Tag Archive | "AL east"

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It’s now or never for road-challenged Orioles

Posted on 05 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have one winning road trip all season.

One.

It was an abbreviated two-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins in mid-May that was sandwiched between two longer homestands. In other words, that’s not a real road trip in the way we typically view a multi-city one lasting the better part of a week or two.

Buck Showalter’s club has avoided disastrous road trips of the 1-9 or 2-8 variety, but a 29-37 mark away from Oriole Park at Camden Yards speaks for itself. While holding the third-best home record in the American League this season, the Orioles have been a bad team on the road.

Entering Labor Day three games behind first-place Toronto in the AL East and tied with Detroit for the second wild-card spot, Baltimore is aware of what’s ahead. A nine-game, three-city road trip precedes the final 11-game homestand of the year and then six more on the road to conclude the regular season.

It’s now or never.

“We’ve got to win games. It’s real simple,” Showalter said. “We have to win games, regardless of how we get there. I don’t care how it looks or how it happens, but we need to have more runs than them after nine innings or 10 or 11 or 12 or so on. It’s a pretty simple equation right now.”

But that been the equation all year on the road. Camden Yards is certainly a ballpark suited for an Orioles lineup constructed to win via the long ball, but that doesn’t fully explain the chasm between home and road performance this season.

At home, the Orioles have hit .266 with a .331 on-base percentage and a .470 slugging percentage. They’ve batted .254 with a .309 OBP and a .431 slugging percentage on the road.

The difference in pitching is even more dramatic with Baltimore pitching to a respectable 3.94 ERA at home compared to an alarming 4.93 away mark. If the Orioles can pitch effectively at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, there’s just no explaining being a full run worse on the road.

Overall, the Orioles aren’t as good as their sparkling 45-25 home record, but they’re also not the poor quality of a 91-loss team as their road record would suggest. They have lost nine of their last 15 home games, so the Orioles can only hope that the worm finally turns on the road.

They need it to.

After three-game sets at Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Boston, the Orioles will return to Baltimore on Sept. 15 with a good idea of where they stand in the playoff picture. If they follow their season-long road profile with no better than a 4-5 trip, the chances of a division title would likely be bleak and they’d be scratching and crawling the rest of the way to secure a wild card. A good road trip — say 6-3 or better — keeps them within striking distance of the division with games remaining against both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays in the final two weeks.

“One at a time,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “That’s got to be the mentality this time of year. You can’t win them all at once; you’ve got to go one at a time.”

That sounds good, but the Orioles haven’t been able to consistently stack wins on the road all year.

It’s now or never.

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Out-of-sync Orioles in danger of falling out of AL East race

Posted on 01 September 2016 by Luke Jones

You couldn’t help but cringe at the pitching matchups as the Orioles returned home to begin a critical three-game set with Toronto on Monday.

Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Yovani Gallardo going up against the Blue Jays’ three best starters? Even the most optimistic of Baltimore fans feared it could get ugly at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Instead, the embattled trio turned in three quality starts against the second-highest scoring offense in the American League. And the Orioles still lost two of three to the division leader to fall four games back in the AL East.

The term “must-win” is one of the most overused descriptors in sports, but that series win was one that Buck Showalter’s club surely wanted to have, especially playing at home where the Orioles have looked quite mortal over the last few weeks. It’s just been that kind of a second half as Baltimore fell into a tie with Detroit for the final wild card spot on Wednesday.

Trying to hold on, but seemingly losing their grip bit by bit as the summer transitions into fall. Out of sync and trying to avoid falling out of a tough division race in which Toronto and Boston aren’t going anywhere. A wild-card spot that appeared likely now looks in doubt with the likes of Detroit, Houston, and Kansas City surging.

The pitching remains the biggest concern — even two of the top three bullpen arms surrendered runs in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss — but an offense that thrived in the first half has been among the worst in the league since the All-Star break. Sure, the Orioles still hit home runs — they tied the major league record for long balls in August with 55 after hitting a record 56 in June — but they’ve all but stopped doing anything else offensively.

Remember how Baltimore ranked third in the AL with a .333 on-base percentage in the first half? Those more disciplined at-bats and the willingness to draw a few more walks have evaporated with the Orioles ranking last in the AL with a .293 OBP in the 46 games since then. They rank 12th in runs scored since the break despite continuing to lead the league in home runs, illustrating how much more dependent on long balls they’ve become to score runs as the season has progressed.

We knew all along that the Orioles lineup was constructed to win with the home run, but the all-or-nothing outcomes are as extreme as ever. Consider Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, who have combined to hit 22 home runs and bat .180 in 305 at-bats since the break. They haven’t been alone in the second-half struggles, but you just aren’t going to consistently score runs with that kind of production from your No. 4 and No. 5 hitters.

