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If the Orioles lose tonight, I won’t be crushed…

Posted on 11 October 2012 by Drew Forrester

I still think this series in New York is a long way from over.  It’s a best-of-5 for a reason.

And the Orioles have swatted away every nuisance that’s come their way in 2012, so why wouldn’t they stay alive tonight with a dramatic Game 4 victory?  I almost expect them to win tonight because that’s what they deserve.

But if the Yankees win tonight in the Bronx and that’s all she wrote for the Birds, I’ll be just fine.

Really.  I’ll sleep like a baby tonight if the Orioles lose in Game 4.

I’ve watched the first three games of the series with this peculiar “Lord only knows what’s going to happen tonight” sort of philosophy, which has served me well.  I didn’t go nuts when Ibanez beat Billy Cundiff Jim Johnson in the 9th inning, even though I assumed it was over when the team’s closer strolled to the mound to collect his nearly-automatic-save and give the Birds a 2-1 series lead.

It wasn’t over, unfortunately, when Ibanez drilled a pitch into the right field seats to tie it up at 2-2.

An hour later it WAS over – again unfortunately – when Ibanez popped Brian Matusz for the game-winning home run to put the Orioles into an “elimination game” for the second time in six days.

But make no mistake about it, my stomach didn’t start hurting last night the way it did in 1997 when Tony Fernandez ended our last playoff series with a home run in Baltimore.

I didn’t sleep well for a night or two after that loss to the Indians.

But this is much different now.  This is fun.  And I’ve enjoyed the living hell out of it.

No one expected this in March or April.  Hell, honestly, no one even expected this on Labor Day.

It’s just fun to see the team playing on national TV in October…so I’m good with anything that happens tonight.

If the Orioles win, I’ll be fired up for Game 5 tomorrow night.

If the Yankees win, we’ll do what we always do around here when baseball season ends.  We’ll turn our full attention to the Ravens.

Either way, it’s been a helluva run by the Orioles.

I sure have missed this since 1997.

And that’s why I’m good with any result.  Just getting back there and playing post-season baseball is enough to satisfy me.

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Orioles beaten at own illogical game in devastating 3-2 loss

Posted on 11 October 2012 by Luke Jones

NEW YORK — Sixteen straight wins in extra-inning games.

A 76-0 record when leading after seven innings this season.

Both streaks finished.

All season long, the Orioles have defied logic in completing a 24-game turnaround to win the American League Wild Card to meet the New York Yankees in the Division Series.

Their 3-2 loss in 12 innings at Yankee Stadium was as illogical as anything from which they benefited in the 2012 season. And the crushing defeat leaves them on the verge of elimination as veteran left-hander Joe Saunders will go to the hill to try to keep the Orioles alive in Game 4.

Jim Johnson had faltered only three nights earlier in allowing five runs in the ninth inning of the Orioles’ 7-2 defeat in Game 1. The closer had converted 51 of 54 save opportunities this season to earn his first trip to the All-Star Game. There was no way he’d stumble again with a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning and his work on Monday night reinforced that claim.

He certainly wasn’t supposed to have any trouble against pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez, who Yankees manager Joe Girardi shockingly sent to the plate to bat for the struggling Alex Rodriguez. Lifting the future Hall of Fame third baseman for an admittedly hot-swinging 40-year-old was as bold as any of the curious moves made by the Orioles this season that worked out for no sound reason at all, it seemed.

And Baltimore saw firsthand what it felt like to fall victim to something seeming to be illogical as Ibanez deposited a 1-0 fastball into the right-field seats to tie the game.

“If you make your pitch, it doesn’t really matter,” Johnson said. “That’s what it comes down to. Ibanez, he’s a good low-ball hitter and obviously he has that hook swing. It’s just pitching. You’ve got to pitch down, change speeds and locate.”

The blast meant extra innings, a territory in which the Orioles hadn’t failed since April 11 when they were coming off their second straight loss in extra frames — ironically against the same Yankees — in two nights.

The Baltimore bats remained silent as they had for most of the night before Ibanez stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the 12th against left-hander Brian Matusz.

