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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 3-1 win over Toronto

Posted on 27 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their third straight game in a 3-1 final over the Toronto Blue Jays, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles jumped ahead early with Mark Trumbo’s two-run double with two outs in the first, but Adam Jones drawing a walk after falling behind 0-2 was the biggest at-bat of the inning. It was an impressive way to finish an eight-pitch battle with Joe Biagini.

2. Kevin Gausman showed good fastball command low in the strike zone as he pitched 5 1/3 innings to collect his first victory since May 31. You’d like to see him get deeper into the game, but he was able to build on encouraging signs from his last outing.

3. His command was shaky early in the game, but double plays in the first and second innings went a long way in allowing Gausman to settle down. He retired eight in a row after the twin killing in the second.

4. Toronto made some loud contact in the fourth, but Gausman dotted a 3-2 fastball at the bottom of the zone to strike out Josh Donaldson looking. That was one of his best pitches of the night.

5. Despite the Blue Jays featuring seven right-handed bats in their starting lineup, Gausman continued to use his split-changeup as his go-to secondary pitch and didn’t throw a single slider, according to Statcast. That’s an interesting development.

6. Thanks to the off-day, Buck Showalter was able to deploy his bullpen earlier than normal as Gausman was pulled after 99 pitches with a one-out jam in the sixth. That’s the kind of bullpen chain the Orioles have too frequently lacked over Zach Britton’s absence.

7. Mychal Givens was wild in the sixth, but he got Kendrys Morales to expand the zone for a strikeout to leave the bases loaded and then calmed down to toss a perfect seventh. His ability to pitch more than one inning as been huge all season for an undermanned bullpen.

8. The last seven weeks of Orioles baseball haven’t been easy, but watching Jonathan Schoop continue to grow as an offensive force has been fun. His two-out hits in the first and third started both of Baltimore’s scoring rallies on Tuesday.

9. I’ll never grow tired of watching encounters between Darren O’Day and Jose Bautista. The veteran reliever came out on top this time and has looked sharp in three scoreless innings since returning from the disabled list Friday night.

10. Brad Brach allowed a two-out home run to Troy Tulowitzki in the ninth, the first run he’d allowed since May 16. Other than his struggles from late April through early May, he’s done a commendable job filling in for Britton.

11. Hyun Soo Kim drew two walks, but he’s only 7-for-31 without an extra-base hit since the Chris Davis injury more than two weeks ago that led to more playing time for the left fielder. His season on-base plus slugging percentage is just .620.

12. The Orioles were one strike away from pitching a shutout four days after tying the major league record for allowing five or more runs in their 20th consecutive game. Baseball’s funny.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 11-4 win over Toronto

Posted on 16 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning an 11-4 blowout over Toronto on Sunday afternoon, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. What else can be said about Trey Mancini as he homered twice and tied a major league record for home runs in his first 12 games with seven? Buck Showalter has a good problem with Mancini, Seth Smith, and Hyun Soo Kim available for only two lineup spots.

2. Dylan Bundy continues to be superb so far in 2017 as he pitched six shutout innings to earn the win and lower his season ERA to 1.86. He’s allowed one earned run in 13 innings against the Blue Jays this month.

3. I still hold my breath seeing Bundy throw so many sliders given his history with the pitch, but there’s no disputing that being a game-changing pitch for his repertoire. It was a big reason why he struck out six and recorded 15 swinging strikes.

4. Bundy set the tone for the outing in the first inning after allowing a leadoff double and a bunt single. Instead of conceding early damage, the right-hander struck out Jose Bautista with a slider and got Kendrys Morales to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.

5. Craig Gentry went 3-for-5 and hit his first major league homer since 2013, quieting legitimate concerns about his ability at the plate. He shouldn’t be in the leadoff spot, but that was a strong performance from the veteran outfielder.

6. His homer wasn’t exactly a bomb, but Manny Machado needed that after seeing his average drop to .154 before his opposite-field homer off the foul pole in the eighth. I can’t imagine too many are concerned about the All-Star third baseman though.

7. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that Gentry and Machado homered using one of Mancini’s bats, but that’s still a heck of a post-game story. Whatever works, right?

8. After collecting only two hits and struggling to make solid contact over his first 19 at-bats of 2017, J.J. Hardy is 7-for-16 over his last four games and doubled twice on Sunday. He isn’t the power hitter he used to be, but throwing dirt on him was premature.

9. Seeing Adam Jones crash into the center-field wall in the eighth inning of an 11-1 game was the last thing Showalter and the Orioles wanted to see. Fortunately, he appeared to be OK and has the off-day to rest up.

10. As if things weren’t going poorly enough for Toronto, J.A. Happ left the game with left elbow soreness in the fifth inning after fellow starter Aaron Sanchez was placed on the 10-day disabled list hours earlier. The Blue Jays have to be begging for a mulligan.

11. Zach Britton told reporters in Toronto that his left forearm strain is closer to his wrist than his elbow, but anyone invested in the Orioles will be holding their breath until the All-Star closer is back on the mound and looking like himself.

12. Yes, the Blue Jays have the worst record in the majors at 2-10, but the Orioles should be feeling good about themselves after continuing their division rival’s misery and taking three of four games at Rogers Centre, a place where they’ve struggled historically.

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Britton placed on DL with left forearm strain

Posted on 16 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The Orioles revealed concerning news Sunday morning as closer Zach Britton was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a left forearm strain.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Toronto that Britton felt discomfort in his left forearm while throwing his slider in Friday’s 6-4 win over the Blue Jays. He did not pitch in Saturday’s 2-1 loss as Brad Brach would have served as the closer if a save situation had materialized.

Right-handed pitcher Stefan Crichton was recalled to take the open spot on the 25-man roster. Britton is eligible to return from the DL as early as April 26. The Orioles could not backdate Britton’s DL stint since Crichton had been optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday and did not spend the minimum 10 days in the minors.

It remains to be seen how long Britton will be sidelined despite Showalter expressing optimism that it would not be a long-term issue. The two-time All-Star closer has converted all five of his save attempts this season, but he has labored more than usual, allowing 10 hits and walking three in seven innings of work. On Friday, he allowed an earned run for the first time since Aug. 24, 2015.

The Orioles would presumably go with All-Star setup man Brad Brach as their primary closer in Britton’s absence, but Showalter did not commit to formally naming a replacement. Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens could also be used in save situations in the meantime.

Britton has converted 54 consecutive save chances, a streak tied for second longest in major league history. His 2016 season was regarded by many as the best ever by a reliever as he posted a 0.54 ERA and converted all 47 of his save opportunities.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 2-1 loss to Toronto

Posted on 15 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles falling 2-1 on a walk-off home run from Kendrys Morales on Saturday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You won’t find a worse breaking ball than the one Tyler Wilson threw to Morales. Since Brad Brach warmed up in the top half of the inning, I was surprised to see Wilson still out there, but Brach was only available to close, according to Buck Showalter.

2. Marco Estrada labored early for the Blue Jays, but the starter gave the Orioles lineup fits with his changeup over seven shutout innings. Baltimore consistently has problems against pitchers who are more about finesse and changing speeds than velocity.

3. You never want to lose, but the performance of Alec Asher in his Orioles debut was an encouraging development for the big picture. Showalter couldn’t have asked for more from the former Philadelphia hurler, who was only acquired late in spring training.

4. Asher threw an impressive breaking ball to get some big outs when he needed them. He’s not going to overpower you with the two-seam fastball, so he needs his secondary stuff in order to compete.

5. The right-hander left a few too many fastballs up in the zone early as he benefited from some good defense behind him. The transition from the four-seam fastball to the two-seamer last year has paid dividends, but Asher clearly wants to live lower in the zone moving forward.

6. Asher certainly earned another opportunity as the fifth starter, but it’s fair to wonder how much of his success was the result of a Toronto offense that’s been woeful so far in 2017.

