Tag Archive | "boston"

Alex Ovechkin scores his 7th goal of the season to help lead the Caps over Boston.

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Ovechkin Goal Jump Starts Caps in 4-1 Win Over Boston

Posted on 06 November 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After playing too loose, falling behind early, and ultimately losing, 5-2, to the Rangers on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals really hoped to have a strong start against the Boston Bruins at the Verizon Center on Thursday night.

They did not get one.

The Bruins repeatedly put pucks deep on Washington early and throttled the Capitals in their own end with a vicious forecheck over the first 10 minutes. Luckily for the Caps, goalie Braden Holtby (28 saves) was razor sharp and the Caps were able to keep things scoreless.

Shortly after the 12 minute mark though, Justin Williams turned a puck over in the neutral zone while shorthanded and that gave the Bruins a three on two rush that they converted off of a fluky bounce. Suddenly Boston had scored for the first time since the spring of 2014 on Holtby (the Caps shut the B’s out three times in 2014-15) and they had a 1-0 lead.

But that’s all the Bruins would get as the Caps made some adjustments to get the puck out of their own end and from there things started to go their way.

“We just started doing what we were supposed to do from the start, we were too slow. We weren’t getting close enough to their high guy for their shots. We know they like to play a triangle game. We weren’t winning the races to the pucks and then it seemed like we got our legs a little bit,” said defensemen Karl Alzner.

That they did and with four minutes left in the opening frame, the line of Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom, and Williams had a dominant offensive zone shift. Then the Caps top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie built off of that momentum and buried one with the Gr8 scoring a greasy goal in front. Ovechkin would take a couple of cross checks in the back and slide one past Tuukka Rask (27 saves) to tie the game up. The Tim Kerr/Dino Ciccarelli type of goal absolutely lifted the spirits of the Capitals and those in attendance at the Verizon Center.

“Ovi [Alex Ovechkin] scores those highlight reel goals all the time. We talk about this is a team [Boston] that has a good goaltender. Their physical [defensive] core and you got to go to those hard areas to score goals against them. When one of your top scorers is known for his one-on-one and great shot, goes to the hard areas and gets one of those grinder, blue paint goals, it’s great,” said Coach Barry Trotz about the turning point in the hockey game, Ovechkin’s seventh goal of the season.

The Caps took the lead just 4:10 into period two when Brooks Laich scored his 1st goal of the season by doing what Ovechkin had done earlier, going to the front of the net. Dmitry Orlov’s point blast hit Laich en route and got by Rask. Washington increased the lead to 3-1 on a five on three power play with Backstrom saucering a sweet pass to John Carlson for a one timer. It was Carlson’s third goal of the season to go with nine assists and the way the Capitals players rotated to confuse Boston was a nice, new power play wrinkle.

From there on in, the Capitals clamped things down and gave the Bruins pretty much nothing the rest of the way. The Caps improved to 6-0-0 this season when leading after two periods by playing a nearly flawless final stanza. They held Boston to just one quality shot, which is impressive.

“I was really happy with the way we handled the third… We understood that they [Boston] were going to come with their d [defense] getting active, and we just stayed to the game plan, and just making sure we were making them come 200 feet and being on the right side of pucks when they got jammed up, and we protected the slot,” added Coach Trotz on the third period success.

“I think we were responsible, we changed our system a little bit, I think maybe gave them a different look and threw a wrench in their plans and we just played smart with the puck,” added Alzner, who sealed this one with an empty net goal with 1:50 remaining to close it out at 4-1.

One thing the coaching staff did for the third period that really worked was a juggling of the lines. Coach Trotz moved Andre Burakovsky up with fellow Swedes, Backstrom and Johansson, and he bumped Williams over with Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera. As a result, Boston was stymied getting only seven shots on the cage over the last 20 minutes. During the offseason Washington talked about developing a killer instinct and this third period performance was a big step in that direction.

Overall, this was an important bounce back victory after a disappointing result in New York on Tuesday. The Caps improved to 9-3 and matched the 1991-92 and 2011-12 teams for the best Washington starts to a season. That 91-92 squad I talk about often because I believe it was one of the Capitals all time best teams. The problem was the team that won the Cup in 1992, the Pittsburgh Penguins, were just a bit better, primarily due to their goaltending. Goaltending is a strength for the Caps these days and if they keep improving their overall play and stay healthy, this season should continue to be a fun and special one.