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? Certainly not in extra innings where the Orioles have been king?

Ibanez crushed a Matusz fastball into the right-field seats on the first pitch of the inning, sending the Yankees home happy and up 2-1 in the five-game series, pushing the Orioles to the brink of elimination.

It was difficult to believe as the Orioles discussed in the clubhouse what had just happened to them moments earlier.

“You never want to experience a situation like that,” Matusz said. “Whether it’s a game-winning walk-off home run or in the first inning. The ultimate goal is to go out there and throw strikes and put up zeros. It’s not a good feeling, but you have to stay positive and move forward.”

As much as fans will point to the failures of Johnson and Matusz in not being able to subdue Ibanez’s bat, the Orioles’ inability to generate much of anything offensively doomed their opportunity to take a series lead heading into Game 4. New York pitching retired 21 of 22 Orioles hitters at one point Wednesday night and the club has plated just seven runs in the first three games of the series.

Their two All-Star hitters, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, are by no means the only ones not hitting, but the pair has combined for just three hits in their first 33 postseason at-bats counting the wild card play-in game against the Texas Rangers. A fielding miscue by Jones that led to a run-scoring triple by Derek Jeter certainly didn’t help matters, either.

The Orioles lineup did little — rookies Ryan Flaherty and Manny Machado hit solo homers to account for the offensive production — to support the dominating performance from Miguel Gonzalez, who struck out eight and allowed one run in seven innings of work.

The offense simply hasn’t been good enough, and it’s a major reason why the Orioles find their backs to the wall. And the poor production placed them in a position for Girardi to send Ibanez instead of Rodriguez to the plate with a chance to tie the game with one swing.

Even with Rodriguez’s immense struggles, it didn’t seem to make sense to bench the highest paid player in the game, regardless of his struggles.

But it worked.

As a result, the Orioles now face the colossal challenge of winning two straight win-or-go-home games at Yankee Stadium to advance to the AL Championship Series. We’ll see if they’re ready to answer the bell in the way they have countless times this season, albeit with stakes that were never so high.

“It’s pretty much win or go home tomorrow, isn’t it?” Jones said. “There’s pretty much no turning back. We’re going to have the same attitude, the same mentality we’ve had since the first day of spring training. We’re going to have fun, let it fly, and live with the results.”

 

 

 

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Hammel to start potential Game 5 and other Game 4 pre-game notes

Posted on 10 October 2012 by Luke Jones

(Update: Joe Saunders was named the Game 4 starter following the 3-2 loss to the Yankees on Wednesday night.)

NEW YORK — As the Orioles prepared to play Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees on Wednesday night, their starting pitcher for Game 4 remained a mystery.

Manager Buck Showalter will wait until after Game 3 to decide between left-hander Joe Saunders and right-hander Chris Tillman to make Thursday’s start at Yankee Stadium. Saunders would be working on five days’ rest while Tillman hasn’t pitched since last Wednesday against Tampa Bay in the final game of the regular season.

“We were kind of hoping you would tell us,” said Saunders, drawing laughter from the media gathered prior to Game 3. “Because we don’t know yet. Whoever it is, me or Chris, we’re going to go out there and do our job.”

To the surprise of nearly everyone outside the organization, Saunders pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Texas Rangers in the AL Wild Card game last Friday to help land the Orioles in the Division Series. Saunders made one start against the Yankees in the regular season, allowing two earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of work at Camden Yards on Sept. 8.

In six career starts against New York, the 31-year-old Saunders is 3-1 with a 5.82 earned run average in 34 innings.

Along with Game 3 starter Miguel Gonzalez, Tillman was one of the biggest surprises of the second half and finished the regular season with a 9-3 record and a 2.93 ERA.

In two starts against the Yankees this season, Tillman was 1-0 with a 6.75 ERA in eight innings of work. His start at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 2 was cut short after three innings due to elbow stiffness.

Most consider Tillman to be the favorite to receive the ball as long as neither pitcher is required to pitch in relief behind Gonzalez on Wednesday night. However, the challenge of facing lefties such as Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson make the lefty Saunders a more appealing option despite his overall numbers being inferior to Tillman’s this season.

