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

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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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It Is Now or Never For the Baltimore Orioles’ Brian Matusz

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It Is Now or Never For the Baltimore Orioles’ Brian Matusz

Posted on 02 July 2012 by andrewtomlinson

Yesterday saw once promising Baltimore Orioles prospect Brian Matusz sent back down to AAA Norfolk after a disastrous four inning start, where he gave up four earned runs to the Cleveland Indians enroute to a 6-2 loss.

The outing marks yet another puzzling start for a pitcher who at point was regarded as a potential top of the rotation candidante. In 2012, he has failed to maintain any momentum what so ever for more than a handful of starts. In 107 innings, Matusz has given up 51 earned runs on his way to a below mediocre 5.42 ERA.

The lack of success this year is just another rung in the ladder towards busting as a prospect for Matusz. He only has one winning season in his career, his first when he was 5-2 in 2009, but a combination of bad Orioles teams and bad pitching by him has led to a career winning percentage of .389. At some point, the O’s have to make a decision about his future with the organization. If he continues with his current winning percentage with an ERA trending down, his future may be a short one.

Matusz is heading dangerously towards AAAA-player territory. These are the types of players who dominate players in the minor leagues, but can never put it together in the Major Leagues. Someone like Mike Hessman, the current minor league baseball home run leader, is the type of player Matusz is on the verge of becoming. Sure, some may say he is only in his fourth year of baseball, by Matusz is 25 and isn’t getting any younger. Even more concerning, is Matusz followed a career path, playing baseball at the University of San Diego before going pro, indicative of players who rise to the majors and succeed faster than other prospects.

Now, this may be viewed as secondary to some, but the worst part of Matusz’s lack of success is how it is also tanking his trade value. At one point, Matusz was considered one of the most promising pitchers in baseball and the organization could have netted quite the haul for him. Now though, as he struggles to show he can compete at the major league level, his value continues to plummet and Baltimore’s window for moving him for even a decent player in return is closing.

It is hard to blame the O’s for not trading the guy though. Matusz has a promising arm, was projected as a can’t miss kind of guy and clearly looked as if he had the intangibles to be a meaningful part of a major league roster. It is easy to play armchair general manager now, after seeing what Matusz has done, but it is tough to sit here and think Baltimore has anything more than outside hopes for him to impact the franchise going forward.

Matusz has an incredibly small window to get himself back into relevance. That time for him is now. If the former top pitching prospect is ever going to join this roster and show he can make it as a major league player, he has to do it this year. For his sake and the organizations, he can’t kick around in AAA again this year only to make the roster next year. If that is the case, then it is more of the same for Matusz and it is time for the O’s to start looking for his “Plan B.”

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Is Brian Matusz finished?

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Is Brian Matusz finished?

Posted on 02 July 2012 by James Finn

Have we seen the last of Brian Matusz? His trouble this season has been apparent. At only 25 years old, maybe he can rebound, but allow me to express my skepticism.

As you all know by now, following a 6-2 loss to the Indians Sunday, in which Matusz surrendered 5 runs in his 4 plus innings of work, he was optioned down to Triple-A Norfolk.   He follows Tommy Hunter as the second Starting Pitcher to be demoted to the minors in as many days.  Steve Johnson has been called up to complete the 25 man roster, and will join the Bullpen on the final road trip before the All-star game.

The Orioles starting pitching has been a huge contributor to a bad stretch as a team, and Brian has undoubtedly been the worst offender.  Since June 2, after his best outing this season, Matusz has lost his last 5 starts, notching a 8.44 ERA, and an eye popping 2.48 WHIP.

Many times I’ve heard the philosophy that if you give a pitcher a lead, it relaxes him, takes the pressure off, etc.  I think the same can be said for the Offense.  If the pitchers goes out and puts a team in a hole early, it’s hard to dig out, puts too much pressure on your hitters.  They become overzealous, swing at bad pitches, try to force things to happen, and leads to disastrous results. By this account, Brian Matusz hasn’t done much to help the offense.

We’ve seen the bad side of Matusz before.  In his 2011 campaign, he started on the DL, was sent back down to the minors after a 1-4 stint to work on mechanics and velocity, only to come back up to the majors, finishing the year 1-9, with a historically bad 10.69 ERA. (It’s the worst of any qualifying pitcher in an individual season…look it up).