Notes: All three Caps defensive pairs played well with Carlson and Brooks Orpik leading the way in time on ice with 25:20 and 22:19, respectively. It was a super game for both and Carlson rightfully earned the first star…Orlov and Nate Schmidt both were excellent after being the best D pair against the Rangers. They logged 14:52 and 15:21, respectively. Each skates well and moves the puck out of the defensive zone quickly. The Caps have to be very pleased at the level of play they are getting from that pair so early in the season…Washington outshot Boston, 31-29, but were outshot attempted, 63-53. The Caps blocked 19 shots and did a good job of keeping the Bruins on the perimeter; especially in period three…Boston won the face off battle, 39-29. David Krejci was 11-3 for the B’s while Kuznetsov went 6-14 for the Caps…next up for the Capitals are the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7 pm on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. The Leafs are not good and are clearly one of the front runners in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.

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Orioles can only wonder what might have been while looking to 2016

Posted on 17 September 2015 by Luke Jones

It was one year ago Wednesday that the Orioles officially clinched their first American League East title since 1997.

But this Sept. 16 brought a much different feeling as many in an announced crowd of 22,642 at Camden Yards were chased away by an early 9-0 deficit and the Orioles wrapped up their penultimate homestand of 2015 with a 10-1 loss to Boston.

Under typical circumstances, winning three consecutive series and completing a 4-2 homestand are nice consolations in a blowout defeat, but the Orioles now embark on a 10-game road trip trailing the second wild card spot by 5 1/2 games, needing a historic finish to even give themselves a chance. Baltimore not only would need to catch Houston, but three other clubs — Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Cleveland — must be passed in the process, making any loss devastating at this point.

The many reasons for the Orioles’ shortcomings are obvious in mid-September as a terrible offseason led to a maddeningly inconsistent offense and the starting pitching that was so strong last season completely fell apart in 2015. But even with the well-documented free-agent departures, the offensive struggles, and the poor starter ERA, the Orioles can still point to a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games that began in late August and lasted through Labor Day — their worst baseball over that period of time in four years — and wonder what might have been had they avoided such a dramatic slide.

Even going 6-7 over those 13 games — hardly an impressive feat — would have left the Orioles only 1/2 game behind Houston for the second wild card as they began a road trip against Tampa Bay, Washington, and Boston.

Of course, you can pick out any stretch of prosperity or futility over 162 games for these types of arguments as someone else could say the Orioles would be locked into last place had they not won 18 of 23 games in June. Ultimately, they’re right where they deserve to be after playing such inconsistent baseball over 5 1/2 months, but that 1-12 stretch that began with a stunning four-game sweep at home against the Twins will likely eat at Buck Showalter and his players throughout the winter.

Pondering next year’s rotation

With a 4.61 starter ERA ranking 14th out of 15 AL clubs and their most consistent starter Wei-Yin Chen set to become a free agent, the Orioles will be faced with the unenviable task of revamping a rotation that became their biggest weakness after being a strength in 2014.

Realistically, which pitchers make up your starting five next season?

Assuming super agent Scott Boras will command No. 2 starter money and a long-term contract for the 30-year-old Chen, the Orioles are unlikely to sign him and he may not bring the greatest return on a big-money contract anyway. The Taiwanese lefty remains on pace to allow a career-high 31 home runs and has never pitched 200 innings in a season, but he will still be difficult to replace.

Chris Tillman is in the midst of a poor season skewed dramatically by his nightmarish struggles against Toronto (15.50 ERA in five starts), but his track record over the previous three seasons all but guarantees him a spot in the 2016 rotation. That said, extension talks should be tabled for now.

Kevin Gausman hasn’t taken the step forward you’d like to have seen in 2015, but much of that can be attributed to the organization’s poor decision to put him in the bullpen to begin the year. Whether he ever becomes a top-of-the-rotation guy remains to be seen, but he’s shown enough to be one of the five.

Ubaldo Jimenez? You’d love to dump that contract, but there are 26.5 million reasons over the next two years to think a trade is unlikely to happen.

Miguel Gonzalez was in the midst of the worst two-month stretch of his career before going to the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis earlier this month, but he was too good for three years just to bury him. Maybe he shouldn’t be promised a rotation spot, but he’ll enter the spring with every opportunity to earn one.

Dylan Bundy will be out of minor-league options, but his lack of experience still makes him a long shot to fill anything but a long relief role to begin 2016. The former first-round pick needs to prove he can stay healthy before anything else is even discussed.

Sure, young pitchers such as Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright will garner looks — the latter seems destined for the bullpen with his latest struggles — but it’s clear executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette should be looking to add at least one impact starting pitcher — a second would really help — to augment the rotation. Beyond that, you can be cautiously optimistic that the track records of the incumbents will lead to at least a couple bounce-back performances in 2016.