“I think you’ve just got to treat it like any other start,” Tillman said. “You can’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s not fair to yourself [and] not fair to the team.”

In other news, Jason Hammel will receive the ball for Game 5 against Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia if necessary on Friday. The two faced off in Game 1, which resulted in a 7-2 win for New York.

Showalter was asked about the decision in August to move left-hander Brian Matusz to the bullpen, who provided a major lift in the absence of then-injured southpaw Troy Patton and with the struggles of power arm Pedro Strop. The Baltimore manager revealed Matusz will likely return to a starting role upon reporting to spring training in Sarasota next February.

“Compared to the options we had and the trade market and some other things, we thought Brian could do as well if not better than some of the others coming in,” Showalter said about the decision. “Brian will more than likely go into the spring as a starter and then we think he can go back and do this [if needed] but he needs to get his innings. It was also a carrot for him to come back to the big leagues, so there was a lot of want-to there.”

NOTES: The Orioles were 6-3 in the Bronx this season, outscoring the Yankees by a 49-32 margin. … Their six wins in New York were their highest season total since winning eight in 1976. Baltimore won all three series in Yankee Stadium in the same year for the first time since 1976. … Making their third appearance in the ALDS, the Orioles are 3-1 on the road with two of those wins coming in Seattle in 1997 and one in Cleveland in 1996. The Orioles won each of those series. … Center fielder Adam Jones was announced as a candidate for the 2012 Hank Aaron Award on Wednesday afternoon. It recognizes the top offensive performers in each league. Fan voting opened at MLB.com Wednesday and runs through Oct. 16. Winners will be announced during the World Series.

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Orioles embrace underdog role like few teams ever have

Posted on 06 October 2012 by Luke Jones

You’d think we would have learned our lesson after 162 games, but the Orioles opened our eyes once again on Friday night.

With few giving them a chance after a deflating series at Tampa Bay that forced them to go to Arlington for the first ever wild card play-in game, the Orioles knocked off the Texas Rangers to advance to the American League Division Series.

We assumed the task was too much for the Orioles to top the two-time defending American League champions after they went 2-5 against the Rangers and were outscored 56-24 in the season series. It didn’t matter that Texas had lost nine of its last 13 games or that Baltimore held the best road record in the American League. The epitaphs had already been written and recited by many over the last two days leading up to Friday’s first pitch.

Manager Buck Showalter’s decision to give the ball to left-hander Joe Saunders was met with more than a few raised eyebrows considering the soft-tossing veteran was 0-6 with a 9.38 earned run average in six career starts at Rangers Ballpark before Friday night. Even those defending the decision assumed a brief outing for Saunders before a 10-man bullpen would match up the rest of the way.

The middle-of-the-road starter couldn’t possibly contain the powerful Rangers bats, could he?

Saunders did just that, using effective off-speed stuff to pitch 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball before turning it over to the bullpen, the group most responsible for landing the Orioles in the postseason for the first time since 1997.

Arguably the player of the game, reliever Darren O’Day was brilliant over two innings of work to bridge the gap to the late innings. New lefty specialist Brian Matusz blew away Josh Hamilton on three pitches to end the eighth with the slugger representing the tying run. And, finally, Jim Johnson closed the door on the Rangers’ season and sent the Orioles back to Baltimore for the ALDS.

The Baltimore bats were far from fertile but did just enough against Texas starter Yu Darvish to give Saunders and the bullpen a slim lead.

Left fielder Nate McLouth drove in two runs and scored another to lead the offensive attack, J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones each knocked in one, and rookie Manny Machado tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth with a run-scoring single.

And as McLouth squeezed the final out in left to seal a 5-1 win, there was Showalter watching from the dugout as his players celebrated their unlikeliest feat to date in a season full of head-shaking wonder. At this point, you wonder just how unlikely the Orioles viewed it as they didn’t blink in a place that’s been a house of horror for them in recent years.

Why do we still doubt them?

The response was lukewarm in late August when executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette brought Saunders to Baltimore in exchange for reliever Matt Lindstrom. It wasn’t the impact move for a starting pitcher the Orioles desperately needed to push the Orioles over the hump in their playoff push.