Because the offense produced at such a high level over the first half of the season, it’s still reasonable to think — at least hope? — a prolonged hot streak could be right around the corner.

But then we come back to the pitching, which ranks 13th among 15 AL clubs. Other than the first few weeks after the All-Star break when the rotation performed at a respectable level — and the offense failed to capitalize — you just can’t trust this starting pitching, especially with Chris Tillman unlikely to return before the middle of September. The bullpen continues to wilt without Darren O’Day, who is just now working out the final remnants of discomfort in his right shoulder.

The Orioles will say they were encouraged by the way Miley, Jimenez, and Gallardo pitched against the Blue Jays this week, but that kind of success feels more like an aberration than a breakthrough for the final month.

Despite exceeding expectations for most of the season, this club just isn’t firing on all cylinders and hasn’t been for quite some time. When the rotation does offer a stretch of decent outings, the offense fails to do its job. When the bats are lively, the pitching struggles to even be competitive. Or, neither phase performs well and it gets downright ugly.

On Wednesday, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette added Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn, veterans who can help the abysmal outfield defense late in games and add some speed off the bench. Maybe these spare parts will help spark a struggling club, but the Orioles simply look like a team struggling to keep their heads above water these days.

The losing spells have been more frequent while the good times have been fleeting. In the first four months of the season, the Orioles had three seven-game winning streaks, two five-game winning streaks, and a four-game winning streak. In August, they won as many as three in a row just once while dropping three straight on three separate occasions.

Going just 21-25 since the All-Star break, the Orioles have been trying to hold on, but they’ll need to do more than that in September to secure their third trip to the postseason in the last five years.

You should never count out the Orioles under Showalter with so much baseball left to play, but an increasingly one-dimensional offense, a poor starting rotation, and a bullpen short on trustworthy arms aren’t inspiring confidence in the final month of the season.

It’s just not looking good.

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Orioles stats to ponder in late June

Posted on 23 June 2016 by Luke Jones

As we rapidly approach the halfway point in the 2016 season, below are some statistics to ponder as the first-place Orioles prepare for a four-game weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

1. Baltimore is thriving at Camden Yards and against sub-.500 opponents.

“Protect your home field and beat the teams you’re supposed to beat” is the oft-quoted formula for winning teams in any sport, and the Orioles have fit that description beautifully with a 27-13 home record and a 17-7 mark against clubs under .500 entering Thursday. Their .675 winning percentage at home ranks third in the AL behind only Kansas City and Texas and fourth in the majors. Twenty of the Orioles’ next 23 games come against teams who were .500 or worse entering Thursday, but only seven games during that stretch will be played at Camden Yards, making it critical for Baltimore to improve upon its underwhelming 14-17 road record.

2. Despite their reputation, the Orioles lineup is walking at a respectable rate.

We’ve heard plenty about their free-swinging ways and lack of plate discipline over the last several years, but the Orioles quietly entered Thursday sporting the third-best on-base percentage (.328) in the AL and ranked a respectable seventh in walks. This represents dramatic improvement from 2015 when they finished 12th in OBP (.307) and 13th in walks in the AL. Baltimore’s 8.1 percent walk rate is slightly above the league average (8.0) and is substantially higher than last year (7.0 percent) or even 2014 (6.5 percent). Patient approaches from the likes of Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Pedro Alvarez aren’t surprising, but even free-swinging hitters such as Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop have shown some modest improvement in the walk department.

3. The bullpen workload is as concerning as it looks.

We know the starting pitching has been ugly with a 4.93 ERA ranking 13th in the AL, but the bullpen has held up remarkably well with a 3.07 ERA that ranks behind only Kansas City in the AL and fourth in the majors. The problem is the heavier workload as relievers have pitched 38.2 percent of the Orioles’ innings compared to 36.1 percent last year and 34.7 percent in 2014. June has been particularly taxing with the bullpen handling 41 percent of the innings after handling 40 percent in April and a more-reasonable 34.4 percent in May. With limited trade chips in their organization, the Orioles might want to consider adding another impact bullpen arm to go with Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens. That would likely be easier to acquire and might provide similar value to the kind of starting pitcher the Orioles can realistically afford with few attractive assets to offer in a trade.

4. Hyun Soo Kim and Jones are at opposite ends of the spectrum for batting average on balls put in play.

Both have had their best months of the season in June, but Kim is sporting a .389 BABIP — fifth highest in the majors among those with 120 or more plate appearances — compared to Jones’ .261 mark this season. The 2016 league average mark has been .298 and BABIP typically normalizes for players over time. The South Korean left fielder has been an important contributor, but his 59.4 percent ground-ball rate leads the team and will unsurprisingly make it difficult for him to sustain his .339 average over time, especially if more teams begin successfully shifting on him. The good news is that Kim has the fourth-lowest soft-contact rate on the club, which should help more of those grounders find the outfield for hits. Meanwhile, Jones owns a career .309 BABIP and is sporting his best hard-contact rate since 2013, indications that he should expect a much better second half after dealing with an early-season rib issue and some tough luck at the plate.