Below Par-ra

Remember the angst over the Orioles needing to re-sign outfielder Gerardo Parra this offseason when he was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for minor-league pitcher Zach Davies at the trade deadline?

The 28-year-old was in the midst of the best season of his career with a .328 average and an .886 on-base plus slugging percentage at the time of the trade, but he’s hit just .226 with a .619 OPS with Baltimore and has been worth -0.6 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Instead of providing the spark the Orioles needed for the final two months, Parra has been swallowed up by the Orioles’ 2015 corner-outfield wasteland.

At the time of the trade, the Orioles were essentially hoping to cash in on another club’s version of a 2014 Steve Pearce for the final two months, but Parra has been worse than the player he was over the first six years of his career when he sported a .720 OPS. His career .595 OPS against left-handed pitching makes him an obvious platoon player, which is how Showalter has used him over the last couple weeks.

Even if the club feels inclined to bring him back — to be fair, he’s better than what he’s shown so far with the Orioles — Parra should hardly be viewed as a priority and doesn’t deserve big-time money to stay as he’s been no better for the Orioles than the likes of Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider were this season.

Managing Hardy

Watching J.J. Hardy post Belanger-like numbers for Ripken-like money in 2015 has been painful, but a portion of the blame probably needs to go to Showalter.

It’s no secret that Hardy has dealt with several physical ailments that have led to his OPS free-falling from .738 in 2013 to .682 last season to a career-worst .552 in 2015, but a simple look at his game log shows inadequate consideration for his long-term health. Not counting time he’s actually spent on the DL or when he’s missed a few games with a specific injury, Hardy has received very few games off over long stretches of time. For example, the veteran shortstop started every game the Orioles played from June 5 through Aug. 11, only enjoying rest provided by the schedule or the weather gods.

In order to salvage the final two seasons of a three-year, $40 million contract signed last October, not only does Hardy need to find a way to get healthy in the offseason and stay that way, but the Orioles can no longer treat him like a player who’s going to play 155-plus games a season. Periodic days off and resting him for day games after night contests like a catcher should become the norm for the 33-year-old dealing with back and shoulder problems. Sliding over Manny Machado or playing Ryan Flaherty at shortstop more often is worth it if it means Hardy can contribute more at the plate.

Hardy’s defense remains good, but his offense has been a substantial liability this season. No one should expect a return to his level of production from 2011-2013, but the Orioles need Hardy to at least offer what he did at the plate in 2014 to prevent his contract from being a total disaster over the next two years. More rest over the course of the season would appear to give him a better chance of doing that.

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Part 2: Life On The Road, 30 Days of #GiveASpit and baseball (The journey)

Posted on 10 September 2015 by Nestor Aparicio






“It ain’t never been done ‘cause we ain’t ever done it.

You’ve got to stop thinking so negative, son!”

Bo “Bandit” Darville

(as performed by Burt Reynolds)

Smokey & The Bandit



ONCE THE TRIP WAS FINALIZED and it was decided that I’d be flying more than originally planned, the only real concerns we had about the voyage were the not-so-remote chances of some catastrophic weather or travel issues that could derail the goal: getting to 30 MLB games in 30 days without interruption or too much drama.

We also couldn’t afford to get sick or injured. Carrying bags around the continent would suck with a bad back or a bum foot. As we learned in 2014, your health is everything!

Would all the planes arrive on time? Would weather cooperate? Clearly, a few poorly timed storms and the trip would be a mess. You can only truly plan so much and then fate determines the outcome.

And if you’ve listened to my radio show at any point over the past quarter of a century, you know that I despise rain delays. Nothing good happens when it rains in baseball.

I’ve dedicated some time on the radio over the past few months discussing the trip and some of the comedy, drama and sights I saw on my unique journey. Most of my guests along the route joined me afterward to talk about it on the radio.

I’ve also joked that no one prepared me for 30 straight days of airplanes, airports, hotels, stadiums, restaurants and their various brands of cheap toilet paper.

There were many statistics and “over and under” side bets I was making with my wife on the 30-30 trip regarding beer consumed, hot dogs inhaled, hangovers, bad hotel pillows, crappy showers, lost/forgotten items, etc. And as much as we prepared to travel light and packed as little as we’d need, we never thought we’d really succeed in our goal of never having to check a bag for 30 days. But, miraculously, I literally lived out of one suitcase, one backpack and carted a giant cotton swab “prop” in a long tube through every TSA checkpoint in the United States. (By the way, TSA Pre is a wonderful thing!)