Considered washed up and simply hoping for another chance in the big leagues while playing for Triple-A Norfolk only two months ago, McLouth was summoned to Baltimore as many laughed and rolled their eyes. Those same people then cringed when the thumb injury to Nick Markakis forced him to assume the leadoff spot duties.

Critics said 20-year-old Manny Machado wasn’t ready for the big leagues and certainly couldn’t handle playing third base after playing only two games at the position in his brief minor league career.

O’Day was a castoff from the Rangers who many thought didn’t even deserve a roster spot at the start of the season after being injured for much of spring training. Matusz endured one of the worst seasons in major league history a year ago and was demoted again earlier this season before ultimately being sent to the bullpen.

Yet, the moves worked and those individuals figured heavily into the Orioles’ first postseason win since 1997.

While I wondered if the Rangers could get off the mat after collapsing in the final two weeks of the regular season and losing their grasp on the AL West title, the Orioles emphatically delivered the knockout blow to their 2012 season. Perhaps the Rangers were the better team and would have prevailed in a longer season, but the Orioles were the better team on Friday and that’s all that matters.

Yes, this perfect group of imperfect players comprised of holdovers used to losing, career minor leaguers, has-beens, never-will-bes, and baby-faced rookies may look like a jumbled mess of individual parts, but the unconventional concoction made by Showalter and Duquette is now 11 wins away from a World Series title.

Suggesting that possibility still sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? I thought so.

They’ll undoubtedly be tabbed as the underdogs against the AL East champion Yankees, a team they tied 9-9 in the season series.

But that underdog label doesn’t bother the Orioles. They’ve heard it all year and they’ll just keep playing with their house money, proving more and more people wrong in the process.

We’ll keep waiting for that bankroll to expire while Showalter’s club continues one of the most remarkable baseball stories we’ve seen in a long time for at least another postseason series.

We don’t know when it will come to an end, but few teams have ever embraced the underdog role with such vigor.

And they’ll keep reminding you why you shouldn’t doubt them.

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Orioles recall Matusz, activate Flaherty; ship out Hunter, Romero

Posted on 24 August 2012 by WNST Staff

The Orioles today announced that they have recalled left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz from Triple-A Norfolk and activated infielder Ryan Flaherty from the 15-day disabled list. Additionally, right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter has been optioned to the Baysox and left-handed J.C. Romero has been designated for assignment.

Matusz went 2-1 with one save and a 4.21 ERA (47.0IP, 22ER) in 10 games (six starts) with the Tides. He made his last four appearances as a reliever (6.0IP, 4ER, 9K), including consecutive outings on August 21 and 22. Matusz held left-handed hitters to a .258/.288/.274 line in 62 at-bats at Triple-A.

Flaherty batted .289/.341/.526 in nine rehab games with Norfolk, hitting safely in each of his last six games. He appeared at first base, second base, third base, left field and right field.

Hunter has gone 4-8 with a 5.95 ERA (121.0IP, 80ER) in 23 games (20 starts) over four stints with the Orioles this season.

Romero pitched to a 6.75 ERA (4.0IP, 3ER) in five appearances with the Orioles.

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If the season ended today, how much better off would the Orioles be for the future?

Posted on 22 July 2012 by Luke Jones

With Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Indians, the Orioles ended the weekend tied for the American League wild-card lead on the heels of a five-game winning streak in Minnesota and Cleveland.

As I’ve written many times over the last few months, the 2012 season has been a fun and romantic ride for Orioles fans stricken with suffering through listless summers toward losing season after losing season. The late-inning comebacks and unlikely heroes have left nearly everyone scratching their heads in disbelief as the numbers suggest they shouldn’t be nearly as prosperous as they’ve been.

Left for dead less than a week ago after falling to only two games above .500 for the first time since April, the resilient Orioles suddenly have a pulse again with an impressive turn through the current starting rotation that started with Tommy Hunter on Wednesday and ended Sunday with Zach Britton, who tossed six shutout innings to earn his first victory of the season.