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Orioles sitting pretty six weeks into 2016 season

Posted on 16 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Six weeks down, 20 more to go.

Just a simple reminder that it’s still early in 2016 as the Orioles begin a new week holding the best record in the American League by percentage points. But how can you not be optimistic about a club that’s already put together two seven-game winning streaks after no previous run of victories lasting that long since 2005?

Even after Sunday’s disappointing 6-5 loss to Detroit to snap their latest winning streak, the 23-13 Orioles are off to their best start through 36 games in 11 years. It’s quite an improvement from the many preseason forecasts — including this writer’s — expecting Baltimore to be no better than fourth or fifth in the AL East.

We knew the Orioles would hit plenty of home runs — they entered Monday leading the majors in that category — and their bullpen sports the best ERA in all of baseball, but the starting pitching was the major question mark. Through Sunday, Baltimore ranked a respectable seventh in the AL in starter ERA (4.22).

Can the Orioles sustain the success? That’s the question we’ve uttered so many times over the last five seasons whenever Buck Showalter’s club is in the midst of exceeding outside expectations.

No one can predict the future as it relates to injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, but some of the factors their critics have used against the Orioles in past seasons aren’t looking so bad in 2016.

Remember how detractors harped on the 2012 Orioles’ run differential throughout their improbable run to the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 15 years?

Their plus-37 mark so far this season suggests being 10 games above .500 is hardly a fluke. Of course, all it takes is a couple lopsided defeats to throw that mark out of whack when we’re still so early in the schedule, but we are almost a quarter of the way through the marathon.

What about 2014 when Baltimore finished third in the AL with a 3.44 ERA but stat-heads pointed to a 3.96 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark ranking 11th? So far this season, the Orioles sport the AL’s best FIP (3.63) while ranking fourth in ERA (3.53)

Their rotation FIP (3.88) is even better than the rotation ERA, primarily a reflection of Orioles starters allowing fewer home runs than any other AL club. Some regression is likely, but the rotation allowed the second-most homers in the league a year ago, reflecting how much improvement there’s been in that department so far.

Sporting a career-low ERA (2.58) and registering a career-high 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, Chris Tillman has led the starter improvement and is so far providing the bounce-back season the club needed. We know the starting pitching will continue to be the hot topic as it relates to staying in games and preventing an exceptional bullpen from wearing out in the second half.

“The pitching’s been solid,” Showalter said. “That’s the thing that’s going to allow us to maintain the level we’re going to have to have to compete in our division. You’re going to have to take care of your own business every night and not expect any help from anybody. But the pitching has been as good as I could hope for it to be so far.”

Being solid is good enough for the starting pitching, but how great can the offense be?

Beyond hitting home runs, the Orioles entered Monday ranked third in the AL in runs, second in batting average, second in on-base percentage, and second in slugging percentage. Their 8.4 percent walk rate is markedly better than their 7.0 percent mark a year ago, reflecting more patience at the plate.

Manny Machado has looked every bit the part of the 2016 AL MVP after finishing fourth in the voting last year. It was fun wondering this winter if the 23-year-old could be even better than he was in 2015, but he’s been exactly that so far as one of the very best players in baseball.

Newcomer Mark Trumbo was initially viewed as an insurance policy for the potential free-agent departure of Chris Davis in the offseason, but he’s been the club’s second-best hitter while the likes of Davis and Adam Jones struggled through parts of the first six weeks. Expecting him to hit .300 would be unrealistic, but there’s no denying him having a Nelson Cruz-like impact on his new club so far.

Machado and Trumbo have led the way, but the Orioles have three other hitters — Davis, Jones, and Jonathan Schoop — sporting an OPS of at least .770 after recent surges. And that’s not even considering Matt Wieters and Pedro Alvarez, who are hitting well below their career numbers but are capable of being above-average offensive contributors at their respective positions.

Of course, none of this means the Orioles are a lock to win their second division title in three years and secure their third postseason berth in five seasons as we know there’s a very long way to go. Boston has sported the best offense in the league and lost no ground to the Orioles during the latter’s seven-game winning streak that ended on Sunday. Toronto has lagged behind the other two in third place, but the Blue Jays surprisingly sport the best starter ERA in the AL while they wait for their imposing lineup to heat up.

The Orioles aren’t going to run away with this division, but there’s plenty to like about them through the first six weeks, some expected and some of it not. And it’s been more than just smoke and mirrors.

Yes, Baltimore is sitting pretty.