Toward the end of the 30-day journey, most mornings I was torn by an extreme coffee situation. I’m a coffee nerd but it became a daily decision about whether to caffeinate before a flight at 5 a.m. (and not sleep) or afterward, in the next airport or city after a plane nap.

And there were several days at the end where I was extremely loopy and working on three or four hours of sleep and moving from hotel bed to shower to car to highway to parking garage to shuttle to TSA to gate to plane to seats to sleep…

Some days – like in Dallas, San Diego and Denver – I was running on fumes and took a few hours to sleep. In others, like Los Angeles and Milwaukee, we were full of energy and put almost 20,000 steps on my wife’s Fit Bit.

You can see my 30 ballpark rankings here at WNST.net but to be honest there are no truly awful experiences in Major League Baseball in regard to stadiums. And the beauty is all in the eye of the beholder. As I wrote in my preview blog for the rankings, many of these stadiums – or is it stadia? – provide a pretty similar experience. Whether it’s hot dog races, presidents or sausages, it’s all kinda the same thing. They all do “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” in the 7th inning. They all bluster “God Bless America” every night. They all have “walk up” music for individual players.

Most have the most annoying item in modern sports – the P.A. or music or scoreboard imploring the crowd to “make some noise” with various cues and sounds. Nothing more cheeseball than that.

Every team has a team of people trying to make the “game day experience” something memorable. Every team wants to do something special when you come to the ballpark to lure you back and attract you as a lifer baseball fan.

Or at least they should.

But that part is a mixed bag – market to market, team to team, brand to brand.

Some teams always win. Some teams almost never win.

Some have vibrant fan bases. Many are a distant second citizen to the NFL.

Some teams treated me well. Some treated me like garbage.

Certain ballparks have a “wow” factor and some don’t. Some have good teams right now and some are in the midst of having awful seasons this summer so the experience wasn’t as rich. Seeing Toronto or the New York Mets in September would be far different than having seeing them in June. And seeing Houston and Kansas City this June was far different than anything they’ve seen in those ballparks in many Junes.

I had some “wow” moments and memories of my own on this tour and that’s what the rest of this essay is about: the stuff that’s worth telling you about.

Let’s start with the MVP of the 30-30 MLB #GiveASpit tour: artist Mike Ricigliano. The skinny dude with the funny hats has been drawing cartoons of me (and virtually everyone else in the sports world) in Baltimore for 30 years. I met him at The News American in 1984 on the weekend my son was born. He’s one of the enduring friends in my life and we’ve had a lot of laughs over the years. His son was originally responsible for dubbing me “Nasty Nestor.”

Here’e the story of the giant cotton swab – the enduring item from the 30-30 #GiveASpit tour.

On April 8th, I attended a Washington Capitals game with an NHL fan from Edmonton, Alberta named Rob Suggitt – a kindred spirit in hockey fandom.

While Caps Senior Manager of Community Relations Peter Robinson was giving Suggitt an incredible tour of the Verizon Center on the 27th night of his 30 rinks in 30 days mission for Make A Wish, I was telling them about my similarly arranged baseball tour.  Robinson said: “You should get a giant cotton swab and take it everywhere you go! That would help you get people on the registry.”

You know what?

He was right.

By request, Ricig made the fabulous cotton swab that started in the hands of Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson from Rush along with Randy Johnson the night before the tour started.


It was an instant hit at the United Center in Chicago that night.

Every stadium we swabbed in – except Minnesota – we had Ricig’s giant cotton swab leading the way to get folks to our booth to learn about the bone marrow registry and get on the list for There Goes My Hero and Delete Blood Cancer.

Some of the looks we got from fans were priceless. Dude in pink shirt waving giant cotton swab in stadium bowl! But it was a lightning rod to get folks to our table for education, swabbing and success.

It also caused some attention we didn’t want. We were pulled up by Comerica Park security in Detroit and forced to take it to the car. They thought it was a weapon. I told them it was a weapon to save lives.

The gate agent at the St. Louis airport forced us to check it on a one-hour flight to Milwaukee but “The Swab” made it successfully onto 21 other flights in 30 days on the road. I guess if you get on airplanes every morning with a third carry on that’s a giant Q Tip, eventually you’ll encounter the wicked witch of Southwest.

People have repeatedly asked me what the highlights of the tour were over the 32 days on the road. It’s impossible to recount everything we saw and every person who was kind to us but I hope this essay captures the essence of

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Venerable Fenway Park is lovely but it barely made our Top 10...