The winning streak will inevitably turn up the volume on trade deadline discussion and the Orioles’ wild-card chances, but a much louder question has sounded in my head over the last month as we’ve watched the offense struggle and Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Hunter be demoted to Triple-A Norfolk.

If the season were to end today, how much better off would the Orioles be for the future than they were at the start of the 2012 campaign?

My answer — at least entering the final week of July — sounds like the ultimate wet blanket, especially when you remember where the Orioles currently sit in the standings after 95 games.

But truthfully, I’m not sure the club is markedly improved in terms of being able to compete long-term.

Yes, we can discuss the potential psychological breakthrough of ending a spell of 14 straight losing seasons and the effect it might have on potential free agents viewing Baltimore as a more viable destination, but that only matters if majority owner Peter Angelos and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette make the financial commitment to capitalize in the offseason.

The bullpen has been outstanding with Jim Johnson leading the way to eliminate any doubts that may have lingered last offseason about his ability to close out victories. However, the collective performance of a bullpen from season to season is as dependable as the stock market, meaning the likelihood of getting the same outstanding performances from each Orioles reliever next year and beyond is highly unlikely.

Offensively speaking, center fielder Adam Jones is enjoying a career year and received a six-year contract to keep him in Baltimore, but his production since early June has leveled off, suggesting 2012 is a year of steady improvement for the 26-year-old rather than a quantum leap to MVP candidacy on an annual basis. Catcher Matt Wieters is having another good season in becoming one of the best catchers in baseball, but his offense hasn’t taken a step forward from his first All-Star campaign a year ago. Of course, that’s not a knock on either player as they’re the Orioles’ two most dependable run producers, but we already knew that entering the season.

Aside from the surprisingly versatile Chris Davis looking like a solid — but unspectacular — everyday player, some combination of injury, ineffectiveness, and poor defense has hamstrung every other regular in the Baltimore lineup. The club needs to address multiple positions in the offseason, with the corner infield positions, second base, and left field all included.

And that brings us to the starting pitching, the area in which the Orioles have been most disappointing beyond the surprising performances of newcomer Jason Hammel and Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen. The regression of Matusz and Arrieta has been discouraging at best and devastating at worst when considering the high expectations for each pitcher.

As encouraging as this last turn through the rotation as been, I’m not ready to sign off on Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, or Britton as mainstays of the rotation a month from now let alone a year from now.

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Hammel leaning toward knee surgery to have loose cartilage removed

Posted on 14 July 2012 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After undergoing an MRI that revealed the loose cartilage in his right knee has moved to a more uncomfortable place, Orioles pitcher Jason Hammel appears to be leaning toward having surgery.

No decision will be made until Sunday, but all signs point to the 29-year-old being placed on the 15-day disabled list. Hammel could elect to rest the knee in hopes that the loose cartilage will move away from the joint, which is causing him more pain than where the cartilage rested before. The MRI did not reveal any new structural damage from what he’s already been dealing with throughout the season.

“At this point, it’s kind of like a thing where you’re done dealing with it,” Hammel said. “I don’t know yet.”

Manager Buck Showalter estimated a surgical procedure would leave Hammel with a projected return in early September. His loss will further decimate a starting rotation that’s seen three of its Opening Day members sent to Triple-A Norfolk in the last two weeks.

Hammel said the knee had felt much better in recent weeks, especially after coming back from the All-Star break for a team workout on Thursday. However, he felt the cartilage move delivering a 1-2 pitch to Brennan Boesch in the top of the fourth inning of Friday night’s loss.

“It’s got to be soon because I don’t want to miss too much time,” Hammel said. “It’s a pretty simple procedure to go in there — it’d just be a regular scope. I could let it rest and I’d miss a little bit of time that way, but I think it’d be better to kind of just get it taken care of.”

With Hammel likely going to the disabled list on Sunday, the Orioles could elect to call up another bullpen arm after the entire bullpen sans Luis Ayala — who pitched 1 1/3 innings on Friday — worked in the 13-inning win over the Tigers on Saturday night.

The right-hander has been the club’s best starter in his first season in Baltimore, going 8-6 with a 3.54 earned run average in 18 starts. Hammel was one of five finalists for the American League’s “Final Vote” spot for the 2012 All-Star Game.