The biggest hurdle I think Matusz has, and may never overcome, is his confidence.  He obviously has the tools, he had a stretch this season where he was effective, and even churned out a few consecutive victories.  I don’t think he believes in himself, and through his own lack of faith in his ability, the fans turn on him, and begins a downward spiral.  He stands on the mound drenched in pounds of his own sweat, regardless of the season, with a sad disposition reminiscent of boy without a date for prom.

His most recent demotion won’t do his confidence any good, and if this were any other season, we could keep Matusz on the main roster.  However, if we will seriously compete for a playoff birth this season, the Orioles cannot keep Matusz around while he gets his head right.  We have enough options down in Norfolk (Britton, Tillman, Bergesen, Willis, Berken) where we can continue to shuffle the roster until we find something that works.  There is even the chance of trying to procure a starter through trade, but management has stated they want to fix the roster internally first, before seeking elsewhere.

As for his future, I don’t see one for him here in Baltimore.  My prediction is he finishes the season in Norfolk. He’s in the final season of his contract, and I can’t see the Orioles resigning him.  It’d be a less popular move then if the Ravens tried to sign Heinz Ward.  He’ll see a contract from some other team, maybe he’ll make it back to the big show, but he’s never going to be that dominant pitcher the Orioles wanted him to be when they drafted him.

@JameTFinn on Twitter

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Struggling Orioles venturing down slippery slope with road-heavy July ahead

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Struggling Orioles venturing down slippery slope with road-heavy July ahead

Posted on 29 June 2012 by Luke Jones

Sunday’s dramatic win over the Washington Nationals looked like the perfect tonic to snap the Orioles out of the offensive funk that plagued them over a nine-game stretch following a sweep of Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Four days later, it appears more like a temporary diversion as the Orioles have now lost seven of their last nine games and have looked even worse in dropping three straight this week.

The offensive struggles have become all too familiar as the Orioles have scored three or fewer runs in 11 of their last 12 games. They’ve gone 6-for-63 (.095) with runners in scoring position in their last 11 games.

The pitching has followed suit in a two-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels and Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. In those three games, Baltimore pitching has given up 42 hits, 25 earned runs, and nine home runs.

Even more deflating is the fact that Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen — the club’s most dependable starters — pitched poorly on consecutive nights, with their turns in the rotation typically circled as great opportunities to win.

And the defense? Well, it’s been as brutal as it’s been throughout the 2012 season.

It’s far too reactionary to say the annual swoon has begun or that the Orioles are finished — they’re still seven games above .500 — but a three-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored 27-6 is enough to take the wind out of even the most optimistic fan’s sail.

Lately, the Orioles have looked like, well, the Orioles, meaning the club we’ve come to know for a very long time.

“We’ve had good stretches offensively, we’ve had some real good stretches pitching,” manager Buck Showalter said. “We’ve just got to get back to putting it together again.”

The Baltimore skipper is right. While their flaws are apparent in what’s been an unexpected run of good baseball over the season’s first three months, the Orioles have strung together multiple stretches in which they’ve pitched well and scored more than enough to win.

In fairness to the lineup, the Orioles have faced a daunting run of starting pitching, ranging from R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana to the Nationals’ outstanding rotation to C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver. Their break was supposed to begin on Thursday night with the recently-recalled Zach McAllister on the mound for Cleveland, but the Orioles weren’t able to capitalize aside from a J.J. Hardy home run in the fifth inning.

“We definitely haven’t been hitting with runners in scoring position lately, but we’ve got to keep grinding,” Hardy said. “It’s one of those things where, the more you think about it, the more you try harder and harder. That’s not what you need to do. It will turn around eventually.”

The Orioles will have three more cracks at Cleveland’s mediocre pitching that features a bullpen ranked last in the American League in earned run average. The problem is they will counter with the unpredictable trio of Jake Arrieta, Dana Eveland, and Brian Matusz after Hammel and Chen faltered the last two nights.

They need to quickly find that combination of solid pitching and timely hitting to take advantage of the next six games against Cleveland and Seattle, because the road gets more difficult after that.

