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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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I answer your questions about Orioles rotation, Ravens receivers, more

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I answer your questions about Orioles rotation, Ravens receivers, more

Posted on 22 May 2012 by Glenn Clark

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Orioles hoping second epidural “does trick” for Reimold

Posted on 22 May 2012 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Still experiencing numbness in his fingers and forearm, injured Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold will receive a second epidural injection to alleviate the pain from a herniated disc.

Reimold hasn’t played since the end of April and the first epidural he received nearly two weeks ago has done little to eliminate the discomfort from a bulging disc in his neck. The 28-year-old Reimold remains with the team and is expected to have the second injection on Friday, according to Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

“We’re hoping this does the trick,” said Showalter, who could not offer an idea of a projected date for a return. “That’s what we’re hoping, but there’s always that potential.”

The absence of Reimold and veteran Endy Chavez figured to leave a giant hole in left field, but the Orioles have found unexpected relief from 22-year-old Xavier Avery over the last 10 days. His emergency is even more remarkable when you consider the organization debated whether to send Avery to Triple-A Norfolk or back to Double-A Bowie after an underwhelming 2011 season with the Baysox.

Avery is hitting .278 in 36 at-bats and has already walked five times, showing impressive patience at the plate for a player not known for great discipline in the minor leagues. In comparison, Avery hit only .259 for Bowie last season and struck out 156 times while walking 49 times in 626 plate appearances.

Showalter is using caution when praising his fast start in the big leagues, but the Orioles feel very fortunate to have Avery’s contributions in left field every day.

“I’ve been impressed with his calmness and his selectiveness,” Showalter said. “And that’s always the last thing to come — it seems like — with a young player. Xavier’s doing well so far.”

In other news, injured infielder Mark Reynolds (strained oblique muscle) took batting practice off coaches in Sarasota on Tuesday. Chavez is also progressing nicely from a strained intercostal muscle and is scheduled to hit off coaches on Wednesday.

Left-handed pitcher Zach Britton said he felt good after pitching in an extended spring game and is on track to start at Double-A Bowie on Saturday.

Here are Tuesday night’s lineups…

Boston
SS Mike Aviles
2B Dustin Pedroia
DH David Ortiz
RF Adrian Gonzalez
1B Kevin Youkilis
3B Will Middlebrooks
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
LF Daniel Nava
CF Marlon Byrd

SP Felix Doubront (4-1, 4.09 ERA)

Baltimore
2B Robert Andino
SS J.J. Hardy
RF Nick Markakis
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
1B Wilson Betemit
DH Chris Davis
3B Steve Tolleson
LF Xavier Avery

SP Brian Matusz (3-4, 5.36 ERA)

Here more from manager Buck Showalter in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault here and be sure to follow WNST on Twitter for live updates and analysis from Camden Yards throughout the night.

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Matusz takes on Hochevar in KC matinee

Posted on 17 May 2012 by WNST Staff

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Optimism remains as surprising Orioles survive brutal 15-game stretch

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Optimism remains as surprising Orioles survive brutal 15-game stretch

Posted on 16 May 2012 by Luke Jones

It was just over two weeks ago when emotions were flying high following Wilson Betemit’s game-winning three-run homer to complete a dramatic ninth-inning comeback against the Oakland Athletics.

The win put the Orioles at 14-8 and in a tie for first place in the American League East. But, what awaited next would presumably be the reality check to knock the club and fans off their early-season pedestal.

The eternal optimists and pessimists alike knew the next 15 games against New York, Boston, Texas, and Tampa Bay would paint a clearer — but by no means definitive — picture of who the 2012 Orioles really were early in the season. Most paying close attention to the last decade-plus of Baltimore baseball figured the good vibes of April would turn to uneasiness by the time the middle of May rolled around.

Instead, the Orioles’ 5-2 win over the New York Yankees on Tuesday not only salvaged a split in a brief two-game series but  capped a 9-6 record over the brutal stretch. Instead of potentially finding themselves below the .500 mark and in the familiar basement of the division as many feared two weeks ago, the Orioles stand at 23-14 and are still tied for first place — deadlocked with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Making the feat even more impressive was the amount of turbulence the Orioles experienced along the way. Outfielders Nolan Reimold and Endy Chavez, infielder Mark Reynolds, and relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom landed on the 15-day disabled list. Two extra-inning games in Boston left the bullpen taxed and injuries began surfacing, forcing executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette to make 22 individual roster moves over a seven-day period last week.