The latest development with Hammel will force the Orioles to continue making roster moves as Chris Tillman is scheduled to be recalled to pitch in Minnesota on Monday. The club will also need starting pitchers for Tuesday and Wednesday, with Zach Britton and Brian Matuz the likely candidates for those assignments.

“We’re going to have to make room for Tillman on Monday,” Showalter said. “The options are dwindling because [Jason] Berken pitched for [Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday].”

Reliever Steve Johnson is on the 40-man roster and hasn’t pitched since July 8, making him a strong candidate to be recalled temporarily to take Hammel’s spot on Sunday and give the Orioles an extra arm in the bullpen.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear more from Jason Hammel about his right knee injury right here.

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Five biggest Orioles disappointments of first half

Posted on 11 July 2012 by Luke Jones

After recognizing the biggest individual surprises of the Orioles’ first half, it’s strange finding a large number of individual disappointments despite the club’s 45-40 start.

Amazingly, the Orioles have managed to find so much success despite their obvious flaws as a number of individuals have failed to meet expectations and others have been injured, leaving major holes and question marks as the club begins the second half on Friday. Even though they currently hold the second wild card position in the American League, the club’s minus-36 run differential (12th in the AL) is indicative of a group due for a substantial market correction in terms of wins and losses.

Many wonder how much longer the Orioles will remain afloat — in terms of staying in the wild card race, at least — after losing 13 of their last 19 game and scoring only 61 runs in their last 22 contests. In addition to their recent offensive struggles, three-fifths of the starting rotation entering the season was recently demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, putting an even greater strain on the Orioles’ dominating bullpen to keep them in games.

Regardless of how optimistic or pessimistic you might be about the Orioles’ chances, the next two weeks of baseball will go a long way in determining how active the club will be at the trade deadline.

Here are my five biggest individual disappointments of the Orioles’ first half:

Not-so-honorable mention: Tommy Hunter, Kevin Gregg, Nolan Reimold’s neck injury, Tsuyoshi Wada’s elbow injury, Brian Roberts’ hip injury

5. Endy Chavez

The 34-year-old wasn’t signed to be a full-time starter, but the Orioles figured they were getting a decent insurance policy for Opening Day left fielder Nolan Reimold when Chavez inked a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. Instead, the 170-pound outfielder hasn’t even hit his weight in an injury-plagued, miserable first half.

While Chavez has made two different trips to the disabled list with intercostal and hamstring injuries, his abysmal .162 average in 105 at-bats makes him fortunate to even have a job at this point. Chavez figured to become the default left fielder when Reimold went down with a herniated disc in his neck, but his poor play has created a colossal hole in left field that manager Buck Showalter has attempted to fill with converted infielders (Steve Tolleson and Ryan Flaherty), journeymen veterans (Steve Pearce and Bill Hall), and a raw rookie (Xavier Avery).

Having completed his minor league rehab assignment over the All-Star break, Chavez is expected to rejoin the club on Friday, but his .402 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) must climb immediately for the organization to justify keeping him around much longer. The left-hander has a career .269 average over 11 major league seasons and hit .301 over 256 at-bats in a part-time role with Texas last year, making his horrendous first half even more shocking.

4. J.J. Hardy

Coming off a tremendous year in his first season in Baltimore, the shortstop has dealt with a tender shoulder since spring training and his production at the plate has dropped dramatically in 2012.

Hardy has never been a great hitter for average (.259 in eight seasons), but his .224 mark at the break reflects the horrendous slump he’s endured since late May. In his last 37 games, the 29-year-old is hitting .172 with two home runs and nine runs batted in.

The club’s widespread struggles at the plate and injuries to Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis have limited questions about Hardy remaining in the No. 2 spot in the order, but Showalter will have no choice but to drop Hardy in the order if his .262 on-base percentage doesn’t improve soon. Even if Hardy’s production reflected his career numbers, he’s more suited to hit in the No. 6 or 7 spot to drive in more runs with his above-average power at the shortstop position.