7. The Orioles certainly wasted early chances against Estrada, leaving five runners on over the first three innings. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position on Saturday.

8. Jonathan Schoop missed a golden opportunity to double off Jose Bautista with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. I’m still not sure what happened there as Darwin Barney then picked up the go-ahead RBI single off Donnie Hart two pitches later.

9. Adam Jones made a strong throw to the plate on Barney’s run-scoring hit to almost nail Bautista, but the one-bounce throw skipped away from Welington Castillo. The Orioles likely would have gotten a cleaner hop if that game were being played on grass instead of turf.

10. Craig Gentry showed in the ninth why the Orioles like him, stealing second and tagging up on a fly ball to go to third before scoring on Schoop’s game-tying sacrifice fly. His speed is an asset if he can hit a little bit, but that’s a big question right now.

11. You could tell by Mark Trumbo’s reaction that he missed a very hittable pitch from Estrada as he flied out to end the top of the third with two runners on. He was 0-for-4 and doesn’t have an extra-base hit since his walk-off homer and double on Opening Day.

12. Seeing all uniformed personnel wearing No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day has become one of my favorite traditions in recent years. The importance of this man to both baseball and America needs to be celebrated and remembered.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 2-1 win over Toronto

Posted on 13 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles earning a 2-1 victory to send Toronto to a franchise-worst 1-8 start, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It was another nail-biting ninth for Zach Britton, but he converted his fourth save of 2017 and his 53rd consecutive overall, the third-longest streak in major league history. The lefty is going to blow one eventually, but the Orioles wanted to keep the struggling Blue Jays down.

2. Kevin Gausman turned in his best performance of the young season, showing much better fastball command and displaying better timing with his mechanics. His 64.9 percent strike percentage was much more in line with his career mark than what we saw in his first two outings.

3. Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy drove in a run each in the top of the fifth after turning a beautiful double play in the second inning that involved a Hardy glove flip to Schoop. It was fun seeing that after their respective defensive struggles in Boston on Tuesday night.

4. Gausman was a ground-ball machine early in the game and induced 11 on the night. He only recorded three strikeouts and 10 swinging strikes, but he did a fine job keeping pitches down in the zone for most of the night.

5. The right-hander did lose his fastball command in the sixth as he missed low-and-away targets to leave fastballs up on consecutive doubles by Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson. However, he made quality pitches to Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin to conclude his night with a 2-1 lead.

6. After throwing 21 pitches in the fourth and 20 pitches in the fifth, you have to wonder if Gausman ran out of gas in the bottom of the sixth, especially after the Orioles were retired on five pitches in the top half of the inning. He needed a breather there.

7. Darren O’Day is looking more and more like himself after pitching a 1-2-3 seventh inning that included a Kevin Pillar strikeout and two grounders. It looks like he’s rediscovered his command after his first two rough outings in Baltimore.

8. After being the butt of jokes with a 135.00 ERA after his disastrous season debut, Francisco Liriano pitched exceptionally well with 10 strikeouts. It’s impressive to strike out that many on only 91 pitches in 6 2/3 innings.

9. I’m a bigger defender of Bobby Dickerson than most since third base coaches universally aren’t nearly aggressive enough, but his send of Trey Mancini with no outs in the fifth was brutal. He had no chance of scoring without a horrendous throw to the backstop or something of that nature.

10. Welington Castillo deserved a pat on the back from Britton after that ninth inning with several balls in the dirt. The catcher is also off to a good start at the plate hitting .385 with his new club.

11. It’s still early, but Craig Gentry is now 0-for-12 with six strikeouts. Buck Showalter playing him over Hyun Soo Kim — who’s never gotten any semblance of a real opportunity against lefty starters — is one thing, but batting Gentry in the leadoff spot is questionable at best.

