BALTIMORE — After four weeks of quality starting pitching that earned them their best start since the 2005 season, the Orioles suddenly find their rotation filled with question marks.
Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta has been inconsistent, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter have been more bad than good, and Jason Hammel — the best starter on the staff through the season’s first month — is now battling a right knee injury that forced manager Buck Showalter to scratch him from Thursday’s start in hopes that he can return to the hill Monday or Tuesday and avoid the disabled list.
Meanwhile, the starter the Orioles knew the least about entering the season has suddenly become their surest thing. Pitching the front-end of Thursday’s doubleheader against a Rangers lineup that had pounded Baltimore pitching for 24 runs in the first two games of the series, Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen didn’t blink.
All you needed to know about Chen’s mentality against the two-time American League champions came in the first inning against Josh Hamilton, who was making his first plate appearance since hitting four home runs on Tuesday night. Instead of nibbling on the outside edge of the plate, Chen quickly got ahead 0-2 before buzzing a fastball right under Hamilton’s chin.
The purpose pitched worked as Hamilton flailed badly on the next pitch, a low-and-away breaking ball to end the first inning. It was a sign of things to come as Chen completed the best outing of his brief major league career, pitching 7 2/3 innings while allowing two earned runs and six hits to improve to 3-0 on the season with the Orioles’ 6-5 win in the opener of a straight doubleheader.
“Yeah, definitely, this was my best outing,” Chen said through his interpreter. “This was definitely the best outing of this year.”
Not only did Chen lower his earned run average to an impressive 2.68, but he saved a bullpen that had to work a bit extra in the nightcap after Hunter struggled through six innings while giving up four earned runs in a 7-3 loss.
After receiving an extra day of rest due to Wednesday’s rainout, Chen threw 103 pitches and didn’t seem to struggle as much after reaching the 85-pitch barrier that’s often signaled the end of his effectiveness in several starts. Normally lacking overwhelming stuff, Chen’s fastball topped 93 mph when it normally sits right around 90. In what’s become a pattern for the 26-year-old through his first six starts, he changed speeds and had excellent command, keeping Texas hitters off balance throughout the afternoon.
“Wei-Yin was a difference-maker today to get that deep in the game and against obviously a good lineup,” Showalter said. “He was outstanding. He was sharp with his breaking ball, the extra days’ rest. It seems like he had a little bit more finish on his fastball. He was a difference-maker for us today, and it won’t be forgotten.”
While Chen isn’t a rookie in the traditional sense when you consider his experiences pitching in Taiwan and Japan, his polish has been impressive as he looks to have a plan for every hitter — unlike many of the young pitchers to come to Baltimore and struggle over the last several seasons. He’s allowed three or fewer runs in each start and the competition he’s faced hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk with early encounters against the Yankees and the Red Sox before dominating the Rangers on Thursday.
Of course, even Chen admits the mystery surrounding his ability and how it projects at the major league level has worked to his benefit so far, but it’s tough to discredit what he was able to do to a red-hot Texas lineup.
“Because I’m a new guy, they don’t know me that much,” Chen said. “But, on the other hand, I felt really, really good today, and I had really good command and everything was working. I didn’t think about it too much, I just went pitch-by-pitch today.”
As impressive as Chen has been, he’ll need to make adjustments as American League teams begin to see him for the second and third times. Zach Britton learned that the hard way a year ago when his rookie season began crumbling after looking like a strong Rookie of the Year candidate during the first two months of the season.
Even so, Chen shows the maturity of a pitcher with a plan every time he takes the mound. He doesn’t do anything to overwhelm you, but the results have been exactly what the Orioles were looking for — and badly needed on Thursday.
“We’re still learning about him,” Showalter said. “Considering the competition and the need, [his start] certainly seemed pretty crisp for us.”