OUT NUMBER ONE
The past ten games have shown us something about these 2009 Orioles. This year’s record may not show it, but this is not the same team that has put up losing campaigns the last 12 seasons. This year’s team has fight – and isn’t done putting up some positively exciting results. That may not have been more evident than Sunday afternoon, when rookie Brian Matusz set new career highs with eight strikeouts and seven innings pitched. After five starts in which he showed flashes of brilliance but couldn’t put everything together, Matusz knew he was going to have a better day on Sunday, and told teammates and reports to expect it.
He was right.
Matusz seems to be showing an incredible sense of self-awareness. His ability to identify and correct his mechanical flaws with the help of pitching coach Rick Kranitz will prove invaluable over the course of his career, and could help him avoid prolonged stretches of poor outings. There will undoubtedly be more missteps along the way for Matusz, and the team he dominated on Sunday was not exactly one of the Major League’s most potent offenses. But the Indians – especially Andy Marte, who went 0-3 against Matusz – had shown a knack for delivering some painful knockout blows during the four-game series at Camden Yards this weekend. Even when the Birds could retire the Indians, it seemed like they had to put a little extra work in, as center fielder Adam Jones twice robbed Indians of home runs on Saturday night. Matusz shut the Tribe down. It will take time to know for sure, but he certainly looks like he could turn into the top-of-the-rotation ace that the Orioles hoped he would be when they selected him in the first round last year.
Matusz hasn’t been the only Oriole looking good lately. Chris Tillman has continued to impress over his first few Major League outings, and although David Hernandez has suffered a few setbacks recently, he bounced back with a solid effort on Thursday night in a no-decision. Jeremy Guthrie, the anointed ace of the staff coming into the year, has looked like the Guthrie of old in his last two outings. Even Jason Berken, who wallowed through much of the campaign and seemed like a strong candidate for demotion before the injury to Brad “R.O.Y.” Bergesen, has won his last two starts and three of his last five, giving up no more than three earned runs in each outing.
For the most part, these guys are keeping the team in the game. There have been a few hiccups from the bullpen, but they are also showing signs of an emerging confidence and dependability. George Sherrill put up a tremendous year-and-a-half for the Birds, and could have rightfully added an All-Star appearance this year to go along with what should have been an All-Star Game M.V.P. outing last season. But Kam Mickolio has shown a calm under pressure and an ability to throw strikes – something that sounds simple but may end up making him one of the most valuable pieces the Orioles got for Erik Bedard two offseasons ago. Thursday night’s blown save notwithstanding, Jim Johnson has looked like a more than capable replacement for Sherrill in the closer role, with a sinking fastball that can reach the upper-nineties and keep batters from making solid contact. Even Chris Ray, who appeared to some as a lost cause at least twice this season, may have finally gotten his mechanical issues figured out on his last trip down to Norfolk.
“Grow the arms and buy the bats.” That has been the philosophy of Andy MacPhail all along. Maybe he’s been on to something.
OUT NUMBER TWO
Speaking of the Orioles’ bats, who saw this coming from Felix Pie? The baserunning mistakes are still there, painful even for tee ball-playing little leaguers to watch. But he has been lethal at the plate lately. More and more often, Pie has sent rockets out of the Yard, allowing him the freedom to circle the basepaths at his leisure. Sunday’s opposite field blast to open up a 3-0 lead on the Indians was impressive, but perhaps his most jaw-dropping bomb of the year came last week in Minnesota, when he teed off on a Twinkie pitch and sent it soaring beyond the deep center field wall at the Metrodome. Cal Ripken got his 3,000th hit at the Metrodome, and the Orioles have always played well there. But that might have been the most impressive shot I have ever seen at that place. This guy can hit, folks. He’s clearly got a lot of work to do, but maybe he was worth keeping around after all. Hopefully he comes back in the spring with a little more understanding of the subtleties of the game.
OUT NUMBER THREE
Since we’re on the subject of the Metrodome, the Orioles’ win on Wednesday night marked the end of their time in that abomination of a ballpark. Although the Birds generally fared well there and it was, as I mentioned, the site of Cal Ripken’s 3,000th hit, it was a lousy place for a ballgame. Oriole Park has the Warehouse. Wrigley has the Ivy. Fenway has the Green Monster. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome had sandwich bags that had been left in Kirby Puckett’s locker hanging from the rafters in right field. The roof wreaked havoc on fly balls, and ground balls hit on the ultra-fast, ultra-hard artificial surface weren’t much more fun. The Mall of America stands where the Twins’ former home, Metropolitan Stadium, once existed. With its sterile, fluorescent environment and deteriorating amenities (on a recent visit, my parents were shocked to find that the place didn’t even bother to sell Twins hats!), there aren’t many more Un-American ballparks in the Major Leagues. Even Toronto’s SkyDome, with its Hard Rock Cafe, McDonalds, and swanky hotel, is more American than that place. And that’s without even bringing up the swastika that perpetually hovers over the cool, clear Minneapolis sky.
That’s all for me today. Happy belated Birthday, Michael.