12. The Orioles struck out 15 times with Gentry and Davis combining for seven of them. A strong pitching performance was exactly what they needed to win their third straight game over Toronto this season.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on Opening Day win over Toronto

Posted on 04 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles topping Toronto in a 3-2 final on Opening Day, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Asked Sunday whether he was concerned that he hadn’t hit a home run in the Grapefruit League, Mark Trumbo cited how he didn’t hit any in the spring of 2013 before hitting 34 in the regular season. I’d say he further proved his point on Monday.

2. It takes a lot for Manny Machado to surprise me with anything he does in the field at this point, but his diving stop and throw to get Toronto’s Devon Travis — who has good speed — reminded us how lucky we are to watch him work at the hot corner.

3. Despite showing great fastball velocity, Kevin Gausman struggled with his command and walked four hitters over 5 1/3 innings, but he made good pitches in key spots to give his club a chance to win. He walked more than three in a start just once all last season.

4. The Orioles are now 7-0 in season openers under Buck Showalter. Yes, it’s only game and they even had a good Opening Day record during their 14 straight years of losing, but his clubs have clearly tried to set an early tone during his tenure.

5. Hyun Soo Kim would have been my choice to lead off against right-handed starters to begin the season, but it’s tough to take too much issue with Seth Smith and his .344 career on-base percentage in the top spot for now.

6. After being left in the bullpen in last year’s American League wild-card game loss in Toronto, Zach Britton pitched two scoreless innings against the Blue Jays in a tie game. Baseball’s funny.

7. How important is home-field advantage to the Orioles, who are 241-162 at Camden Yards since the start of 2012? “This is one of those places where you never feel good when they get the last at-bat,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “They’re probably the top power-hitting team in the game.”

8. After left-handed bats posted a 1.025 on-base plus slugging percentage against Mychal Givens in 2016, the right-hander gave up an RBI double to the lefty-swinging Ezequiel Carrera in the sixth inning. He needs to continue to hone the use of his changeup to combat those struggles.

9. It doesn’t show up in the box score, but Chris Davis made several superb scoops at first base to save his fellow infielders over the course of Monday’s game. He doesn’t get enough credit for the dramatic improvement he’s made there since coming to Baltimore in 2011.

10. Kudos to the home crowd for giving former Oriole Steve Pearce a nice ovation during pre-game introductions. Pearce had three hits against his old club, but that reception meant a lot to him and was much deserved.

11. Playing in his first Opening Day, Trey Mancini came off the bench to single off lefty Aaron Loup in the 10th and is 5-for-11 with three homers against southpaws in his brief career. He becomes an intriguing piece for the future if he can play a respectable right field.

12. File this one in the #FashionTweets department, but the Orioles debuted their new matte batting helmets, which better replicate the look of their caps and don’t have the glossy look.

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2017 American League East preview

Posted on 01 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The American League East has been won by a club winning fewer than 95 games in each of the last two seasons, something that hadn’t happened since 2000 prior to that.

It’s a reflection of how competitive the division has been in recent years after a long period of time in which New York and Boston dominated at the top and the other three clubs languished. However, the Red Sox look like the favorite to finish in first place in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1915 and 1916 when Babe Ruth pitched at Fenway Park.

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

1. BOSTON (2016 record: 93-69, first place)
Notable additions: SP Chris Sale, 1B Mitch Moreland, RP Tyler Thornburg
Notable losses: DH David Ortiz, RP Koji Uehara, RP Junichi Tazawa, INF Travis Shaw, RP Brad Ziegler
Why to like them:
Already sporting the third-best starter ERA in the AL last year, the Red Sox added one of the game’s best pitchers in Sale to go along with the highest-scoring offense in the majors.
Why to dislike them:
Starters David Price and Drew Pomeranz and Thornburg headline the list of current pitching injuries, which put more pressure on an offense that lost the incomparable Ortiz.
Player to watch:
A trimmed-down and healthy Pablo Sandoval had a good spring and could help stabilize the hot corner for a lineup with very few holes elsewhere.
2017 outlook (92-70):
Even with the current concerns in their rotation and the potential emotional hangover of no longer having Ortiz, the Red Sox still possess the most talent in the division.

