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Time for Orioles to reset bullpen — and find more quality

Posted on 17 May 2017 by Luke Jones

The idea of a six-man bullpen sounded good in theory for the Orioles.

Wanting to keep an extra position player for more flexibility off the bench late in games and having a collection of long relievers with minor-league options on the Norfolk shuttle, manager Buck Showalter tried to maneuver his way through games with at least one fewer reliever available on any given night. The plan may have worked had All-Star closer Zach Britton not re-injured his left forearm upon being activated from the disabled list in early May.

But the failure of the experiment came to a climax in Detroit Tuesday night with the kind of bullpen meltdown that’s been rare in these parts for a long time. Before putting Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Donnie Hart on full blast for their efforts in Detroit — and, yes, their performance was brutal — realize there are multiple reasons why the six-man bullpen hasn’t worked.

Many have fairly pointed to the lack of quantity in the bullpen, but the issue is as much about the need for more quality. You can argue that Showalter has relied too heavily on his top relievers in Britton’s absence if you want, but then you have to accept those times when he’s tried others in tight spots — like Alec Asher and Vidal Nuno during the recent four-game losing streak — and it hasn’t worked. Last year’s wild-card game in Toronto reminded us that the Orioles manager is hardly beyond reproach and maybe Darren O’Day’s recent shoulder issue should have landed him on the DL in favor of another healthy arm, but Showalter’s track record for managing a bullpen speaks for itself over the last five years and any skipper is going to look foolish when his top relievers perform like they have recently.

The Orioles need to find another bullpen arm — maybe two — who can be trusted in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning of a close game, whether that guy is currently in their minor-league system or elsewhere. Frankly, a seventh pitcher in the bullpen isn’t going to help much if he can only be relied upon in mop-up situations.

The starting rotation hasn’t helped with Dylan Bundy being the only one offering both quality and length in his outings this season. Wade Miley’s 3.02 ERA looks good at first glance, but he’s averaging just over five innings per start and walking nearly six batters per nine innings. Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez both have ERAs above 6.00 while Chris Tillman is still building shoulder strength in his recent return from the disabled list. It doesn’t take a pitching guru to figure out what strain that kind of a rotation can have on a bullpen.

Until scoring 21 runs over the last two games, the offense also deserved blame for scoring at a below-average level over much of the first six weeks of the season and putting so much pressure on late-inning relief. All those narrow, low-scoring victories that we saw in April and early May take their toll on higher-leverage relievers when the starting rotation is averaging 5.4 innings per start and the best closer on the planet is on the DL. This roster was constructed to have an above-average offense that will hit gobs of home runs to give the pitching some breathing room from time to time at the very least. Instead, the Orioles continue to lead the league in save opportunities.

You can only hope the recent awakening of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo is a sign of better things to come for the offense.

Even without Britton, the rest of the bullpen is too good to continue like this. There’s little reason to think guys like Brach, O’Day, and Givens can’t return to pitching at a high level if they can stay healthy and relatively fresh, but they also have to take accountability for their own performance and rise up to get the job done without their normal ninth-inning man behind them.

The group must find a way to keep its head above water until Britton returns, which the Orioles hope will be sometime next month.

Still, you get the sense that the Orioles will need to average five or six runs per game more consistently to continue winning games in the short term. That and some reasonable improvement from the rotation would go a long way in calming the current relief crisis.

It’s time to reset the bullpen by adding a seventh man and auditioning the likes of Edwin Jackson, Stefan Crichton, and Jimmy Yacabonis for a legitimate middle-relief role. Perhaps the idea of using Mike Wright in middle relief should be revisited with several starting options ahead of him in the pecking order backing up the current rotation.

But a return to a seven-man bullpen may not matter if the group doesn’t get help from the rest of the roster.

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Orioles offense not making life easier for undermanned bullpen

Posted on 13 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We knew life wouldn’t be easy for the Orioles bullpen with two-time All-Star closer Zach Britton back on the disabled list.

But the sight of recently-recalled long reliever Vidal Nuno pitching in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game in Kansas City on Friday — the night after a rainout, no less — was jarring, and the result was predictable as he allowed the go-ahead run to score. The immediate reaction was to criticize the Orioles’ insistence on carrying a five-man bench in lieu of the seven-man bullpen that’s become standard in today’s game. The sentiment is more than fair when manager Buck Showalter regularly has just three or four relievers available on a given night with designs of keeping the bullpen healthy for the long haul.

Is the problem a lack of quantity or quality in the bullpen, however?