Two weeks ago, who would have predicted Bill Hall, Steve Tolleson, and Xavier Avery would comprise the bottom third of the lineup in Tuesday’s win over CC Sabathia? If you did, you certainly wouldn’t have expected the Orioles to remain atop the division.

Yet, the cracks in the armor are impossible to ignore. In addition to the injuries, the pitching that had carried the Orioles through the first five weeks of the season looks vulnerable, both in the rotation and in the bullpen.

Starters Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been the biggest surprises of the young season, but Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter need to find more consistency to pitch deeper into games and stabilize the rotation. Otherwise, a bullpen that’s been outstanding through the first six weeks of the season will continue to wear down and become less effective as the seasons progresses.

The infield defense at the corners continues to be abysmal as manager Buck Showalter hasn’t found a viable duo at first and third on which he can rely. The poor defense has put unnecessary strain on young starting pitchers on top of their struggles on the mound.

Even with those warning signs, the Orioles continue to win and haven’t suffered more than two consecutive losses since the second series of the season when the Yankees swept a three-game series in Baltimore.

There’s no disputing the Orioles have benefited from the injuries hammering Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay in the division. In order to compete, we knew Baltimore would not only need to exceed expectations but those divisional opponents would have to come back to the pack a bit.

Through May 15, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Unlike those clubs, however, the Orioles aren’t capable of overcoming shaky starting pitching, poor defense, and more injuries. Their margin for error simply isn’t high enough in the toughest division in baseball.

Resiliency has been the keyword of the 2012 season through 37 games, and it’s found the Orioles in an unfamiliar position of prosperity.

Will it continue?

As was the case on the day of that walk-off win against Oakland, no one knows, but with every game and every series and every difficult stretch in which the Orioles find a way to get the job done, they recruit more and more believers.

Including themselves.

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Matusz, Moore do battle Saturday night at Camden Yards

Posted on 12 May 2012 by WNST Staff

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With Orioles rotation in flux, Chen represents surest commodity right now

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With Orioles rotation in flux, Chen represents surest commodity right now

Posted on 10 May 2012 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After four weeks of quality starting pitching that earned them their best start since the 2005 season, the Orioles suddenly find their rotation filled with question marks.

Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta has been inconsistent, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter have been more bad than good, and Jason Hammel — the best starter on the staff through the season’s first month — is now battling a right knee injury that forced manager Buck Showalter to scratch him from Thursday’s start in hopes that he can return to the hill Monday or Tuesday and avoid the disabled list.

Meanwhile, the starter the Orioles knew the least about entering the season has suddenly become their surest thing. Pitching the front-end of Thursday’s doubleheader against a Rangers lineup that had pounded Baltimore pitching for 24 runs in the first two games of the series, Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen didn’t blink.

All you needed to know about Chen’s mentality against the two-time American League champions came in the first inning against Josh Hamilton, who was making his first plate appearance since hitting four home runs on Tuesday night. Instead of nibbling on the outside edge of the plate, Chen quickly got ahead 0-2 before buzzing a fastball right under Hamilton’s chin.

The purpose pitched worked as Hamilton flailed badly on the next pitch, a low-and-away breaking ball to end the first inning. It was a sign of things to come as Chen completed the best outing of his brief major league career, pitching 7 2/3 innings while allowing two earned runs and six hits to improve to 3-0 on the season with the Orioles’ 6-5 win in the opener of a straight doubleheader.

“Yeah, definitely, this was my best outing,” Chen said through his interpreter. “This was definitely the best outing of this year.”

Not only did Chen lower his earned run average to an impressive 2.68, but he saved a bullpen that had to work a bit extra in the nightcap after Hunter struggled through six innings while giving up four earned runs in a 7-3 loss.

After receiving an extra day of rest due to Wednesday’s rainout, Chen threw 103 pitches and didn’t seem to struggle as much after reaching the 85-pitch barrier that’s often signaled the end of his effectiveness in several starts. Normally lacking overwhelming stuff, Chen’s fastball topped 93 mph when it normally sits right around 90. In what’s become a pattern for the 26-year-old through his first six starts, he changed speeds and had excellent command, keeping Texas hitters off balance throughout the afternoon.

“Wei-Yin was a difference-maker today to get that deep in the game and against obviously a good lineup,” Showalter said. “He was outstanding. He was sharp with his breaking ball, the extra days’ rest. It seems like he had a little bit more finish on his fastball. He was a difference-maker for us today, and it won’t be forgotten.”