Good teams take three out of four games from the Indians when playing at home and then follow it up with a series win in Seattle against one of the worst teams in baseball. The Orioles need to stack some wins before traveling to Anaheim for a four-game set with the Angels, who just finished beating their brains in for two nights at Camden Yards.

It doesn’t get easier after the All-Star break as the club will welcome Detroit to town for three games before leaving on another eight-game road trip taking them into late July.

By that point, we’ll have a good picture of whether or not the Orioles should be serious buyers at the trade deadline.

Every time you think the Orioles have been on the verge of collapsing this year, they suddenly snap out of it in a way that’s been both improbable and entertaining to watch.

Their win against the Nationals on Sunday looked like it was going to be the latest catalyst in propelling them to another winning stretch.

Instead, it now looks like a temporary regaining of their footing as they navigate down a slippery slope.

And if they’re not able to turn things around quickly, the slide could get much uglier in a hurry.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear more from Buck Showalter, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds following Thursday’s 7-2 loss right here.

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Orioles Vs Angles: Series Preview

Posted on 26 June 2012 by James Finn

The Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim come to town to battle the O’s in a short 2-game Series.  Both teams had the day off yesterday. Both teams are coming off a 2-out-of-3 series win over the weekend.  The Halos, however, did it with offense, scoring 14 runs over city rivals The Dodgers.

Tonight’s pitching match-up has C.J. Wilson taking the bump head to head against Brian Matusz.  Wilson’s 8-4, 2.44 ERA marks him among the top hurlers in the league, and (at least now) justifies the 5-year, $77.5M contract he signed during the winter meetings.  Matusz, on the other hand, has yet to find his rhythm this season…or any season for that matter.  He’s dropped 4 of his last 5, surrendering 15 runs over those games.  Against the high powered offense of the Angels, this can only spell trouble.

Wednesday night, 2 of the top pitchers in the bigs face-off, when Jered Weaver goes one-on-one against the surprising ace Jason Hammel. Weaver, despite coming off a quick stint on the DL with back spasms, looked great in his last start against the Giants, giving up no runs, 2 hits over 6 innings pitched. He hasn’t surrendered an earned run since May 23rd.  Not to be outdone, Hammel’s last 2 starts have been majestic:  A complete game 1-hit shut-out of the Braves with 8 K’s, and an 8 inning outing, striking out 10 Nationals.  Touch gloves and come out fighting.

Run production has come at a premium for the birds, and doesn’t appear to get any easier these next two days.  The bats need to come alive.  Take advantage of the day you’ve had to rest, where your opponent has been traveling cross country.  Get on the board early, and be confident in the most effective bullpen in baseball.

What I look forward to watching this series is the young, talented 20-year old, Mike Trout.  His initial impact on the club was initially missed by many nationwide that had Harper-Fever.  Cat is out of the bag, and this kid is great.  While his natural baseball instinct might not be as good at Harper, I think Trout is a more complete player then Bryce, has a better grip on his emotions (Trout is yet to miss any time from self inflicted head wounds), and overshadowing big names like Pujos and Hunter in the second biggest market in America.  L.A. is not an easy place to play, but he makes it look easy.

The objective going in to every series should always be to take the series. In this instance, I’m happy with a split, which is what I expect to happen.

Oh, and follow me on twitter. @JamesTFinn

 

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With Roberts’ potential return looming, Orioles still seek leadoff solution

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With Roberts’ potential return looming, Orioles still seek leadoff solution

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Luke Jones

After being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk prior to Tuesday’s game in Toronto, 22-year-old outfielder Xavier Avery became the latest in a long list of candidates to fall short in stabilizing the Orioles’ leadoff spot over the last two seasons.

Since second baseman Brian Roberts exited a game with concussion-related symptoms on May 16, 2011, the Orioles have been without a bona fide hitter at the top of the order despite trying a number of candidates in the role.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy had a higher degree of success than others last season, but his .295 on-base percentage while batting in the leadoff spot — to go along with a career .320 on-base percentage — didn’t exactly scream top-of-the-order hitter. In fact, Hardy’s power numbers (40 home runs in 176 games with the Orioles) suggest a player better suited to hit in the middle of the order than at the top.

This season, left fielder Nolan Reimold appeared to be an intriguing — but unconventional — choice with his career .338 on-base percentage, but a herniated disc in his neck has sidelined him after a fast start. In his absence, the combination of Endy Chavez, Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, and Avery has not been able to produce and set the table for the middle of the order.

