Jose Bautista trying to steal in the top of the third inning for the third out. The second-year catcher has now thrown out four of five attempted base stealers this season.

- The Blue Jays hit five doubles in Saturday’s game, a season high allowed by the Orioles.

- With Toronto scoring on a Adam Lind RBI double, the orioles have now allowed at least one run in the eighth inning or later in every game this season.

- The 3-0 loss was the first game this season in which the outcome was decided by more than one run.

- The paid attendance was 21,148 after setting an Opening Day attendance record yesterday.

Check out the final box score here.

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Good evening from Oriole Park at Camden Yards as the Orioles are set to take on the Toronto Blue Jays in the second of a three-game set at 7:05 p.m.

Dave Trembley just spoke to the media and told reporters Brian Roberts will not play tonight after suffering an abdominal strain in the first inning of yesterday’s 7-6 loss. Roberts injured himself stealing second base and came out of the game after scoring a few moments later.

Julio Lugo will start at second base in his place and will lead off for the Orioles.

The other piece of significant news is the status of closer Mike Gonzalez. Trembley and Rick Kranitz spent much of last night and this morning studying tape of Gonzalez with the Atlanta Braves last year and have discovered some mechanical issues. The lefty is throwing from a different arm angle and falling off the mound much sooner than he did last season, according to Trembley.

Gonzalez will not be the closer this evening, due in part to the amount of work he received in the first four games and his mechanics. The struggling pitcher will work on his mechanics with Kranitz in the bullpen, but Trembley also said this wouldn’t prohibit him from being used in save situations while he works with the pitching coach.

The manager would not reveal who he would use in a save situation tonight and then went on to say he would never reveal who is available or unavailable to pitch before a game. That’s funny, because Trembley said yesterday that situational lefty Will Ohman would be unavailable for Opening Day, but I digress.

So for those of you dreading another Gonzalez appearance, you at least have a one-night reprieve.

Here is tonight’s lineup for the Orioles:

2B Julio Lugo
CF Adam Jones
RF Nick Markakis
3B Miguel Tejada
DH Garrett Atkins
C Matt Wieters
LF Nolan Reimold
1B Ty Wigginton
SS Cesar Izturis

SP David Hernandez (4-10, 5.42 ERA)

And for Toronto:

2B Mike McCoy
RF Jose Bautista
DH Adam Lind
CF Vernon Wells
1B Lyle Overbay
3B Edwin Encarnacion
SS Alex Gonzalez
LF Travis Snider
C Jose Molina

SP Dana Eveland (2009 stats with Oakland: 2-4, 7.16 ERA)

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter (@WNST) for the quickest updates throughout the evening and please join us in our Orange Crush chat, the newest way to watch a game in town!

Check back for updates (time-stamped) leading up to the first pitch when I’ll be shifting over to the Orange Crush chat.

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6:55 p.m. — Adam Jones just received his 2009 Gold Glove award and gave a big hug to coach John Shelby in the process. Congratulations to Mr. Jones.

I’m still not convinced Jones was very deserving of the award, but any positive recognition for the Orioles cannot be taken for granted.

5:50 p.m. — While most attention centers around the health of Roberts and the status of Gonzalez, we’ll get our first look at right-hander David Hernandez tonight. The 25-year-old won the fifth starter spot, beating out top prospect Chris Tillman in spring training.

Of course, Hernandez got his feet wet at the big-league level last season, going 4-10 with a 5.42 ERA in 19 starts. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has a power fastball and showed much better commander of his slider in the spring. After walking 46 batters in 101.1 innings in his rookie season, Hernandez walked just three batters in 15 spring innings, a major factor in nailing down the final spot in the rotation.

Many still feel Hernandez is best suited for a late-innings role in the bullpen due to command issues and questions of how deep he can go into a game, but now is the time to figure out whether or not he can be a middle to back-of-the-rotation starter before you slide him to a relief role.

As for Tillman, hopes are still high, but he’ll have to wait it out in Norfolk.

5:30 p.m. — Following up on the Gonzalez news, Trembley brought up the early-season struggles of George Sherrill last season when the closer was temporarily stripped of exclusive closer duties after blowing his second save in three chances against Toronto on May 2. At the time, Sherrill was 4-for-6 in save opportunities with a 5.06 ERA.

After May 2 and until being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sherrill was 16-for-17 in save chances with a 1.47 ERA.

While certainly a far cry from Gonzalez’s struggles in his first three appearances, every closer struggles from time to time—even Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon—but those struggles will clearly stand out on a new team during the first week of the season.

Does that mean Gonzalez will eventually straighten himself out? No, but it’s far too soon to give up on the guy entirely.

At the very least, it’s encouraging that the coaching staff has discovered flaws in his mechanics, if they have indeed found them and it isn’t a front to buy some time for the left-hander.

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