While Chen isn’t a rookie in the traditional sense when you consider his experiences pitching in Taiwan and Japan, his polish has been impressive as he looks to have a plan for every hitter — unlike many of the young pitchers to come to Baltimore and struggle over the last several seasons. He’s allowed three or fewer runs in each start and the competition he’s faced hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk with early encounters against the Yankees and the Red Sox before dominating the Rangers on Thursday.

Of course, even Chen admits the mystery surrounding his ability and how it projects at the major league level has worked to his benefit so far, but it’s tough to discredit what he was able to do to a red-hot Texas lineup.

“Because I’m a new guy, they don’t know me that much,” Chen said. “But, on the other hand, I felt really, really good today, and I had really good command and everything was working. I didn’t think about it too much, I just went pitch-by-pitch today.”

As impressive as Chen has been, he’ll need to make adjustments as American League teams begin to see him for the second and third times. Zach Britton learned that the hard way a year ago when his rookie season began crumbling after looking like a strong Rookie of the Year candidate during the first two months of the season.

Even so, Chen shows the maturity of a pitcher with a plan every time he takes the mound. He doesn’t do anything to overwhelm you, but the results have been exactly what the Orioles were looking for — and badly needed on Thursday.

“We’re still learning about him,” Showalter said. “Considering the competition and the need, [his start] certainly seemed pretty crisp for us.”

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After being on wrong end of history, Orioles must now fight their own

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After being on wrong end of history, Orioles must now fight their own

Posted on 09 May 2012 by Luke Jones

History was made at Camden Yards on Tuesday night, but the story for the Orioles wasn’t Josh Hamilton becoming the 16th player in major league history to hit four home runs in a single game.

Entering Monday with the best earned run average in the American League and coming off a nine-game stretch in which they allowed a total of 23 runs against Oakland, New York, and Boston, the Orioles have surrendered 24 runs over the last two nights against the powerful Texas Rangers to knock them down a couple pegs in an otherwise impressive start to the 2012 season.

Like Brian Matusz on Monday, Jake Arrieta had no answers for the Texas lineup as an Orioles starter turned in a poor outing for the third straight game while a patchwork bullpen that included three call-ups over the last two days hasn’t been any better.

Needless to say, manager Buck Showalter wasn’t in the mood to discuss the heroics of Hamilton, whose 18 total bases on Tuesday set an American League record and were one shy of former Dodger Shawn Green’s major-league record 19 set on May 23, 2002.

“We didn’t score many runs, either,” Showalter said. “I think you’ve got to tip your hat to their pitching staff, too. We’ve obviously given up a lot of runs in a couple nights to make it tough. Obviously, Hamilton had a big night.”

The offense, which seemed to have come alive in the last five games of the last road trip, has suddenly gone silent over the last two nights against Texas starters Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz, scoring just six runs in two games.

The Orioles have lost consecutive games for the first time since April 20 and 21 in Anaheim, but one of the most impressive aspects of their 19-11 start has been their ability to dust themselves off after the handful of losses suffered over the first five weeks of the season. Even so, you have to wonder how two lopsided losses to the Rangers — who look like the class of the American League early on — will impact the club’s psyche following a successful 5-1 road trip against the Yankees and the Red Sox.

After winning a remarkable 17-inning marathon in Boston on Sunday, the Orioles have appeared to lack energy over the last two nights, though it’s easy to say that when facing a team many regard as the best in baseball. In addition to the physical demands of the aforementioned game against the Red Sox, you wonder if the inexperienced Orioles suffered a mental hangover in coming home after such a successful road trip against their two biggest tormentors of the last 14 years.

One of the biggest signs of a winning team is its ability to rebound quickly from tough losses and prevent negative spurts from transforming into extended losing streaks. Realistically speaking, two straight losses are nothing at all over which to be concerned, but mainstays of the roster over the last few years have a laundry list of lengthy swoons they’ll need to keep from their minds while trying to regroup for the final two games of the series against the Rangers.

As uplifting as their 19-11 start has been, dropping 10 of their next 11 would all but erase the positive vibes circulating through the Baltimore clubhouse. They can try to fight it all they want, but losing still flows through the veins of many key players and can’t be eliminated completely in a 30-game period. Unlike winning clubs of recent seasons, the Orioles don’t have positive experiences of rebounding from adversity from which to draw, forcing you to take pregnant pause at the first sign of trouble.

They simply aren’t familiar with how winning teams handle a bump or two in the road.

Despite being outscored 24-6 over the last two nights, the Orioles will have the opportunity to put that behind them immediately on Wednesday and Thursday as they try to snap a seven-game losing streak to the two-time American League champions that dates back to last season.