Hardy’s defense is still a major asset for a defensively-challenged club, but the Orioles desperately need him to look more like the hitter he was in 2011 if they’re going to remain in the playoff hunt in the second half.

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Your Monday Reality Check-How about getting a good player next time?

Posted on 09 July 2012 by Glenn Clark

I was in Paris when the Baltimore Orioles’ trade for veteran DH Jim Thome became official and didn’t get much of a chance to opine about it. My guess is that I would have politely said something along the lines of “sure, Jim Thome is better than no one, but is a part time DH with little left in the tank really going to make much of a difference?”

I’m glad I didn’t have the chance to say that. Boy would there be egg all over my face.

Thome has come to the plate in six of the Birds’ eight games since being acquired. He’s managed to collect five hits (all singles), score a run and drive in another. He’s also walked four times and struck out 11 times. He’s been far from terrible since arriving, but hasn’t really made much of a difference in the lineup either. The O’s have won three of the eight games they’ve played since acquiring Thome and enter the All-Star break without scoring a run over their last 21 innings.

The Birds finished the first half of the season with a 45-40 record, good enough for 2nd place in the AL East and currently holding what would be the second Wild Card spot in the American League. The troubling part is that over their last 19 games before the break, they compiled a 6-13 record and averaged scoring less than three runs per game during the stretch.

I don’t want to seem like I’m taking the Orioles’ pitchers off the hook during the stretch. The team allowed nearly 5.5 runs per game during the same stretch, demoting starting pitchers Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta to AAA Norfolk in the process.

I’ll stop short of labeling the stretch “a disaster” for the Birds, but I’ll admit that I went through about ten minutes of inner monologue before I decided the term would be unfair.

I’m not particularly mad at Thome for not lighting the world on fire during his first week with the Orioles. It would be unfair to expect any player to become a serious catalyst in just one week, but there was absolutely zero reason to expect a soon to be 42 year old who hasn’t put up particularly good offensive numbers since 2008 to be the one to do it.

The truth is that the Thome acquisition is going to bug me until the Orioles decide they want to acquire players who are actually good.

I know WNST.net’s Drew Forrester said Sunday the Birds “had better” make moves to upgrade the team before the July 31 trade deadline. My column today isn’t just an echo of Forrester’s sentiments. My column is much more particular.

I’ve said for some time that the Birds cannot view their start to the 2012 season as a sign that they’re on the cusp of turning the page. There simply is not enough evidence of that being the case. There is significantly more evidence of the Birds experiencing good fortune thanks to a couple of nice pieces (OF Adam Jones, C Matt Wieters and P’s Jason Hammel & Jim Johnson notably) and an element of luck via injuries to rival teams.

I’m certainly not backing off of those statements. The start of the 2012 season is in NO WAYS a sign that the Birds’ “rebuilding” plan has worked, or that former executive Andy MacPhail and current GM Dan Duquette have put together a group of players that are just a year away from reaching greatness. The reality is that there just aren’t enough good players either currently at the Major League level or set to reach the majors in the next year or two to suggest the team will be able to win for more than half a season.

The players I mentioned before (Jones, Wieters, Hammel, Johnson) are good players. Unfortunately, that’s about where the list ends.  OF Nick Markakis and SS JJ Hardy are supposed to be good players. SP Wei-Yin Chen and RP Pedro Strop have showed signs that they might be good players. P Dylan Bundy and SS Manny Machado are believed to be good players for the future. Thome and 2B Brian Roberts USED to be good players. 3B Mark Reynolds and 1B Chris Davis (or is that 1B Mark Reynolds and OF Chris Davis?) are players you want to believe are good but you know better.

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Matusz falters, Johnson recalled – Who do the Orioles call up next?

Posted on 02 July 2012 by hopebirchfield

After the abysmal performance of starter Brian Matusz in Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Indians, he was optioned to Norfolk immediately following the game. In only four innings, Matusz gave up 7 hits on 5 runs (4 earned) and walked four. With the loss, Brian Matusz was awarded his tenth loss of season and fifth loss in a row. It was announced that Steve Johnson would be recalled from Norfolk to join the Orioles bullpen on the road in Seattle. In his last four outings cumulatively totaling 12.1 innings, Johnson has given up only five hits on no runs and has fanned 20. The Orioles are obviously looking to add a long-lasting reliever with the hesitant performances of the starting rotation as of late. Within the next week however, the Orioles will likely need to recall a starting pitcher. Who are the best two options to call up from the Norfolk Tides? Zach Britton and Chris Tillman (Read on before you send hate mail).