Sure, the Orioles could option Joey Rickard to the minor leagues, designate veteran Craig Gentry for assignment, or even look to trade the buried Hyun Soo Kim to open a roster spot for an additional bullpen arm. But does that merely open the door for another long reliever in the bullpen that Showalter can’t trust in close games or can the club find someone — at least in the mold of a Tommy Hunter or a Chaz Roe circa 2015 — that can be mostly trusted in the sixth, seventh, or occasionally the eighth inning? Perhaps that answer can become an Alec Asher or even a Norfolk reliever such as Stefan Crichton or Jimmy Yacabonis in the near future.

There’s another solution, however, that would help the Orioles as Britton continues to recover in Sarasota and Brad Brach and Darren O’Day try to regain their previous dominant forms of recent seasons.

The offense needs to pick it up.

The Orioles entered Saturday just 21st in the majors in runs scored per game (4.4) and have scored the fewest per game of the top 10 major league clubs in winning percentage. Known for the long ball, Baltimore ranks only 13th of 30 clubs in home runs so far in 2017.

They haven’t played an extraordinary number of one-run games –Baltimore does own a superb 8-3 record in that department — but the Orioles lead the majors with 21 save opportunities and just four of their 22 victories have come by more than three runs. In contrast, 11 of the New York Yankees’ 21 wins have been by a margin of four or more. In other words, the Orioles have needed to lean heavily on their best bullpen arms despite Britton now being absent for the better part of a month. Even when they’ve been successful in those tight games, there’s a price to pay for at least the next game or two after that.

Showalter wouldn’t have to worry about the availability of Brach or O’Day as frequently if his offense could provide more breathing room from time to time. Drop-off from the bullpen was inevitable with Britton on the shelf, but the Orioles lineup hasn’t really been at less than full strength beyond the current absence of catcher Welington Castillo, who has been more than adequately replaced by backup Caleb Joseph for the time being.

Now more than a fifth of the way through the season, the major league home run leaders from the last two years — Chris Davis (2015) and Mark Trumbo (2016) — entered Saturday with slugging percentages lower than Joseph’s and have hit a combined eight home runs. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has provided a timely hit or two, but his .534 on-base plus slugging percentage was the seventh worst among qualified major league hitters.

Is it more realistic to expect a collection of relievers on the Norfolk shuttle to start pitching like legitimate late-inning arms or to ask the offense to produce at a higher level to ease the relief burden? The Orioles will need some combination of both to continue playing at a high level in Britton’s absence, but the roster was built in the offseason with the vision of having an above-average offense that would hit a ton of homers.

Despite their overall success so far in 2017, the Orioles continue to wait for their lineup to fully awaken.

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Even by Orioles standards, superb start to 2017 tough to explain

Posted on 11 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We’ve been here before talking about the Orioles.

After another offseason in which the projection models and pundits didn’t like their chances in the American League East, the Orioles are off to their best start of the Buck Showalter era. Now a fifth of the way through the season, Baltimore entered Thursday on pace to win 108 games despite playing 24 of its first 27 games against division opponents and 21 contests against clubs currently above .500. It’s hardly been a cupcake schedule for the Orioles, who own a winning record on the road and the best home mark in the majors.

Veteran starting pitcher Chris Tillman and All-Star closer Zach Britton have missed most of the season with the latter not expected to return until the latter half of June at the earliest. Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman has a 6.63 ERA through his first eight starts. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis have a total of eight home runs and both have slugging percentages under .400 so far. Even Manny Machado is hitting just .227 despite leading the club in homers and RBIs.

Of course, the Orioles have had their share of surprises, too, with Dylan Bundy looking every bit the part of an ace over his first seven starts, Wade Miley overcoming a slew of walks to pitch to a 2.45 ERA, and Trey Mancini ranking second on the club in home runs, but how do you best explain a .667 winning percentage through the first 33 games?

The stock answer for most of their success since 2012 has been home runs and strong bullpen work, but even those assumed strengths have been only slightly above average through the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season.

The Orioles entered Thursday sixth in the AL in both home runs and bullpen ERA. The offense ranks seventh in the league in runs and eighth in on-base plus slugging percentage. The rotation has been better than expected without Tillman, but Baltimore still ranks just seventh of 15 AL clubs in starter ERA. It hasn’t been about elite defense, either, as the Orioles are tied for 12th in the AL in defensive runs saved.