Prettier than expected, which is really be nothing new for these Orioles by now.

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2016 American League East preview

Posted on 04 April 2016 by Luke Jones

The Toronto Blue Jays became the first team with fewer than 95 victories to win the American League East since the 2000 season, a trend that will continue in another parity-driven season in 2016.

The AL East also held the best last-place team in the majors in 2015 as Boston finished just six games below .500

Below is a capsule of the five AL East clubs in their predicted order of finish:

1. TORONTO (2015 record: 93-69, first place)
Notable additions: SP J.A. Happ, RP Drew Storen
Notable losses: SP David Price, OF Ben Revere, LHP Mark Buehrle
Why to like them: This wasn’t just the best offense in baseball, but the Blue Jays scored 127 more runs than any other club in the AL while leading the way in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Why to dislike them: The free-agent departures of Price and the dependable Buehrle put a lot of pressure on a starting rotation that was solid but unspectacular in 2015.
Player to watch: The 24-year-old Marcus Stroman is being counted on as the ace despite having only made seven total starts (counting the postseason) after a serious knee injury last spring.
2016 outlook (91-71): Toronto’s pitching is a notable question mark, but that lineup is far and away the biggest strength that any of the five clubs in this division have.

2. TAMPA BAY (2015 record: 80-82, fourth place)
Notable additions: OF/DH Corey Dickerson, SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, OF Steve Pearce
Notable losses: SP Nate Karns, RP Jake McGee, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, 1B/DH John Jaso
Why to like them: The Rays sport the best starting rotation in the AL East and are on track to get the accomplished Alex Cobb back from Tommy John surgery later this season.
Why to dislike them: Tampa Bay’s bullpen was ninth in the AL in ERA before trading away the hard-throwing McGee and the lineup is improved but still doesn’t scare you.
Player to watch: Should Drew Smyly and Matt Moore show that their injuries are finally behind them, the Rays rotation that already led the AL in ERA a year ago will be scary.
2016 outlook (88-74): The Rays made just enough offensive improvement to propel themselves into contention and will snag one of the two wild cards in the AL.

3. BOSTON (2015 record: 78-84, fifth place)
Notable additions: SP David Price, RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Carson Smith, OF Chris Young
Notable losses: SP Wade Miley, SP Rich Hill
Why to like them: The Red Sox acquired the ace that they desperately needed and a dominant closer to go along with one of the best offenses in the AL.
Why to dislike them: There are still too many question marks in the rotation behind Price and there may not be enough bullpen depth to get to the dominant Kimbrel in the ninth inning.
Player to watch: The Hanley Ramirez outfield experience was a disaster in 2015, so the Red Sox are hoping a move to first base will help them collect on their hefty free-agent investment.
2016 outlook (85-77): There is clear upside with a club that played better late in 2015, but there are still too many questions about the pitching to make Boston the AL East favorite.

4. BALTIMORE (2015 record: 81-81, third place)
Notable additions: SP Yovani Gallardo, OF Mark Trumbo, DH Pedro Alvarez
Notable losses: SP Wei-Yin Chen, SP Miguel Gonzalez, OF Steve Pearce, OF Gerardo Parra
Why to like them: An offense that finished third in the AL in homers added two more bats with 30-homer power and the AL’s third-best bullpen could be better with Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy.
Why to dislike them: The Orioles finished next to last in the AL in starter ERA and lost their most dependable starter (Chen) while replacing him with Gallardo, a solid veteran with declining stuff.
Player to watch: Kevin Gausman will begin the year on the disabled list, but his development is key in determining whether the starting rotation can improve enough to make the Orioles a viable contender.
2016 outlook (80-82): An offense that will hit a ton of home runs and a terrific bullpen won’t be able to overcome a starting rotation that needed to be upgraded and wasn’t this winter.

5. NEW YORK (2015 record: 87-75, second place)
Notable additions: RP Aroldis Chapman, 2B Starlin Castro, OF Aaron Hicks
Notable losses: SP Adam Warren, RP Justin Wilson, OF Chris Young
Why to like them: Once Chapman returns from suspension, the Yankees will sport the scariest bullpen trio in the majors and will be able to shorten games even more than they did in 2015.
Why to dislike them: New York finished 10th in the AL in starter ERA and is depending on too many veteran position players in the heart of the lineup to fight off Father Time.
Player to watch: Much attention will fall on Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, but the key for the rotation will be whether Michael Pineda establishes himself as a legitimate No. 1-caliber starter.
2016 outlook (78-84): The lineup is littered with too many older players who won’t manage to stay as healthy and productive as they did last year when the Yankees secured a wild card.

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Too many valleys, not enough peaks for Orioles

Posted on 13 July 2015 by Luke Jones

A lot changed in two weeks for the Orioles.