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MLB #GiveASpit Ballpark Ranking: No. 10 Boston Red Sox

Posted on 05 September 2015 by Nestor Aparicio

Boston – Who doesn’t like Fenway Park? And if there’s one stadium you “have to see,” I suppose this would be it. I’m not jaded in regard to Boston baseball. I’ve seen more games on Yawkey Way than I can even remember and I’m married into a Red Sox family. Everyone loves an annual trip to Kenmore Square on the T and a few beers and Fenway franks. It’s old. It’s uncomfortable but still more civil than it’s twin cousin on the north side of Chicago at Wrigley.

Go see it. It’ll be awesome. But don’t expect it to be comfortable or inexpensive.

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Orioles continue rolling despite June rotation struggles

Posted on 25 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have played their best baseball of the season over the last three weeks.

Having won 15 of their last 20, Baltimore returns home Friday with a 38-34 record, one game better than the club was through 72 games last year. After a nightmarish May, the Orioles lineup has averaged 5.9 runs per game and outscored opponents by a 118-69 margin in the last 20 games.

The bullpen continues to excel with a 2.08 ERA in 164 2/3 innings dating back to April 29, but Thursday’s 8-6 win over Boston offered a tiny glimpse into what has to be a lingering concern in manager Buck Showalter’s mind despite his club’s recent success.

Returning from the 15-day disabled list on Thursday, Miguel Gonzalez lasted just five innings and allowed four earned runs and eight hits while laboring to hold the comfortable 6-1 lead he was presented in the fourth inning. It would have been unfair to expect too much from the right-hander in his first start for the Orioles since June 9, but it was the 14th time in the last 20 games in which a starting pitcher has failed to complete six innings. The Orioles have received only one start of seven or more innings over that time, which was Wei-Yin Chen’s eight shutout innings against Philadelphia on June 15.

Showalter told reporters following Thursday’s game that he needed to rest Darren O’Day, Chaz Roe, and Brad Brach, leaving him to use T.J. McFarland and Tommy Hunter to bridge the gap to Zach Britton. It worked out for the Orioles as they won their sixth consecutive series, but not before the left-handed closer was working in his fourth game in six days to pick up his 21st save of the season.

The bullpen continues to be terrific, but the starting rotation must get deeper into games if Showalter wants to keep his relievers fresh for the second half. In 23 June games, starters have posted a 4.58 ERA and are averaging just 5.22 innings per outing while the bullpen has posted a miniscule 1.80 ERA.

In 2014, the starting rotation pitched to a mediocre 4.49 ERA in April and May before taking off in June with a 3.47 mark and posting an exceptional 2.98 ERA in the second half of the season.

Gonzalez, Chen, and Ubaldo Jimenez have performed well enough this season to feel confident in the trio moving forward, but Chris Tillman is having the worst season of his career thus far and Bud Norris still can’t avoid the big inning as we witnessed again in Wednesday’s loss to the Red Sox. Every time either of the two struggles, there is a growing temptation to turn to Kevin Gausman, who pitched to a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts last season and is the most talented hurler in the organization.

For now, the Orioles continue to benefit from a swinging-door spot in the bullpen that’s been filled by the likes of McFarland, Tyler Wilson, Oliver Drake, and Mychal Givens at various points to give their most reliable arms a breather when possible. But such a luxury would disappear if they’re forced to move either Norris or Tillman to a long relief role since neither pitcher has a minor-league option.

The results of the last three weeks remind us of last year when the Orioles took off in the second half of the season to win their first American League East championship in 17 years. Their offense has come alive, the defense has been excellent, and the bullpen has dominated for two months now.

If the starting rotation can step up like it did right around this time a year ago — at least closer to that  2014 level — the Orioles will not only take off, but they’ll become the clear favorite in the AL East.

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Orioles recall McFarland; Jones sits again on Wednesday

Posted on 24 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles tinkered with their bullpen yet again prior to Wednesday’s game in Boston by recalling left-handed pitcher T.J. McFarland and optioning right-hander Oliver Drake to Triple-A Norfolk.

After spending the required 10 days with the Tides upon being sent down on June 14, McFarland brings more length to a bullpen that’s worked hard in recent weeks. Drake was recalled from Norfolk on Sunday but did not appear in a game in his latest stint with the Orioles.

McFarland sports a 1.93 ERA in 9 1/3 innings for the Orioles this season, but that mark is deceiving as the 26-year-old southpaw has allowed 12 hits and issued eight walks, numbers that have earned him a 4.71 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark. The former Rule 5 pick settled into a long relief role last season while posting a 2.76 ERA in 58 2/3 innings of work, but his control issues have been problematic in 2015.