In other words, everything about this club has been ordinary except its win-loss record, which is paramount and clearly nothing for which to apologize. An 8-2 record in one-run games and a plus-13 run differential reflect good fortune in amassing a 22-11 record, but the best way to describe the 2017 Orioles so far is to say they’ve been been really good at being opportunistic.

Their .303 batting average with runners in scoring position ranks second in the AL and their pitcher win probability added (WPA) leads the league, which are both indicators of “clutch” performance. The offense has been good when it’s absolutely needed to be while the pitching has been at its best in many high-leverage moments.

Even the most optimistic of fans would concede that the Orioles won’t continue winning two-thirds of their games, but such a strong start has given them some breathing room to tread water if we assume the young and surprising New York Yankees aren’t going to keep winning at their same impressive rate, either.

It’s reasonable to expect the likes of Trumbo, Davis, and Gausman to pick up their production while acknowledging the likelihood of regression for Bundy, Miley, and Mancini, but the bullpen has to be the biggest concern even before Wednesday’s meltdown in Washington. A healthy Britton was never going to be as dominant as he was in his historic 2016, but you just don’t replace the man who ranked second on last year’s club at 4.3 wins above replacement and led all major league pitchers in WPA by a wide margin. The 2016 AL Reliever of the Year made up for plenty of deficiencies last season that would have otherwise prevented the Orioles from qualifying for the postseason for the third time in five years.

Making matters more difficult for Showalter is the current five-man bench, which leaves the Orioles with just six arms in the bullpen on a given night. Yes, the organization has effectively used the Norfolk shuttle to receive some meaningful contributions in long relief, but you’d prefer having another reliable middle-to-late relief option to use in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning in a given night. It’s a lot to ask of Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart to pick up the slack in Britton’s absence, and we’ve seen each struggle at times with Brach and his 10.29 ERA since April 28 most recently receiving the loudest criticism.

For now, the Orioles can feel good about their terrific start knowing they haven’t come close to firing on all cylinders yet. But if they’re going to continue to flourish, their old reliables must emerge sooner than later. The home runs need to start flying out of the ballpark more frequently and the bullpen must find a way to tighten up until Britton is hopefully ready to return early in the summer.

The latter is easier said than done, but if anyone can figure out the current relief puzzle, it’s Showalter. Once again, his club is showing to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 6-4 win over Washington

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their season-best fifth game in a row in a 6-4 victory over the Washington Nationals, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With the recent challenges for his pitching staff, Buck Showalter wanted to see Kevin Gausman go deep into the game and couldn’t have asked for much more against the best statistical offense in the major leagues. This was the Gausman we saw over the final two months of 2016.

2. Gausman had his best fastball command of the season, especially over his first four innings as 41 of his first 53 pitches were fastballs. He had some difficulty with it leaking to his arm side after that, but he finished strong with a 1-2-3 seventh inning.

3. His seven innings, 116 pitches, and eight strikeouts were season highs, but the most encouraging statistic was only one walk issued. His 5.2 walks per nine innings over his first seven starts were unseemly for a pitcher who rarely had control issues over his first four seasons.

4. After hearing about how potent the Washington offense has been so far, the Orioles hit three home runs in the first to remind us of their firepower. Staking any pitcher to a 4-0 lead is a plus, but it meant more for one who’s struggled over the first five weeks.

5. Mark Trumbo would be the first to tell you that the result didn’t stem from a conventional approach or pitch location, but his first-inning tomahawk shot was nothing short of amazing to watch.

6. Caleb Joseph collected his first four-hit game since Aug. 31, 2014 and his fourth RBI of the season. Regular playing time has certainly helped his cause with Welington Castillo on the disabled list, but he’s beginning to show respectable offense more in line with what he did in 2015.

7. I can’t help but wonder if having Joseph behind the plate is a positive for Gausman right now. It’s not a knock on Castillo, but someone with more familiarity catching the struggling young pitcher might have been just what he needed to get back on track.

8. Gio Gonzalez entered Monday with the best ERA (1.64) among qualified NL starters, but you wouldn’t have known it watching him against the Orioles. The six earned runs and three homers surrendered by the Washington lefty were one shy of his season totals in each category.

9. Of course Trey Mancini was going to hit a long home run on his T-shirt giveaway night at Camden Yards. His production continues to be critical with Trumbo and Chris Davis not providing their usual power in the middle of the order so far.

10. Brad Brach turned in a shaky ninth inning, but he still converted his eighth save in nine chances. Before panicking too much, remember he’s filling in for a closer who was in the midst of a historic stretch. That’s an unfair standard for someone still adjusting to a new role.