Appearing poised to take off in the American League East after winning 18 of 23 to move into first place on June 28, the Orioles have instead lost 10 of 13 as we take a deep breath at the All-Star break. Falling back to the .500 mark for the first time since June 14, they’re once again facing many of the same doubts that plagued them for the first two months of the 2015 season.

Their impressive June had many convinced they were ready to recapture the success experienced last year when they won the AL East by 12 games, but poor baseball instead returned as the Orioles have gone 3-8 in July and have scored just 32 runs over those games.

Of course, Baltimore remains in the playoff hunt and is only four games behind the first-place New York Yankees, but a look at the schedule tells a simple story of how the first half played out.

Not counting their 18-5 stretch last month, the Orioles have won as many as three in a row only one other time all season. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand it’s difficult to climb far from .500 when you’re rarely stacking victories.

In contrast, the Orioles experienced two different five-game losing streaks and dropped eight of 11 in the first half of May in addition to their current stretch that’s lowered them from the top of the division to third place. Strictly looking in that context, are the Orioles fortunate to hold a .500 record at this point?

A plus-39 run differential indicates they’ve played to some bad luck, but too many valleys and not enough peaks have left the Orioles middling instead of thriving in their attempt to repeat as division champions.

Much focus has fallen on a schizophrenic offense that was terrific in April and June and terrible in May and the first half of July, but the biggest concern for the second half should be a starting rotation ranking 10th in the AL with a 4.20 ERA. Beyond Wei-Yin Chen and the rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez, the Baltimore rotation has struggled with Chris Tillman and Bud Norris — the latter already being sent to the bullpen — sporting ERAs well above 5.00 and Miguel Gonzalez not being the same since returning from the disabled list last month.

The wild card could be the 24-year-old Kevin Gausman, but the Orioles need better from the rest of the rotation as it was a 2.98 starter ERA in the second half last year that was the biggest factor in Buck Showalter’s club running away with the division. They finished fifth in the AL in starter ERA with a 3.61 mark in 2014.

The next couple weeks will be critical for executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette as he tries to find a way to improve the current club. The return of talented second baseman Jonathan Schoop is another reason for optimism as the Orioles are healthier now than they’ve been since early last season, but a steady corner outfielder and another elite bullpen arm to ease the workload of Darren O’Day and Zach Britton should be the top priorities between now and the deadline.

A top starting pitcher would be a major plus, but the Orioles likely lack the inventory to land one that would be a marked upgrade over what they already have in place.

Much like their 10-game West Coast trip to begin the second half last season, a nine-game trip against three clubs sporting .500 records or better — Detroit, New York, and Tampa Bay — starting Friday could set the tone for the remainder of the season. Last July, the Orioles went 6-4 out west against Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle and never looked back.

A lousy 17-26 mark away from Camden Yards this year will understandably make fans brace themselves before the Orioles return home again on July 27. Faltering during this road trip wouldn’t necessarily sink their ship, but it could create a very tough climb over the final two months.

So far in 2015, the Orioles haven’t been able to shift into higher gear like they did a year ago. An AL East lacking any heavyweight remains the biggest positive working in their favor, but it’s fair to wonder if the Orioles are capable of getting to the 89 or 90 wins it will probably take to win the division.

Save for one 3 1/3-week stretch in June, the Orioles haven’t been able to get far without stubbing their toe all season.

Too many valleys, not enough peaks.

And that’s what has them sitting at .500 and looking up in the standings at the All-Star break.

 

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Orioles once again looking part of first-place club

Posted on 29 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles pitched two shutouts, their top six relievers threw a combined 18 pitches, and Adam Jones finally made his return to the lineup on Sunday.

The Buck Showalter garden gnome giveaway was a huge hit.

And, oh yeah, the Orioles found themselves back in first place in the American League East for the first time since April 19.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona might have been asking himself why he waited until the ninth inning of Game 2 to get ejected after his team’s abysmal day, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for a better doubleheader. In tossing shutouts in both games of the twin bill — a 4-0 win in the opener and an 8-0 final for the nightcap — the Orioles did something they hadn’t accomplished since Sept. 6, 1974 when they twice blanked the Indians in a doubleheader at old Cleveland Stadium.

“It was big. It was a good day,” said Game 2 winner Chris Tillman, who pitched a much-needed seven shutout innings to help his own psyche after Ubaldo Jimenez tossed eight scoreless frames in the opener. “Ubaldo went out and did an outstanding job. There was a lot of offense today in both games. It was really fun to watch.”

On the same day they won the 5,000th game in club history, the Orioles came out of the weekend only reinforcing what many have begun thinking more and more over the last four weeks. They’re looking like a first-place club and woke up Monday morning in that very position, percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in a division where four clubs are currently separated by one game.