Zach “Sinker” Britton

Zach was the starting pitcher on Sunday evening as the Tides looked to best the Syracuse Chiefs. Watching him come out of the gate strong retiring the side in the first (including striking out two), you can not help but wonder whether Britton had heard of the upcoming rotation spot. In five innings, Britton yielded one earned run and struck out seven. There were times when his control and command were not at its best and times when he visibly struggled. All in all, it was not his best performance but it certainly was not his worst performance either. He exited the game losing so even though the Tides won, he did not register a decision.

In the last four games, Britton’s ERA is 4.80 and he has struck out 13 in 21 innings of work. Britton primarily relies on his sinker with velocities in the low to mid 90s, much to the chagrin of the opposing offense. His arsenal also includes an above-average slider and a below-average (but improved) changeup. Typically, Britton throws his sinker as he often has trouble commanding his changeup. With a sinker with such high velocity, when Britton is on his game, he is almost un-hittable. While pitching with the Baltimore Orioles last year; he split the season with eleven wins and eleven losses. His final ERA was 4.61 on the year and he recorded 97 strikeouts. Due to an impingement of his left shoulder, Britton was added to the disabled list in March and has been rehabbing with the Norfolk Tides since June 6th.

It is obvious that eventually Zach Britton will go back to the Baltimore Orioles but when is the more pertinent question. While he still is throwing well, his ERA is similar to the one that yielded a split 11-11 decision with the Orioles. In the most recent game against the Chiefs, Britton commanded the ball extremely well but he is still finding his rhythm. A few more starts at the Norfolk Tides could make him an even better addition for when down the stretch.

Why not Chris Tillman?

Before the collective sighs from Orioles fans who remember his 5.60 ERA, 7-15 record in the 2009 through 2011 season, let me just say that in his last four outings (21-plus innings), he recorded 27 strikeouts. No, that’s not a typo – He has fanned 27 people in 21 innings. Chris Tillman is a different player this year. Farm teams were created to develop player mechanics and before you discount him just because he’s Chris Tillman, his mechanics have greatly improved and made him an elite competitor.

In his recent performances, Tillman has won his last four decisions with a 2.57 ERA, including one shutout performance in Toledo. His fastball has picked up some stream and reaches 94-95 mph pretty consistently. He also has an above-average curveball and an average cutter. In the past, Orioles fans have seen Tillman struggle with commanding the ball, often flustered with runners on base and seeming to quickly unravel with base runners. This year, however, the Chris Tillman that takes the mound is more disciplined with better control. Often Tillman is overlooked because of his performances at the big club but he clearly lives by the mantra – “Practice makes perfect.” Surely his command and control have improved, as can be seen with his ERA dropping and shutout appearances. Like most pitchers, there are times when he still struggles, but unfortunately that can be said about the majority of pitchers currently on the Orioles. There is a reason why farm teams exist and Tillman may be the poster child for their success in developing mechanics of young players. At 24, Tillman may be one of the future pitchers in this organization if he continues to pitch as he has been in his recent outings. If the Orioles actually take the proverbial leap of faith and recall him, Tillman may surprise a lot of people. The numbers in his recent three seasons with the Orioles are not a good indication of his skill level or his recent development. Perhaps this is the case when it’s the 4th time that is a charm.

Final Thoughts

Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen cannot be the only reliable pitchers in the starting rotation. With the recent departure of Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, Showalter has made it clear that sub par performances will only be tolerated for so long. Personally, I would like to see both Britton and Tillman at the big league level later this season. They both are dominating pitchers who can throw the ball well with good movement. Who knows? With Tillman being a righty and Britton being a lefty, perhaps they can create a duo that we can deem “Hammel and Chen, Version 2.0.”

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