2. TORONTO (2016 record: 89-73, tied for second place)
Notable additions: DH/1B Kendrys Morales, 1B/OF Steve Pearce, RP Joe Smith, RP J.P. Howell
Notable losses: DH/1B Edwin Encarnacion, OF Michael Saunders, RP Brett Cecil, RP Joaquin Benoit, SP R.A. Dickey
Why to like them: The Blue Jays finished first in the AL in starter ERA in 2016 with both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman having the potential to be even better this year.
Why to dislike them: You can understand not wanting to invest too much in the 34-year-old Encarnacion, but the Blue Jays are going to miss his dangerous bat in their lineup.
Player to watch: The Toronto lineup looks even more vulnerable if Jose Bautista’s decline in 2016 was more about age and less about the nagging injuries he dealt with.
2017 outlook (88-74, wild card): The Blue Jays offense isn’t quite as dangerous as it was a couple years ago, but the rotation has fewer questions than Boston’s despite lacking the same star power.

3. BALTIMORE (2016 record: 89-73, tied for second place)
Notable additions: C Welington Castillo, OF Seth Smith, RP Vidal Nuno, OF Craig Gentry
Notable losses: C Matt Wieters, SP Yovani Gallardo, 1B/OF Steve Pearce, RP Vance Worley
Why to like them: The home run potential remains impressive, the bullpen dominant, and the infield defense very strong as the Orioles seek their fourth trip to the playoffs in six years.
Why to dislike them: The starting rotation is this club’s Achilles heel every year, but Chris Tillman’s lingering shoulder issue creates more concern than usual in this department for Buck Showalter.
Player to watch: Dylan Bundy enters 2017 as the No. 2 starter in his first full season in the rotation, which is a lot to ask of a pitcher who lost significant parts of three minor-league seasons with injuries.
2016 outlook (85-77): Kevin Gausman might be ready to become a legitimate ace, but there’s too much uncertainty with Tillman and Bundy to trust that the rotation won’t hold back the rest of the club.

4. NEW YORK (2016 record: 84-78, fourth place)
Notable additions: RP Aroldis Chapman, DH/OF Matt Holliday, 1B/DH Chris Carter
Notable losses: C Brian McCann, 1B Mark Teixeira, SP Nathan Eovaldi
Why to like them: Catcher Gary Sanchez is headlining a youth movement that has many expecting the Yankees to return to prominence soon while the bullpen should be very strong with Chapman’s return.
Why to dislike them: Masahiro Tanaka is very good and Michael Pineda and Luis Severino are talented, but there isn’t much else to really like about a mediocre starting rotation.
Player to watch: After shoulder surgery cost him the entire 2016 season, first baseman Greg Bird had a monster spring and showed the promise he did at the end of the 2015 campaign.
2017 outlook (80-82): The Yankees have some intriguing youngsters to watch, but they’ll have growing pains and there are still too many declining veterans to allow them to seriously contend.

5. TAMPA BAY (2016 record: 68-94, fifth place)
Notable additions: OF Colby Rasmus, OF Rickie Weeks, RP Tommy Hunter, C Wilson Ramos, OF Peter Bourjos, C Derek Norris
Notable losses: 2B Logan Forsythe, SP Drew Smyly
Why to like them: Chris Archer leads a starting rotation that still holds plenty of talent despite injuries and ineffectiveness that led to the Rays underachieving in 2016.
Why to dislike them: The offense lost Forsythe in the offseason and still remains a clear weakness while the bullpen doesn’t inspire much confidence to back up the starting pitching.
Player to watch: Alex Cobb was on his way to becoming one of the top pitchers in the AL before injuries cost him all but 22 innings over the last two seasons, but he finally appears to be healthy.
2016 outlook (74-88): Injuries and tough luck made the Rays worse than their talented suggested a year ago, but the days of Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman still feel like a long time ago.

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Showalter lets down when Orioles needed him most

Posted on 05 October 2016 by Luke Jones

You may not think so right now, but Buck Showalter is a very good manager.