It’s a different season and a different club, but you couldn’t help but notice that the Orioles seized first place for good on July 3 last season. The similarities are there with an excellent defense, a stellar bullpen, and a revitalized offense hitting home runs, but even the starting pitching got into the act after struggling in recent weeks by allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings of work against the Indians.

Right now, the AL East is far from the poor division it looked to be six weeks ago as three clubs — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and New York — would have qualified for the playoffs if the season had ended on Sunday. Whether the Orioles will follow the same script of 2014 remains to be seen, but 18 wins in 23 games to move to the top of the division would have any club feeling good about itself.

“It’s a return for that, but it can be very fleeting,” Showalter said. “The only thing I look at is the loss column now and then. I don’t pay much attention to the other part of it.

“See if you can stay engaged and have a chance to roll the dice in September. That’s what it’s about. Position yourself to be in it in September and play meaningful games when the leaves start turning. It’s not that complicated.”

Continuing to win at a .783 clip as they have for more than three weeks isn’t sustainable, but the Orioles learned last year that it doesn’t take prolonged winning streaks to pull away from the pack if you consistently win series. If you combine the four games — two home and two away — against Philadelphia, Baltimore has now secured seven consecutive series wins.

Unlike the Orioles clubs from a few years ago, this group of players has the experience of bouncing back — like when they were six games below .500 earlier this month — that brings confidence the rest of the way. They know it won’t be this easy over the final three months of the season, and Showalter makes sure his players are prepared for that reality, never wanting them to be too high or too low after any result.

“We have the ups and downs,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who hit his career-high 15th homer on Sunday and continues sprinting toward superstar status a week shy of his 23rd birthday. “We started off a little slow. We had players injured, and we’re just getting back into it. Everybody’s starting to get healthy. This is just the midway point.

“There’s a lot more baseball ahead, a lot more slumps, a lot more games lost coming ahead, but we’ve got to stay focused and stay with the mindset that we have.”

The Orioles know they aren’t perfect.

Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are still sifting through a crowded corner outfield situation that will likely require parting ways with one or two options. As a whole, the group has been more productive in June, but the Orioles have to hope they’ll make the right decisions and the remaining pieces will continue getting the job done.

Tillman’s strong performance on Sunday was a step in the right direction as he and Bud Norris still have a long way to go to quell concerns over their immense struggles in the first half of 2015.

But these issues don’t feel insurmountable and certainly aren’t any worse than the weaknesses the other AL East contenders are facing. Even in winning 96 games and the club’s first division title in 17 years last year, the Orioles had their flaws.

It’s tough to ignore the similarities with 2014, even down to the contributions from unexpected sources such as Jimmy Paredes, Chaz Roe, and Chris Parmelee a year after Steve Pearce, Brad Brach, and Caleb Joseph emerged from the shadows.

“This team tries as much as we can not to think about last year,” said Chris Davis, who hit his club-leading 16th homer on Sunday night. “It was obviously a great year, but it’s over with. You have to turn the page and focus on what’s at hand. I think we’re proud of the way we’re playing right now and battling these last few days and playing with somewhat of a short roster.

“Guys have stepped up and have done a great job.”

And the Orioles have stepped to the top of the AL East as a result.

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Orioles failed to get well despite May home cooking

Posted on 31 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Having limped home after a 1-5 trip in New York in early May, the Orioles envisioned getting well entering their most inviting portion of the 2015 regular-season schedule.

Despite owning a 13-16 record through the first five weeks of 2015, the Orioles were playing 17 of their next 20 games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an opportunity to not only climb back above the .500 mark but to seize first place in the underwhelming American League East. Instead of taking advantage of the home cooking, however, manager Buck Showalter’s club continued to take one step forward and the next one back with a 10-10 record.

It was far from a disaster as the Orioles incredibly moved 3 1/2 games closer to first place over those 20 games, but that’s more an indictment of a mediocre division than progress as we now turn the calendar to June. And it doesn’t reflect anyone feeling much better about the Orioles’ fortunes than we did three weeks ago as inconsistency has been the theme of the 2015 season through 49 games, just over 30 percent of the way through the 162-game marathon.

After averaging a robust 5.6 runs per game in April, the Baltimore lineup managed just 3.3 per contest in the second month of the season, not the only but certainly the biggest reason why the Orioles finished 13-16 in May. Showalter and players have cited opponents continuing to pitch backwards against Baltimore hitters by offering a steady diet of off-speed pitches, but the adjustments haven’t been made as the Orioles ranked last in the AL in batting average (.231), on-base percentage (.287), and slugging percentage (.358) in May. They can only hope two home runs each from Manny Machado and Delmon Young in Sunday’s 9-5 loss to Tampa Bay are a sign of better things to come in June.

It couldn’t get much worse at the plate than it was in May.