11. Even if you’re not familiar with the TOOTBLAN acronym, you won’t see worse baserunning than what the Nationals exhibited in the ninth inning to bail out a pitcher on the ropes. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, right?

12. Matt Wieters received the great reception that he deserved in his return. A video tribute in the first and a standing ovation for his first at-bat were perfect. He never became the next Johnny Bench, but he helped leave the Orioles much better off than they were when he arrived.

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Orioles closer Britton again experiencing left forearm discomfort

Posted on 06 May 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles closer Zach Britton is again experiencing left forearm discomfort just days after being activated from the disabled list.

Manager Buck Showalter broke the news after Britton did not pitch the ninth inning and setup man Brad Brach instead collected his sixth save in Baltimore’s 4-2 win over the Chicago White Sox on Friday. After pitching a scoreless inning in Thursday’s win at Boston, Britton woke up feeling discomfort and underwent an MRI on Friday evening.

The left-hander was originally placed on the DL with a left forearm strain on April 16.

“There’s some talk about what the next step to take with him [would be],” Showalter said. “He woke up this morning and felt some discomfort. He came in today. It got a little better as the day went on, but we’re trying to decide what our next step is.”

Britton was activated on Tuesday after missing more than two weeks of action. He completed two scoreless one-inning appearances in the Red Sox series, but his two-seam fastball lacked its typical sinking action, making it possible that his forearm was bothering him before Friday.

In the standout closer’s absence, Brach has gone 6-for-7 in save opportunities while veteran Darren O’Day has gone 1-for-2. Both blew saves in last weekend’s series with the New York Yankees, a reminder of how remarkable Britton’s 2016 campaign was in which he converted all 47 of his save opportunities and posted an amazing 0.54 ERA on his way to being named the American League reliever of the year.

The two-time All-Star closer underwent an initial MRI on April 21, but he and Showalter said that exam did not reveal any structural concerns with his left elbow. The Orioles hope the second test will not show any new damage, but the recurrence of the forearm discomfort is obviously concerning.

“How we proceed will probably be derived from those findings,” Showalter said. “We’ll just compare it to the one they just took [last month]. It’s the same – forearm strain – I think. That’s what I was told. I talked with Zach today and Dr. [Michael] Jacobs and Richie [Bancells] and Roger [McDowell] and just trying to gather all the information to decide which direction to go.”

Despite allowing 12 hits and four walks in nine innings this season, Britton has converted each of his five save chances.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 5-2 win over Boston

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles opening a four-game road series with a 5-2 win over Boston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. He was a hated man at Fenway Park after the recent drama with the Red Sox, but Manny Machado reminded us why he’s one of the game’s best players with a monster home run and several defensive plays that were terrific even by his standards. Don’t make him angry.

2. Dylan Bundy quelled recent concerns about his velocity by averaging 91.6 miles per hour with his fastball and turning in his sixth straight quality start. You know you’re off to a terrific start to 2017 when you allow two runs over seven innings and your season ERA increases to 1.82.

3. Despite matching a career high with four walks, Bundy did a superb job pitching out of jams by inducing two double plays and taking a shutout into the eighth. The free passes appear to be contagious, however, as Orioles pitching entered Monday with the highest walk rate in the majors.

4. I was genuinely surprised to see Bundy back on the mound to start the eighth after 99 pitches and with no one warming in the bullpen. Is it really a good idea for him to be throwing a career-high 111 pitches five days after his velocity was markedly down?

5. It was disturbing to learn what Adam Jones had to face on Monday night, making his performance in center field that much more impressive as he made a terrific catch to end a problematic eighth inning and added another nifty grab in the ninth.

6. Trying to protect a slim lead, Bundy didn’t appear to be in a spot to plunk Mookie Betts on purpose, but the optics were shaky after coming inside two pitches earlier. Either way, I’m sick of this saga that started with a slide not even considered malicious by the victim.

7. It’s laughable for anyone in Boston to take offense to Machado’s trot around the bases on his sixth-inning blast considering the retired David Ortiz just now reached home plate on the final home run of his career clubbed last September.

8. After collecting his first RBIs since Sept. 11, 2015 on Saturday, Caleb Joseph picked up an RBI in his second straight start with a double in the fifth. He’s a machine!

9. As if the Red Sox defense wasn’t bad enough, Hanley Ramirez rushing into second as Andrew Benintendi was standing on that very base was a bold strategy in the eighth. The Orioles took full advantage of the Boston ineptitude late in the game.

