Orioles’ July will be pivotal on different levels

July 02, 2009 | Luke Jones

Any baseball fan will tell you the 162-game schedule is filled with peaks and valleys.  You’re never as good as your highest point—such as a nine-run comeback win—or as terrible as your lowest moment—like a five-run blown lead in the ninth inning.

This year’s World Series champion is bound to undergo at least a five- or six-game losing streak, and even the worst team in the majors—I’m talking to you, Washington—will manage to win five or six games in a row at some point this season.

The difference between the good teams and the not-so-good teams in Major League Baseball is an ability to heighten the peaks while shortening the dark valleys.

The Orioles’ last two games are a perfect example of how exhilarating—and sobering—the game can be in less than 24 hours.  After completing the greatest comeback in franchise history Tuesday night, the club collapsed in the ninth inning on Wednesday, blowing a 5-1 lead in an eventual 6-5 loss in 11 innings.

How will the Orioles respond to these two polarizing contests?  If we look at the club’s body of work this season, the west coast trip—and the month of July—will not be pretty.

From the pleasant 6-3 start that was squashed in a four-game sweep at Fenway Park in April to the late-May sweep of Toronto and the electricity of Matt Wieters’ debut that fizzled into an offensive famine of historic proportions, the Orioles have lacked the consistency to show they are anywhere close to contention.

We’ve seen this club play well at times—creating optimism that it’s on the verge of turning the corner toward respectability—only to fall on its face completely thereafter.

The next month will tell whether the Orioles are capable of playing near-.500 baseball or that another summer swoon toward 90 or more losses is underway.

When looking at the schedule, avoiding the latter will be a daunting task.  Starting with a four-game series against the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels tonight, the Orioles’ next 19 games will come against teams with winning records.  All but three will be on the road where the club has struggled with an 11-23 record.

Brace yourselves; it could get ugly.

The next month will play a huge part in determining manager Dave Trembley’s fate beyond this season.  In his second full season as the skipper, Trembley has come under fire for his—at best—questionable management of the pitching staff and the club’s horrendous baserunning.  Whether Trembley is the man to lead the young talent into the future is in doubt.

A disastrous July could spell the end of Trembley’s stay in Baltimore, but it may not be prudent to fire another manager in the middle of the season, as the organization did with Lee Mazzilli in 2005 and Sam Perlozzo in 2007.

In both cases, the organization ended up retaining the interim manager instead of completing a more thorough search in the offseason when the chances of finding a more qualified candidate are heightened.

In addition to the manager’s future, the next few weeks will likely determine the fate of every pitcher not named Brad Bergesen in the starting rotation.  With Chris Tillman, Troy Patton, and Jake Arrieta waiting in the wings at Triple-A Norfolk, the pressure will be on the current staff to perform against rigorous competition.

Rich Hill (7.08 ERA) and Jason Berken (6.44 ERA) may only receive another start or two to prove themselves before the organization will be forced to look elsewhere for starting pitching.  Neither has shown the ability to put together a string of good starts and have been downright brutal at times.

With Koji Uehara likely out for the next two months, right-hander David Hernandez (4.19 ERA in three starts) will get an extended look against some of the best teams in the American League.  Hernandez has shown a lively arm, but it will need to translate to getting out big league hitters consistently.  With a run of strong starts this month, the 23-year-old could establish himself as a fixture behind Bergesen in the rotation.

Veteran Jeremy Guthrie will be the most intriguing pitcher to watch over the next few weeks as the July 31st trading deadline approaches.  Guthrie has failed to pitch with the same consistency he showed in his first two seasons in Baltimore when he was the club’s best pitcher.  His 5.11 ERA is a product of surrendering 17 home runs and failing to make quality pitches to finish off batters when ahead in the count.

If Guthrie can pitch well over the next few weeks, his value could possibly fetch a young corner infield prospect that the organization sorely needs.

Much like Guthrie, other veterans could be on the move depending on their performance in July.  Impending free agent Aubrey Huff would appeal to a contender looking for a power bat that can play both corner infield positions.  The streaky Ty Wigginton might be attractive to a National League club, but it’s unlikely he’d attract anything of significant value in return.

Regardless of whether the club rebounds from Wednesday’s deflating loss or tailspins into another July collapse, it will probably look quite different a month from now.

The club is focused on developing its young talent, as it should be, but a strong July performance might keep people somewhat interested in the second half.  Fans want to get excited about this team’s future, but the next month will be crucial in holding their attention.

If there’s another July collapse, it will be another crawl to the finish with nobody watching.

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