“We are just out there playing baseball,” said Machado when asked to pinpoint the offensive struggles. “We don’t care about how many runs we score. We [just] want to get the win at the end of the day. We’ll just going to go out there and score as many as we can and win a ballgame.

“We’ve got to keep swinging the bats. There are days you swing the bat well and pitchers are going to be dealing. You have to tip your cap off to them, [because] they have a job to keep as well. We’ve just got to keep swinging the bats and at the end of the day, it’s all about the [win].”

A number of hitters have underperformed, particularly at the corner outfield spots where the Orioles have already designated veteran Alejandro De Aza for assignment. You’d figure more changes could be coming if the organization was willing to part ways with De Aza despite currently being on the hook for what remains of his $5 million salary in 2015.

The Orioles hope the imminent return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters will provide a lift, but it’s impossible to know what they’ll get from the veteran who hasn’t played in a major league game in nearly 13 months. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop continues to rehab a right knee injury, but the club is being deliberate with his recovery in fear of a setback that could require season-ending surgery.

In fairness, there’s still too much talent in the Baltimore lineup to be as poor as it was in May, but that doesn’t mean they’ll score enough runs moving forward, either.

Overlooked because of the struggling offense, spottier-than-normal defense, and a losing record, the Orioles have pitched exceptionally well in recent weeks, finishing second in the AL in staff ERA (3.38) in May. It’s easily the most encouraging development of the month and the biggest reason why the club shouldn’t panic. The Orioles did this despite Opening Day starter Chris Tillman sporting a 5.94 ERA, the talented right-hander Kevin Gausman on the disabled list, and 2014 15-game winner Bud Norris an absolute mess.

This pitching prosperity followed a 4.78 ERA in April that ranked 13th in the AL.

Processing the first two months of the season, it’s no wonder Orioles fans are ready to pull out their hair.

It would be cavalier to assume the offense won’t continue to be a concern given the chasms — offensively and defensively — flanking center fielder Adam Jones that have yet to be filled, but there’s evidence to support the pitching can continue to succeed given the talent that hasn’t been much of a factor so far. There’s no sugarcoating how much Tillman has scuffled, but many were similarly concerned about the tall right-hander at this time last year before he finished as one of the best pitchers in the league over the final four months of 2014.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, but I feel like we’re heading in the right direction,” said Tillman, who allowed all six runs in Sunday’s outing with two outs. “I saw a lot of positives today. The negatives kind of overwhelm, but I think we are getting somewhere. I just have to make that last big step, and I think we’ll be all right.”

After playing .500 over the home-heavy last 20 games, the Orioles will now play 15 of their next 23 on the road after beginning the season 8-14 in away games. Showalter’s club will need to reverse that trend if they even want to continue hovering close to the .500 mark.

In the end, the Orioles may still be all right in what could be the worst division in baseball, but there are no guarantees. The AL East is begging for someone — anyone — to get hot at this point with New York and Tampa Bay occupying first place with just 26-25 records.

But you can’t help but feel the Orioles squandered a great chance to get well over these last few weeks that they might look back on with regret once September rolls around.

 

 

 

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davis

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Rest of AL East best thing going for Orioles

Posted on 21 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It doesn’t take long to explain why the Orioles fell 4-2 to Seattle on Wednesday night, snapping an all-too-brief two-game winning streak.

A lineup that sleepwalked through seven innings, a few poor pitches in an otherwise solid seven-inning outing from Wei-Yin Chen, and an eighth-inning baserunning blunder from Jimmy Paredes all played major parts in the Orioles once again falling three games below .500 at 17-20. No matter how you slice it, the Orioles haven’t been able to put it all together as Memorial Day is nearly upon us.

“We haven’t played consistent baseball all year,” said Steve Pearce, who’s just one of several key players who have significantly underperformed so far in 2015. “It’s still early. We haven’t been playing good baseball all year and we’re still right [there in the standings]. We have a chance to turn this around; we’re not pressing yet. We’re only a quarter of the way through the season.”

Even with an array of injuries and significant concerns at the corner outfield spots, the Orioles find themselves just one game behind New York and Tampa Bay in the loss column for first place in the American League East. The best thing going for the Orioles is the performance of the rest of the division through the first 6 1/2 weeks of the 2015 season as all five teams lost on Wednesday.

After jumping out to a 21-12 start, the Yankees have now lost seven of eight with leadoff hitter and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury joining starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on the 15-day disabled list. The Yankees are old, injury-prone, and too dependent on the back end of their bullpen, making it difficult to love their chances over a 162-game marathon.

So far, Boston has been the biggest disappointment in the AL East despite its spending spree over the winter. The pitching has improved of late — it still doesn’t inspire much confidence and already cost pitching coach Juan Nieves his job earlier this month — but a Red Sox lineup touted as baseball’s best entering the season has scored fewer runs than any club in the AL East.