10. Chris Davis striking out three times isn’t exactly unusual, but I continue to be amazed by how many called strike threes he continues to take. He struck out looking twice and has already done it 17 times this year after shattering a career high with 79 last year.

11. Brad Brach provided an uneventful ninth inning to secure his fifth save and final opportunity before Zach Britton is activated on Tuesday. That was a pleasant change after what went down on both Friday and Sunday at Yankee Stadium.

12. Hyun Soo Kim sat in favor of Ryan Flaherty’s small-sample success against Rick Porcello. With two lefties and knuckleballer Steven Wright starting the next three games, Kim will likely sit more. There sure seem to be a lot of reasons not to play a .302 hitter from a year ago.

(Update: The Red Sox announced after Monday’s game that Wright would be going to the 10-day disabled list with a knee injury.)

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 7-4 win over Yankees

Posted on 30 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles avoiding a three-game sweep in a 7-4 win over the New York Yankees in 11 innings, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. In what was sure to be one of the strangest games of the entire season, the Orioles battled back to salvage a win in what was a pretty miserable series. I’d imagine that Buck Showalter and his club couldn’t have been happier to leave the Bronx on Sunday evening.

2. The game would have ended in the 10th inning had Welington Castillo not made a terrific short-hop pick on J.J. Hardy’s throw to the plate for a force. Castillo added to that effort with three hits and an RBI single to give the Orioles more breathing room in the 11th.

3. If someone had told you Friday afternoon that Logan Verrett would be pitching in the 10th inning on Sunday, you’d guess that the series didn’t go well, but the right-hander did great work despite his mental gaffe on Brett Gardner’s bunt. He pitched two scoreless frames to collect the win.

4. The Orioles bullpen had done superb work in Zach Britton’s absence prior to this weekend, but Darren O’Day joined Brad Brach in blowing consecutive save chances against the Yankees. Fortunately, the All-Star closer is expected to be activated this week.

5. The Yankees handling an 11th-inning rundown like a Little League team allowed the third run of the inning to score. After what happened in the ninth, the Orioles needed all the scoring they could get to make Verrett’s job easier.

6. Joey Rickard’s stolen base was the pivotal moment in the 11th and the third of the game for the Orioles, the first time they’ve swiped that many in a single contest since Aug. 19, 2015. As former Kansas City nemesis Jarrod Dyson once said, “That’s what speed do.”

7. You won’t find too many pitching lines weirder than what Wade Miley produced as he gave up only two runs in five innings despite allowing a whopping 13 baserunners. His escape acts in the second, third, and fourth innings kept the Orioles in the ballgame.

8. Walks continue to be an issue for Miley and the Orioles staff as he walked at least five for the third time in five starts and Darren O’Day walked two in a brutal ninth. Baltimore is walking 4.2 batters per nine innings this season, up from 3.4 in 2016.

9. Before the blown save and extra-inning theatrics, Jonathan Schoop had been the player of the game for the Orioles with the go-ahead RBI double in the sixth and a sensational defensive play in the seventh. His .538 slugging percentage is tops among Orioles everyday players.

10. He hasn’t been asked to pitch the ninth inning, but Mychal Givens has been the MVP of the bullpen while Britton has been sidelined. Asked to pitch more than one inning again on Sunday, the right-hander pitched two scoreless to lower his season ERA to 1.29.

11. I don’t recall watching a game in which a pitcher threw an inning, moved to another position, and then returned to the mound like Bryan Mitchell did for the Yankees. It was creative maneuvering by Joe Girardi, but Mitchell gave up three in the 11th inning to take the loss.

12. After Mark Trumbo drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th and hit a grand slam on Friday night, the Orioles can only hope that he’s finally getting the bat going after a difficult start to 2017.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 2-0 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 20 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles pitching their first shutout of the 2017 season in a 2-0 win over Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The good Ubaldo Jimenez showed up at a perfect time after Kevin Gausman taxed the bullpen by completing only 2 2/3 innings on Tuesday. The maligned veteran turned in the longest outing of the year by an Orioles starter, allowing only two hits over 7 2/3 scoreless innings.

2. You typically know it’s going to be a good night for Jimenez when he’s inducing more ground balls early. Six of the first eight outs he recorded came on the ground, which kept the defense engaged early.

3. Jimenez did a superb job locating his two-seam fastball down in the zone and later found the feel for his secondary pitches. He only recorded three strikeouts and nine swinging strikes, but the Reds produced little hard contact until late in his outing.