Avery shows promise for the future, but his extended audition exposed the need for him to improve against off-speed pitches and develop further at Norfolk before he’s ready to assume the leadoff role on a permanent basis.

In 2011, the No. 1 spot in the order accounted for a .240 batting average and a .290 on-base percentage, the worst figures of any spot in the batting order. The numbers have been even worse this season as the top spot in the order has produced an anemic .213 average to go along with a .258 on-base percentage.

While many place too much emphasis on the batting order, the leadoff spot is expected to be occupied by a player with a strong ability to get on base and speed — a combination that has eluded the Orioles.

So, who might manager Buck Showalter turn to?

Ironically, it might be the man the Orioles have been trying to replace for over a year.

Five games into his minor league rehabilitation assignment, Roberts has yet to experience any setbacks while collecting two hits and two walks in 12 plate appearances at Double-A Bowie. Even if his rehab stint goes off without a hitch, it would be ambitious to expect Roberts to return to the form of a career .353 on-base hitter, but the 34-year-old infielder would easily become the most viable option in the top spot if he’s even remotely close to the player he was prior to the injury.

The debate will continue over how Showalter should handle Roberts’ workload and what it means for current second baseman Robert Andino, but the Orioles desperately need more production from the leadoff spot.

And with Roberts’ return looking more realistic every day, he would be as close to the ideal candidate as the Orioles have had since his exit over a year ago.

Starting pitching woes

The news of veteran pitcher Roy Oswalt signing a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers stole some of the thunder of this topic, but it’s become clear the Orioles need better starting pitching if they hope to maintain anything close to the 29-20 pace that’s put them in first place for much of the first two months of the season.

The current 4.31 earned run average from the starting rotation is just above the league average of 4.30, but that number becomes more concerning when you consider starters pitched to a 3.63 ERA in April but have posted a 4.94 mark so far in May.

Left-hander Zach Britton is expected to take the place of the struggling Tommy Hunter, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday with his ERA ballooning to 5.59 after another poor start in Toronto on Monday. However, the in-house options are few and far between after that, making the idea of Oswalt so appealing before he decided to sign with the defending American League champions.

The Orioles have few pieces in their system to warrant anything better than what they already have in making a trade, meaning they will likely have no choice but to depend on the continued success of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen and hope for more consistency from Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz to prevent too much wear and tear on the bullpen.

While the health of Britton’s left shoulder remains the priority over any short-term results, the Orioles can only hope the 24-year-old more closely resembles the pitcher who was 5-2 with a 2.35 ERA in his first 10 starts last season than the one posting a 6.25 mark over his final 18 starts, which included a demotion and a trip to the disabled list with that sore shoulder.

With two days off during the current nine-game road trip, the Orioles will not need a fifth starter again until June 9. Barring any setbacks, Britton should be ready to join the starting rotation by that point in time.

Given Oswalt’s preference to play for a winner, Baltimore was an extreme long-shot, but his veteran presence for one season — without a long-term financial commitment — would have brought some much-needed stability and a veteran presence to the rotation.

Carrying Flaherty becoming burdensome?

Showalter has said how impressed he is with Rule 5 selection Ryan Flaherty on several occasions this season, but you have to wonder if the 25-year-old is becoming too great a burden on the 25-man roster for a first-place team.

Injuries provided the utility player more playing time in the early stages of May, but his .143 batting average (7-for-49) has led to less playing time over the last two weeks. Since going 0-for-4 in Kansas City on May 17, Flaherty has received only one start and four plate appearances while being relegated to the bench.

The idea of a Rule 5 player on a team projected to be in last place sounds like an acceptable situation, but carrying a player like Flaherty when you’re trying to win is a dicey proposition, especially when the Orioles have elected to go with a three-man bench and 13 pitchers at times when the bullpen has been overworked.

In addition to Flaherty, infielder Steve Tolleson doesn’t have a strong hold on his roster spot, so it will be interesting to see what executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette decides to do if and when Roberts is ready to be activated on June 12. Regardless of whether Roberts takes Andino’s starting job or not, his addition will take away another roster spot and make you wonder if the Orioles can keep Flaherty around much longer if he isn’t going to produce.

 

 

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