To borrow a phrase he likes to use, I’ve got a long memory.

Without him, the Orioles wouldn’t be the winningest team in the American League over the last five years and wouldn’t have three trips to the playoffs under their belts, but that doesn’t change the truth about what happened in the AL wild-card game on Tuesday night.

He let his players down in the 5-2 loss to Toronto in 11 innings.

The story of the defeat that ended the season really should have been about an Orioles offense that continued its second-half swoon by managing only two runs and four hits in the biggest game of the year. Baltimore rarely made good contact and didn’t even register a hit over the final five innings against a mediocre Blue Jays bullpen. The offense falling off a cliff — not the pitching — was the biggest reason why the Orioles struggled to play .500 ball after the All-Star break.

It was frustrating to watch on Tuesday, but players don’t always perform the way you want them to. That’s just the way it goes sometimes in the athletic arena with the opponent trying to win, too.

But there’s no defending not using your best pitcher — the closer many believe could be the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner — with your season on the line.

The clamoring for All-Star selection Zach Britton began in the eighth inning when Brad Brach entered and continued when the right-hander got into trouble against the heart of the Toronto order in the ninth. Instead of turning to Britton to escape the jam, Showalter summoned veteran right-hander Darren O’Day, who missed much of the season due to injuries and had rarely even pitched since being activated from the disabled list in mid-September.

But the moves worked, whether you agreed with them or not. At the very least, you could concede that Showalter was showing trust in two individuals who had been All-Star relievers the last two years. Brach and O’Day have pitched in plenty of high-leverage spots and likely would have pitched if the game had stretched into one or two extra frames anyway.

That’s when any attempt to defend Showalter has to end, however.

Lefty Brian Duensing had pitched well in a handful of appearances down the stretch, but the journeyman with a career 4.13 ERA started the bottom of the 11th inning. Even so, he struck out Ezequiel Carrera to once again save face for the manager.

Now was finally the time for Britton with one out in the 11th and the top of the Blue Jays lineup coming up, right?

Right?

Instead entered the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, who had pitched admirably over the last six weeks but fared poorly as a reliever earlier in the season. In reference to his unorthodox mechanics alone, he’s a high-maintenance pitcher who undoubtedly benefits from the lengthier warm-up session in the bullpen and the normal routine before a scheduled start.

Simply put, he was out of his element in a high-leverage relief setting and looked like it, giving up two singles and the game-winning three-run home run to Edwin Encarnacion on three consecutive pitches. Jimenez clearly didn’t do his job, but he was being asked to fulfill a role he wasn’t used to and hadn’t done well out of the bullpen earlier in the year.

That wasn’t the spot for him with better options available, and that’s on the manager.

This all took place as Britton — with his historic 0.54 ERA — watched from the bullpen and was forced to wait for that save situation that never came.

Inconceivable.

Showalter said after the game that Britton was healthy and available, the last morsel of information observers needed before crushing the Baltimore skipper. He preferred saving Britton while going to other options in the bullpen – inferior ones – despite the fact that the lefty had warmed up a few different times.

It’s true that using Britton in a tie game on the road deviates from the tired by-the-book way managers have handled closers for the last 25 years, but we thought Showalter was better than that. In fact, he had used Britton in the ninth and 10th innings of a tie game at Rogers Centre back on July 31, a contest the Orioles eventually won in 12 innings as Logan Ondrusek pitched the final frame.

If a game was important enough in late July to use Britton in a non-save situation on the road, how can you not use him with your season hanging by a single thread?

Maybe pitching him wouldn’t have mattered with the Orioles failing to generate any offense beyond Mark Trumbo’s two-run homer in the fourth, but you could more easily stomach Jimenez or Duensing or Tommy Hunter or Dylan Bundy – or even Britton himself — giving up the game-winner if they’d at least exhausted their best options to that point.

Instead, Showalter was too worried about not having Britton around later in the game if that save chance ever materialized. He’ll spend all winter pondering what might have been if he’d simply been more concerned with extending the game.