The Orioles will need to make another roster move on Thursday with starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez scheduled to return from the disabled list to start against the Red Sox. Right-handed pitcher Mychal Givens is expected to be sent back to the minors to make room, returning Baltimore to its normal seven-man bullpen.

As anticipated, center fielder Adam Jones was out of the lineup for the sixth time in eight games on Wednesday with David Lough once again replacing him in center field.

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Jones moving closer toward trip to disabled list?

Posted on 23 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Adam Jones was out of the lineup for the fifth time in seven games on Tuesday, increasing concerns that the Orioles center fielder may wind up on the 15-day disabled list.

Jones told reporters in Boston that he still doesn’t anticipate a trip to the DL, but he continues to experience right shoulder soreness after injuring himself diving for a ball on June 15. The 29-year-old missed the final three games of the Philadelphia series last week before serving as the designated hitter in Toronto on Friday and Saturday. Jones was originally slated to return to the field on Friday before testing out his shoulder at Rogers Centre and deeming himself unready to play defense.

Manager Buck Showalter elected to sit Jones on Sunday with the hope that the rest followed by an off-day would do the trick for his shoulder as the Orioles opened a three-game set with the Red Sox on Tuesday night. However, reports from Boston are now saying the four-time All-Star outfielder likely won’t return to the lineup until Friday at the earliest.

Tuesday marked the seventh game of the season missed by Jones, who sat out a total of five games from 2011-2013. He hasn’t missed more than three games in a row since sitting for five straight contests in September 2010 because of a left shoulder injury.

Considering the Orioles’ reputation for manipulating their 25-man roster as much as possible, Jones is one of the few exceptions for which they’ll wait before placing him on the DL and losing him for a minimum of 15 days. A crowded roster of position players would temporarily find more space if Jones were to be moved to the DL, but the Orioles would not get him back until July 6 if such a decision were to be made now.

Of course, the Orioles want to make sure their biggest star is healthy for the second half of the season, which could make a DL trip a necessary evil if his shoulder doesn’t improve in the next couple days.


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Winning streak helped, but consistency key for Orioles moving forward

Posted on 14 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Even after a 5-3 loss to the New York Yankees on Sunday that snapped a season-high six-game winning streak, there’s a lot to like about the Orioles these days.

At 31-31 with 100 games remaining in the 2015 season, they’re just a game behind their record at this point in 2014 before that club surged in the second half of the season to win 96 games and the American League East title. When Baltimore was six games below .500 less than two weeks ago, players said they weren’t panicking, but even the most positive fans couldn’t help but fear the young season could be spiraling out of control.

Since three straight losses in Houston to start the month, the Orioles have won eight of 10, but manager Buck Showalter never assumed it was just a matter of time before snapping out of the funk. He won’t conclude that everything is just fine moving forward, either.

“It’s never too early to play better baseball,” said Showalter about whether he was worried about the 23-29 start. “It’s not one of those things where you say, ‘It’s just one of those things you’ve got to go through.’ I don’t live in that world. Let’s correct it today, yesterday.”

Those recent corrections have essentially rebooted the season for the Orioles as they’ve won as many as they’ve lost as we sit in mid-June. It may no longer be early, but it’s far from being too late with a month to go until the All-Star break.

A dominating bullpen that allowed only one run over 24 1/3 innings against the Yankees and Boston, superb defense, the return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, and an improved offensive attack have been the catalysts for the recent surge, but the Orioles have also received significant contributions from unexpected sources, a familiar theme to the last few seasons of winning baseball in Baltimore. If you had bet at the start of spring training on the oft-injured Nolan Reimold and non-roster invitee Chaz Roe being key cogs in a June hot streak, you probably could have won at least a nickel or two a few months ago.

But contrary to popular belief, Baltimore hasn’t really been firing on all cylinders with the rotation failing to produce a start of at least six innings in eight straight games, making the winning streak even more remarkable. If the bullpen is to continue its run of dominance — a 2.11 ERA in 127 2/3 innings since April 29 — starters need to begin going deeper into games like they did in May, but the Orioles are still enduring the struggles of Chris Tillman and Bud Norris as well as the absence of the injured Miguel Gonzalez.

Rookie Mike Wright was the latest starter with an early exit Sunday as he was lifted from the game after walking the first three hitters of the top of the fifth, which eventually led to three runs and the Yankees taking a 5-3 lead that they never relinquished. It remains unclear whether he will get another start or if the Orioles will turn to the 24-year-old Kevin Gausman, who is primed to come off the 15-day disabled list this coming week.

Recent good karma aside, the Orioles know that consistency is the real key to moving above .500 and in contention in an AL East looking better of late with Tampa Bay continuing to play better-than-expected baseball and Toronto having won 11 straight games with the best offense in the majors by a wide margin.

