After suffering through the slowest sports day of the year this past Thursday, Orioles fans were treated to a memorable weekend, as the the Birds started their week-long road trip with a sweep of the Texas Rangers. Each game featured dominant pitching performances that seemed to build on one another, while the offense tallied 33 total hits, including a whopping 17 in their 7-4 victory on Saturday. There were also a number of outstanding defensive plays, from Nick Markakis robbing a home run, to Manny Machado adding to his growing highlight tape. With 251 wins under his belt as manager of the Orioles, Buck Showalter has the Orioles poised to make a run at the American League East title.
The only frustration from this weekend series was that the Baltimore Orioles still sit in third place in their division. The Tampa Bay Rays simply refuse to lose; when James Loney (.314 BA) and Luke Scott (.274) are hitting , winning 17 of their last 19 should surprise no one. If Fernando Rodney stops imitating Pedro Strop, I am not sure that anybody beats the Rays in October. Even the Rays are looking up to the Boston Red Sox, who beat the New York Yankees in extra innings last night, courtesy of a Mike Napoli walk-off home run. The difference between first and fourth place in the A.L. East is just 7 games. If the season ended today, three teams from the East would be in the playoffs. Every game matters, and teams can ill afford to make late inning mistakes that could be the difference down the stretch.
My thoughts on the sweep of the Rangers:
1) Starting pitching…yes, starting pitching…could be the strength of this team come late September
Give the torrid paces of Chris Davis and Manny Machado, it is only reasonable to assume that one or both of this men will come back to Earth over the next month. The trio of Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman combined to work 21 innings, while walking just 5 batters and giving up 4 earned runs. All three starters did an excellent job of getting ahead of the Rangers’ hitters, which cut down the number of unnecessary pitches and lead to quick innings With the acquisition of Scott Feldman from the Cubs, the Orioles have five quality starting pitchers for the first time all season. Health and consistency will be two things to monitor moving forward.
2) Henry Urrutia will be a huge piece of the puzzle down the stretch.
After going 1-4 with an RBI single in his first game as a major leaguer, Urrutia proved to me that he is here to stay. With the unfortunate injury to Nolan Reimold, the Cuban outfielder will be the benefactor of the at-bats. Danny Valencia was unimpressive to say the least, so here’s to hoping that Showalter gives Urrutia a chance to DH against left-handed pitchers. Urrutia showed plate discipline and above-average patience against Rangers’ pitchers, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in defensively. As the fourth outfielder, Urrutia could spell Nate McLouth on some days, while also giving Adam Jones a game or two off in the field (with McLouth moving to center). Having not played competitive baseball for nearly two years, Urrutia could be the breath of fresh air that this Orioles team needs to make the necessary push for another postseason trip.
3) Late inning matchups will tell the tale.
Showalter allowed Chris Tillman to return to the mound for the 9th inning, a decision that proved to be the wrong one. It was one batter too many, as Adrian Beltre sent a ball into the seats in right-center field to make it a 2-run ball game. Brian Matusz struck out catcher A.J. Pierzynski, then followed with a four pitch walk to pinch hitter Jurickson Profar. Darren O’Day came in to finish the game and record the save, but not without making it interesting. The bullpen had not been taxed against Texas, so I found the inning to be very bizarre. If I had it my way, O’Day would’ve faced Beltre to start the inning, and Matusz would have relieved O’Day and recorded the save. Hindsight is 20/20, but Chris Tillman was not going to pitch a complete game. While the Orioles bullpen is not a strong suit, they have enough guys who can play the matchups and fill a role for a contender. It will be up to Buck if he uses the ‘pen up to their potential.