4. The starting pitcher added to the fun by collecting his first hit since 2015. Having spent the first six years of his major league career in the National League, Jimenez is now 34-for-289, but he has never had an extra-base hit.

5. Jimenez collected the victory, but Reds starter Amir Garrett was very impressive, striking out 12 and walking one over his seven innings. His fastball velocity sits in the low 90s, but a 6-foot-5 frame with long arms and legs will make his pitches appear faster.

6. The Orioles struck out 16 times in Wednesday’s win, but they entered the day with the third-fewest strikeouts in the American League. It can be maddening to watch, but remember virtually everyone strikes out in today’s game.

7. Brad Brach looked comfortable in his first save opportunity filling in for the injured Zach Britton as he recorded a 1-2-3 ninth inning on nine pitches. As long as the starting pitching isn’t horrendous, the Orioles should be able to endure a short-term absence from their All-Star closer.

8. We’re only 13 games into a long season, but who would have guessed that Adam Jones would be second on the club in walks with six already? He’s had some really good at-bats so far in 2017.

9. I’m not sure when we’ll see it again, but you could have won some money two months ago if you’d predicted that Trey Mancini would lead off and play left field in the season’s 13th game. His nine-pitch at-bat in the fifth that resulted in a single was impressive.

10. Even with the encouraging updates about his health over the last few days, it’s a no-brainer for Britton to undergo a precautionary MRI on Friday to make sure his forearm strain isn’t something more serious.

11. Jayson Aquino was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to serve as a fresh long man out of the bullpen, but the Orioles fortunately didn’t need to use the left-hander. This increases the likelihood of Alec Asher or Aquino starting against Boston this weekend.

12. With Wednesday’s victory, the Orioles clinched a winning record for their first road trip of 2017. For a club that was a combined 19 games below .500 in away games the previous two years, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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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 5-4 win over Yankees

Posted on 08 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles rallying to beat the New York Yankees in a 5-4 final to win their fourth straight to start the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The home run is their calling card, but the Orioles used some unlikely small ball to win Saturday’s game as Mark Trumbo stole second base off Dellin Betances before Hyun Soo Kim delivered the eventual game-winning RBI single on the next pitch. Go figure.

2. It hasn’t always looked easy, but the Orioles bullpen delivered 4 1/3 shutout innings to add to their season total of 16 2/3 scoreless frames over the first four games. Buck Showalter has taken advantage of two off-days to use Zach Britton and Brad Brach in every contest.

3. After being called out on a borderline third strike with the bases loaded in the fifth, Kim showed impressive poise in his encounter with Betances to work a full count before picking up his third hit of the night to give Baltimore the lead.

4. Trumbo also had a great at-bat against Betances as he stayed back on his slow breaking ball to line an RBI single into left after being late on his mid-90s fastball on the previous pitch. You don’t see that success often against the Yankees reliever.

5. His teammates picked him up, but Kevin Gausman having command problems for the second straight start is a little disconcerting since he’s rarely had issues with walks in the past. He couldn’t locate his fastball and has walked seven in his first 10 innings of work.

6. There was debate over Gausman’s balk that plated the third New York run, but you’d really prefer his focus to be on retiring Starlin Castro with two outs in the fifth inning instead of worrying about catcher Austin Romine running at third base.

7. It was a bummer seeing young Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez leave the game with a right biceps injury. He’s going to the disabled list, but you hope it’s nothing serious for such a talented young player.

8. J.J. Hardy left the bases loaded in the fourth inning and is just 1-for-13 with an infield single to begin the season. It’s obviously early, but you’d like to see him hitting the ball with more authority on the heels of the back problem that disrupted his spring.

9. He made up for it with an RBI single and a walk later in the game, but Welington Castillo had a rough second inning as he failed to get a tag down on Aaron Hicks at the plate and committed a throwing error on a stolen base attempt. He then struck out in the bottom half of the frame.

10. The Orioles had their share of poor at-bats in Saturday’s contest, but Yankees shortstop Ronald Torreyes swinging at the first pitch to pop out to end the top of the eighth after Brach had issued back-to-back walks was cringeworthy.

11. His baserunning has never been a strength, but Manny Machado stole second base prior to Castillo’s RBI single in the fourth. This came after he didn’t steal any last year and stole 20 in 2015. After stealing only 19 bases last year, the Orioles had two on Saturday.

12. I’ll never get tired of seeing the alternate orange jerseys for Saturday games. It’s one of the best looks in all of baseball.

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