“I think we’re definitely starting to hit our stride,” said first baseman Chris Davis about taking five of six from Boston and New York to begin the homestand. “That’s big for us to get everybody healthy and get everybody on the field and start playing together. I think that’s what we’ve done the last few games, and we’re just trying to keep the ball rolling.

“We want to be over .500; I think we expect to be over .500. There’s so much emphasis put on the stats and standings and where you are. But right now, the biggest thing for us is to go out there and try to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

The hallmark of Showalter’s winning clubs the last few years has been consistency in regularly winning series and holding their own on the road, the latter being something the Orioles haven’t done so far in 2015 with an 11-18 record away from Camden Yards. The mere fact that the latest six-game winning streak matches the longest of the Showalter era — done two other times since the 59-year-old skipper arrived in 2010 — reflects that success has been more about steady winning and minimizing losing spells rather than roller coaster rides of prosperity or pain.

While the Orioles have excelled in most facets of the game recently, they know there’s still room for improvement — particularly with the rotation of late — if they want to show they’re more like the club we’ve seen over the last 10 games than the inconsistent one on display over the first two months of the season. They have the next 3 1/2 months to prove which one they are.

“There’s no one phase of the game that overpowers it,” Showalter said on Saturday. “You’ve got to be doing a lot of things well. There’s a good crispness to our defense and guys are very alert to try to do things. You know that the teams you play, you’ve got to be on top of your game because there’s a big inning around every corner for them.”

The Orioles were reminded of that the hard way on Sunday, but they still came out of the weekend feeling much better about themselves than they have all season.

Now, the challenge will be keeping the good vibes going in the coming days.

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Promising signs beginning to surface for Orioles

Posted on 12 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Nearly 60 games into the 2015 season, we know the Orioles have their flaws.

They don’t have a great offense, a truth that became painfully obvious in May when they finished last in the American League in average and on-base percentage. The newfound presence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and the anticipated return of Jonathan Schoop before the All-Star break will help, but it’s a lineup that can’t be counted on to consistently win high-scoring games despite showing signs of life over the last week.

The early-season struggles of starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Bud Norris are now compounded by Miguel Gonzalez being placed on the 15-day disabled list with a groin injury, leaving plenty of uncertainty in what’s been a solid but unspectacular rotation.

Despite those shortcomings, it’s been the emergence of two phases of the game in which the Orioles thrived over the previous three seasons that has been the catalyst for a season-high four-game winning streak and six victories in seven tries. Manager Buck Showalter relied on superb defense and an exceptional bullpen to guide the Orioles to a three-game sweep over the scuffling Boston Red Sox and back to just one game below .500.

To be fair, the bullpen has performed at a high level since a rocky April in which it posted a 4.35 ERA. Since the start of May, Orioles relievers have pitched to a 2.38 ERA in 113 1/3 innings. And though being a man down for the first two games of the Boston series due to the Brian Matusz suspension, the bullpen allowed just one earned run in 12 innings against the Red Sox in the series.

“You can withstand it if the guys who come in to pitch out of the bullpen finish the job that they have to do,” said Showalter about using a six-man bullpen before rookie Mike Wright was recalled on Thursday. “If you have to bring another guy in to finish that, that’s where the problem comes. These guys have done a good job of finishing.”

To see strong contributions from closer Zach Britton and setup men Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is one thing, but the Orioles have received a major lift from the likes of Brad Brach and Chaz Roe in recent weeks. Despite allowing a solo home run to David Ortiz on Thursday, Roe pitching the eighth inning of a tight game against Boston is a bet few would have taken back in spring training. The right-hander currently sports a 1.38 ERA since being promoted from Triple-A Norfolk last month.

The balanced performance was particularly impressive in pushing the Red Sox further into the basement of the AL East. Showalter loves to see his relievers “pass the baton” when necessary, and that’s exactly what the group did as the Orioles earned their first three-game sweep of the season.

“I was kind of having that feeling this series and I hope we can continue,” said Brach, who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings on Thursday. “It just kind of seems that the excitement is starting to get there and everybody is starting to find their little niche. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”

Considering the bullpen has pitched so well for over a month, what has been the biggest difference over the last week when the Orioles have played their best baseball of the year?

If you watched the last few games, it wasn’t difficult to tell.

“Our defense,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who made several exceptional plays in the series and has seemingly put his early-season defensive woes behind him. “We’re playing the defense we’re supposed to be playing on the Orioles and this organization.”