As a man often praised for being two steps ahead of the opposition, Showalter needed to be more in the now and not thinking so much about the hypothetical inning or two later in an elimination game. It was overthinking, not terribly different from the decision to leave Wade Miley in too long during Saturday’s costly loss at Yankee Stadium.

That failure late in Tuesday’s game coupled with the invisible bats ultimately cost the Orioles their season.

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Orioles choose body of work over hot hand for AL wild-card game

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The question would have been a terrible joke in mid-August.

Who should pitch for the Orioles in the American League wild-card game: No. 1 starter Chris Tillman or the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez?

Manager Buck Showalter has chosen experience over the hot hand with Tillman slated to take the ball against Toronto’s Marcus Stroman at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night. It’s not difficult to make an argument in favor of the 28-year-old who’s served as the club’s de facto ace over the last four seasons and started the opener of both playoffs series in 2014, but Jimenez was arguably the biggest reason the Orioles stayed afloat in September to qualify for the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.

Less than two months ago, Tillman was in the midst of a career year and had improved to a sparkling 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA after a win over Oakland on Aug. 11. Meanwhile, Jimenez sported an ERA just south of 7.00 and was lucky to be pitching out of the bullpen in mop-up duty once per week as questions persisted about his future with Baltimore.

Circumstances changed, however, with Tillman missing the better part of a month with a right shoulder issue that surfaced the morning after that outing against the Athletics. In his four starts since being activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sept. 11, he’s posted a 3.79 ERA with 14 strikeouts and eight walks in 19 innings.

Solid, but not great.

Meanwhile, Jimenez has experienced an improbable renaissance with his two-seam fastball and improved command of his other pitches over his last seven starts, producing a 2.45 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 13 walks over 47 2/3 innings. Over that stretch, he tossed the only complete game of the season for the Orioles and allowed three or fewer runs in all but one start.

Both performed well against the Blue Jays in Toronto last week, but Jimenez was better with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in which he allowed only one hit. Tillman gave up one earned run over 5 1/3 innings last Wednesday.

Tillman infamously pitched to an 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto last season, but his 3.63 mark in four starts against the Blue Jays this season has been more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the right-hander over the years. In 2016, Jimenez has a 6.43 ERA against the Blue Jays in six games — five of them starts — this season and retired only one batter against them in his worst start of the year on June 12.

And that’s where the decision likely comes down to trust for Showalter and the Orioles.

Jimenez deserves plenty of credit for turning his season around, but who do you trust more pitching in a game of this magnitude? Jimenez probably provides the greater upside right now, but Tillman still feels like the one who has the best chance to figure out a way to keep the Orioles in an elimination game if he doesn’t have his best stuff. The last thing you want is the “bad” Jimenez showing up in the biggest game of the season and not being able to even throw a strike in the bottom of the first inning.

If we’re being realistic with both teams having a specialized roster for a single game, this one is more likely to come down to the bullpens with neither Tillman nor Stroman being a great bet to hang around much longer than two times through the order. Under such a scenario, the Orioles have the edge with the better bullpen and the best closer in baseball looming at the end of the game.

Showalter told reporters that both Jimenez and rookie Dylan Bundy will be available out of the bullpen, giving the Orioles plenty of long-relief options should Tillman struggle early.

Major League Baseball announced the schedule for the first three games of the best-of-five AL Division Series (see below) as the winner of Tuesday’s game will face the top-seeded Texas Rangers with games being televised on TBS. Should the Orioles advance to the ALDS, they would host Texas for Game 3 at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, the same day the Ravens host Washington at M&T Bank Stadium at 1 p.m., which would likely create plenty of traffic headaches in the afternoon.

2016 ALDS vs. Texas
Game 1 (at Texas): Thursday, 4:38 p.m.
Game 2 (at Texas): Friday, 1:08 p.m.
Game 3 (at Baltimore or Toronto): Sunday, 7:38 p.m.

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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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