The Toronto Blue Jays have hit as well as everyone predicted, but their pitching has been as poor as anyone could have feared, allowing the most runs in the league. Their poor play and reports of unrest in the clubhouse have led to speculation of manager John Gibbons’ job being in danger.

Under new manager Kevin Cash, the Rays have been the biggest surprise, overcoming a slew of injuries to begin the season with a 22-19 mark to pull into a first-place tie with New York. Tampa Bay has pitched well and scored more runs than most would have expected, but the season-ending loss of Alex Cobb and the prospects of Drew Smyly trying to rehab a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder will create doubt about the Rays’ long-term chances for prosperity.

Those realities do not mean that all will be fine for the Orioles as you can spell out their issues in a similar manner, but they do remind you that expressions of concern exist throughout the AL East. No team has separated itself from the pack to this point as it’s looking more likely that we’ll see an AL East champion fall shy of the 95-win mark for the first time since 2000 when the Yankees won only 87 contests.

For now, I’ll stand by my preseason prediction of the Orioles winning the AL East with 89 victories even though I share in the same concerns of many fans. But even if Baltimore isn’t the one left standing at the end of the season, I’m feeling confident about that win total getting it done for the winning club.

In short, you can be as concerned about the Orioles as you’d like after 37 games.

Just know that they’re not alone in what’s been an underwhelming AL East so far.

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Buck Showalter, Adam Jones

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Showalter makes Orioles best bet in question-filled AL East

Posted on 06 April 2015 by Luke Jones

I’ll admit I don’t love this Orioles roster going into the 2015 season.

While fighting the thought that they may have missed their last best chance to go to the World Series last October, the Orioles lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller this offseason while making no sure-fire additions to replace their production. Yes, the payroll rose to just under $120 million to account for a laundry list of players receiving raises in arbitration, but that still doesn’t erase the feeling of it being an underwhelming winter.

Those factors alone make it easy to pick against the Orioles this year before you take a step back to examine the remaining roster.

Will the Orioles miss Cruz and Markakis? Absolutely, but will they miss them more than they might have yearned to have the injured Matt Wieters and Manny Machado last season while still managing to win 96 games? Will they ache for Cruz quite as badly if Chris Davis rebounds from a horrific campaign to look more like the slugger he was in 2012 or, better yet, 2013?

And while Miller found a lucrative contract in Yankee pinstripes, the rest of a pitching staff that finished third in the American League in ERA last season remains intact. So does a defense that’s been the best in baseball over the last three years and might be the biggest reason for the Orioles’ success.

If you’re not yet convinced, a look around the rest of the AL East might do it.

Boston? That’s one hell of a scary lineup, but four of their five starting pitchers posted an ERA above 4.00 last year and the bullpen headlined by ailing closer Koji Uehara is shaky at best.

Toronto will again hit the baseball with the additions of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, but the bullpen is a major weakness and the loss of Marcus Stroman puts too much stress on veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle and three starters below the age of 25.

The Yankees? That roster would have scared you five years ago, but age and injuries will be their undoing as it was a year ago.

Tampa Bay will have a strong starting rotation if early-season injuries are overcome, but the Rays will struggle to score runs all year and the magic maneuvering of former manager Joe Maddon is now gone.

No, the Orioles won’t run away with the division, but there’s vulnerability anywhere you look. And that’s where the potential tiebreaker comes into play that will push Baltimore over the top.

Taking nothing away from Boston’s John Farrell and New York’s Joe Girardi for having won World Series rings with their respective clubs, but I’ll count on Buck Showalter to get the absolute most from his roster while hiding deficiencies better than any manager in the AL East.

For the last three years, the Orioles have thrived on overcoming adversity while relishing opportunities to prove their doubters wrong. Showalter and his players were already talking about many naysayers picking them to finish in last place weeks ago, even if those slights are more fabrication than reality.

The knee-jerk reaction in assessing the Orioles after an underwhelming offseason is to drop them substantially in the standings, but then you remember they clinched the division in mid-September and won the AL East by a whopping 12 games. That’s a lot of ground that the others in the division needed to make up.

The Red Sox appear to have emerged as the media favorite to win the AL East, but that didn’t stop 30 of ESPN’s experts from picking Baltimore to take the division compared to 36 forecasting Boston. A number of other national outlets are giving the Orioles plenty of respect as well, and even their bigger critics are generally picking them no worse than second or third.

After watching the Orioles average 91 wins per year while outperforming projections over the last three seasons, we should know better at this point. The questions that exist elsewhere in the AL East should only confirm the truth.

You don’t bet against Buck.

And even if I may not like the Orioles as much as last year, they will still be the best that the AL East has to offer in 2015.

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