Even the likes of Travis Snider and the returning Nolan Reimold got into the defensive act against the Red Sox as the Orioles played the type of defense we’ve come to expect over the last few years. On Wednesday alone, Adam Jones put together a convincing body of work for another Gold Glove as he made three sensational defensive plays.

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Orioles homered three times in Thursday’s finale — the long ball has been another key to their success since 2012 — but the vibe accompanying their overall play makes you wonder if things are slowly beginning to fall into place. Improved pitching and exceptional defense were the bread and butter that allowed the Orioles to take off in the second half of 2014 on the way to 96 wins and their first division title since 1997.

That doesn’t mean it will happen in the same way, but few anticipate it taking that kind of a winning clip to prevail in an ordinary division.

The offense will continue to be a concern and there’s uneasiness with the current rotation, but the Orioles hope their current winning streak is a harbinger of what’s to come over the coming days, weeks, and months. They’ll receive an ample test this weekend with the New York Yankees visiting Camden Yards on the heels of winning seven of their last eight.

Baltimore enters the weekend only four games behind New York and with an opportunity to climb back to the .500 mark for the first time since May 5.

“We have momentum until we leave the locker room and get back here tomorrow,” Showalter said after Thursday’s win. “The best team in our division so far this year is coming in. It’s tough because there are a lot of people having trouble beating them. Now, we have to try to see if we can.”

And you have to feel better about their chances than you did a week ago.

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Gonzalez expected to miss Sunday’s start against Yankees

Posted on 10 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez is expected to miss his next scheduled start against the New York Yankees on Sunday.

The right-handed starter left Tuesday’s game with a right groin strain and will likely be placed on the 15-day disabled list, but manager Buck Showalter said a roster move was unlikely to come before Thursday at the earliest. Gonzalez said he was still sore prior to Wednesday’s game against Boston.

“I would say his start Sunday is definitely in jeopardy, which is a nice way of saying he ain’t making it,” Showalter said. “Unless something really strange happens from the time he came in, it looks like we’re going to need a starting pitcher for Sunday.”

Triple-A Norfolk starters Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson are the top candidates to make Sunday’s start, but the maneuvering could be tricky if the Orioles want to recall the former to pitch against New York. Optioned to the minors last Friday, Wright would only be eligible to return for Sunday’s start if he is the one to replace Gonzalez — or another player — in a DL move since he hasn’t been in the minors for the required 10 days. However, the Orioles would probably prefer to go back to their customary seven-man bullpen as they continue to play a man down with Brian Matusz serving the four remaining games of his suspension.

If the Orioles were to place Gonzalez on the DL and recall another pitcher such as left-handed reliever Cesar Cabral, that would likely signal Tyler Wilson as Sunday’s starter. Baltimore could also elect to recall Wright as a reliever to replace Gonzalez with the idea of keeping him on track to start Sunday if he isn’t needed out of the bullpen in the meantime.

In four starts for the Orioles this season, Wright is 2-1 with a 2.96 ERA in 24 1/3 innings, striking out 16 and walking four.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop practiced sliding for the first time Wednesday in Sarasota as he continues to recover from a Grade 1 tear of the posterior cruciate ligament and a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee suffered on April 17. With extended spring training wrapping up this week, the 23-year-old is expected to return to Baltimore to continue working out with the Orioles before potentially beginning a rehab assignment.

Showalter said Schoop has still not been cleared to play the field in extended spring training games — he has been working on fielding elements in controlled settings — but the Orioles are still projecting him to be activated before the All-Star break. The Baltimore manager added that Schoop is now faster running straight ahead than he’s ever been, a reflection of how hard he’s worked over the last two months.

“It’s a pretty major injury he had, a pretty serious injury,” said Showalter, who reiterated that surgery is not an option being considered for Schoop. “There are things he’s going to have to do the rest of his career. There are guys playing in the NFL with that same injury who never had surgery. It’s going to be a challenge for him and the people around him. He’s going to have to continue to do some things and strengthen some things to play at the level he’s capable of.”

Lefty relief pitcher Wesley Wright (left trapezius strain) will pitch in an extended spring game Friday before being sent out on a minor-league rehab assignment.

Scheduled to make his next rehab start at Double-A Bowie on Thursday, right-hander Kevin Gausman said he felt great after Saturday’s start for Single-A Frederick and is feeling no effects of the shoulder tendinitis that landed him on the DL last month. He is expected to be kept to 65 pitches in his second rehab start.

Yankees closer and ex-Oriole Andrew Miller was placed on the DL with a strained flexor mass in his left forearm on Wednesday, meaning he won’t be available for the weekend series in Baltimore.

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