Unlike any other sport, baseball gives you the opportunity to erase the pain immediately.

But it’s also unforgiving in how consecutive losses can quickly turn into a nightmarish stretch of time if you’re not careful.

The Orioles know that all too well in recent years and will try to get back on track with their pitching, the phase of the game that’s carried them to their best start since 2005.

It needs to regroup in a hurry.

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Phillips joins Orioles bullpen, Berken back to Norfolk

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Phillips joins Orioles bullpen, Berken back to Norfolk

Posted on 08 May 2012 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It turns out pitcher Jason Berken’s second stint with the club will be shorter than his first one in Baltimore this season.

After a terrible inning of work in Monday’s 14-3 loss to the Texas Rangers, Berken has been optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk and replaced by left-handed reliever Zach Phillips. Berken allowed six hits and seven runs (two earned) in the ninth inning, which included a long home run by Josh Hamilton.

Manager Buck Showalter planned to only use three pitchers on Monday — starter Brian Matusz, Stu Pomeranz, and Berken — and will now turn to the southpaw relief pitcher he begrudgingly optioned to Triple-A Norfolk at the start of the season because he had a remaining option unlike a few other bullpen arms. Phillips had a brilliant Grapefruit League with the Orioles, posting a 1.35 earned run average in 13 1/3 innings of spring work.

Phillips owned a 4.15 ERA in 13 innings for Triple-A Norfolk so far this season.

He and Troy Patton give the Orioles two left-handers in the bullpen for the first time this season, but Showalter is not ready to designate one as a situational lefty and cited their backgrounds as starters and the ability for either pitcher to throw multiple innings when needed.

“I don’t think there’s enough track record there to [make either a lefty specialist] for sure,” Showalter said, “but both these guys – he and Troy – have the potential to do both, which is unusual.”

As for who will make Friday’s start in the series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, Showalter is remaining tight-lipped but knows who he will call as long as rain doesn’t interfere over the next few days. All signs point to Norfolk starter Dana Eveland, who was pulled after 63 pitches on Monday despite throwing five shutout innings for the Tides.

The Orioles would have to put Eveland on the 40-man roster, but second baseman Brian Roberts could be transferred to the 60-day disabled list without any consequence to his efforts to return from concussion-related symptoms. Catcher Taylor Teagarden would also be a candidate for the 60-day DL as he continues to receive treatment for a back injury.

When asked about veteran infielder Miguel Tejada, Showalter confirmed the former Orioles shortstop and third baseman passed his physical without any concerns on Monday. However, the Baltimore manager deferred to executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette for more details.

“I don’t know what the process or the plan is at this point,” said Showalter, who was under the impression that Tejada served as the designated hitter during an extended spring training game in Sarasota on Tuesday.

Showalter admitted to not being familiar with Tejada, but he pointed to the positive reviews from former teammates of Tejada that are still on the roster.

Right fielder Nick Markakis is off to a difficult start in 2012, hitting just .230 with three home runs and 11 runs batted in in 113 at-bats. When asked whether he would consider moving the struggling outfielder from the third spot in the order, Showalter brushed it off for now.

“It’s too early,” Showalter said. “I think Nick has swung the bat well for us at times.”

Showalter went on to discuss the batting order in greater detail, acknowledging sabermetrics and varying philosophies on how to construct a lineup. With Nolan Reimold currently on the 15-day disabled list with a bulging disc in his neck, the Orioles lack any semblance of a prototypical leadoff hitter — if you could even label Reimold that to begin with.

Endy Chavez has received the most opportunities in Reimold’s absence, but the veteran outfielder is off to a miserable start with a .127 average. Chavez has a .310 career on-base percentage over his 11 years in the big leagues — not exactly what you’re looking for at the top of the order.

Here are tonight’s lineups…

Texas
2B Ian Kinsler
SS Elvis Andrus
CF Josh Hamilton
DH Adrian Beltre
3B Michael Young
LF David Murphy
RF Nelson Cruz
C Mike Napoli
1B Mitch Moreland

SP Neftali Feliz (1-1, 3.81 ERA)

Baltimore
LF Endy Chavez
SS J.J. Hardy
RF Nick Markakis
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
1B Chris Davis
3B Wilson Betemit
DH Mark Reynolds
2B Robert Andino

SP Jake Arrieta (2-2, 3.52 ERA)

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Matusz hopes to finally break through for win Tuesday night

Posted on 01 May 2012 by WNST Staff

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