Tag Archive | "Buck Showalter"

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Promising signs beginning to surface for Orioles

Posted on 12 June 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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M. Wright recalled, Gonzalez placed on 15-day DL

Posted on 11 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Prior to Thursday’s series finale against Boston, the Orioles officially placed starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez on the 15-day disabled list and recalled right-handed pitcher Mike Wright from Triple-A Norfolk.

Gonzalez suffered a right groin strain in Tuesday’s start against the Red Sox, which forced him to depart in the fifth inning. With the 31-year-old still experiencing soreness 48 hours later, the Orioles made the move, which gives them a seventh man in the bullpen while lefty Brian Matusz serves the remainder of his eight-game suspension that concludes with Saturday’s game.

“I’m a little bummed, but I understand it’s the right thing to do,” said Gonzalez, who previously spent time on the DL in 2013 due to a blister and last year because of a strained oblique. “It’s not feeling any better; it’s still sore. As I walk, I still feel it. I think we just go from there and see what happens.”

Optioned to the minors last Friday, Wright was only eligible to return to the majors to replace an injured player and would not have been able to be recalled until Monday under the normal circumstances in which a player must remain in the minor leagues for 10 days. Manager Buck Showalter said the 25-year-old right-hander will be available in relief for the next few games and remains an option to make Sunday’s start against the New York Yankees.

In four starts for the Orioles, the rookie has posted a 2-1 record with a 2.96 ERA in 24 1/3 innings.

“I like Miguel and I don’t want anybody to be hurt, obviously, but it’s nice to be [back] up here,” Wright said. “I hope I’m still available for Sunday, but I’m going to try my best to help win the next three games until then. If’ I’m available then, that’s when I’ll pitch.”

The Orioles remain optimistic that Gonzalez won’t miss more than the minimum 15 days. The veteran starter told reporters his groin injury was not as severe as the one suffered by infielder Ryan Flaherty earlier this season.

Gonzalez had a similar injury in 2013 — Showalter described this strain as “a little tick worse” — but an off-day allowed the Orioles to rearrange their rotation in order to keep him off the DL then.

In other injury-related news, Showalter said first baseman Chris Davis only experienced a cramp when he appeared to tweak something during Wednesday’s game. He remained in the game and was serving as the designated hitter on Thursday.

On the same day Chris Tillman was making his 130th career start and center fielder Adam Jones was playing in his 1,089th game for Baltimore, former Orioles pitcher Erik Bedard announced his retirement. Those two current Orioles were the centerpiece of a trade that sent the left starter to the Seattle Mariners in 2008.

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Gonzalez expected to miss Sunday’s start against Yankees

Posted on 10 June 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reimold on Orioles return: “I’m not taking it for granted”

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Once thought to be one of the Orioles’ most talented prospects, outfielder Nolan Reimold now hopes to be able to simply contribute again at the major league level after two spinal fusion surgeries.

Prior to Tuesday’s series opener against the Boston Red Sox, the 31-year-old was promoted from Triple-A Norfolk as the Orioles optioned left-handed relief pitcher Cesar Cabral to the Tides. Reimold was batting sixth and playing left field in his first start for Baltimore since July 13, 2013.

Of course, the 2005 second-round pick had to wait his turn on a minor-league contract this spring, batting .286 with two home runs, 12 doubles, 13 RBIs, five stolen bases, and a .739 OPS in 194 plate appearances for Norfolk. After a slow start, Reimold was hitting .422 over his last 14 games in the International League, which earned the promotion with the Orioles receiving poor production in left field all season.

“Getting at-bats pretty much every day down at Norfolk [is] what I really needed to do after the last couple years,” said Reimold, who knocked on wood when citing his ability to stay healthy this season. “It was really good for me to be down there and play every day and start hitting the ball. Whenever the call comes, you’re always happy. I’m up here and I’m not taking it for granted. I just want to make the best of it.”

Baltimore left fielders have hit just .200 with a horrendous .550 on-base plus slugging percentage this season, meaning the bar isn’t exactly a high one for the veteran.

In a perfect world, Reimold would offer manager Buck Showalter another option at the top of the lineup where Manny Machado has become the leadoff hitter out of pure necessity. Serving as the No. 1 hitter to begin the 2012 season, Reimold was hitting .313 with five home runs in 16 games before a neck injury suffered in Chicago eventually led to the two surgeries that brought his career to a screeching halt.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether Reimold is capable of being that kind of a contributor again, but the Orioles have liked what they’ve seen from him at Norfolk to earn the opportunity.

“The guy is capable of doing a lot of things,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s performing and running really good just like we know Nolan can do. We all like Nolan and the story, but this isn’t some charity. We think he can help us win. I don’t know what else you could do to get back here physically.”

Reimold is now in his second stint with the Orioles after being designated for assignment last summer when a thriving first-place club no longer had room on its 25-man roster for him. After playing briefly with Toronto and then Arizona, he elected to sign a minor-league deal with Baltimore over the winter.

After failing to make the 25-man roster at the start of the season despite a strong spring, Reimold still hoped an opportunity would come before next month’s opt-out date when he could have elected free agency.

“This is where I wanted to be. I feel like the organization knows me better,” Reimold said. “They care more. There’s not too much loyalty in professional sports, but I do feel a sense of loyalty here at Baltimore. I think that they care about what happens to me here, so that’s one of the big reasons why I chose to come back here. It’s been a while since I’ve been here, so I’m really happy.”

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Britton quietly dominating in second year as Orioles closer

Posted on 08 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Entering the 2015 season, most figured it would be difficult for Zach Britton to match what he did in his first year as Orioles closer.

But a closer look at the numbers indicates he’s been even more dominating in his second year as Baltimore’s ninth-inning man.

Handed the role in mid-May of last season, the left-hander converted 37 of 41 save chances and pitched to a miniscule 1.65 ERA. Consistently using the hard sinker while mixing in a couple sliders here and there, Britton held opponents to a .178 average with a .219 batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) as Orioles infielders consistently gobbled up grounder after grounder on their way to a division title.

Of course, pitching to contact can be a tricky proposition as we saw with former closer Jim Johnson, who held opponents to a .252 BABIP in his 2012 All-Star season before seeing good fortune shift dramatically a year later when opposing hitters posted a .330 BABIP and he blew nine saves. The difference with Britton continuing to thrive, however, is a shift in how he’s retiring hitters in 2015.

Averaging just 7.3 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings last season, Britton didn’t miss as many bats as the ideal closer and occasionally issued some free passes that got him into trouble. This puts much dependence on the defense and on luck in hoping batted balls don’t find open holes in the defense.

In that way, Britton hasn’t been as fortunate this year as opponents are hitting .227 with a .333 BABIP, which is higher than the major league average of .297. Despite this, his ERA still sits at 1.96 in 23 innings of work.

So, why would I say Britton has been even better in 2015 than he was a year ago?

His strikeouts are way up and his walks are way down, the two biggest outcomes over which a pitcher has full control. Britton is averaging a career-high 11.7 strikeouts and career-low 1.2 free passes per nine innings pitched, which is allowing him to overcome the lack of good fortune. In other words, there are fewer opportunities to experience bad luck when you’re striking out 33 percent of the hitters you’re facing (21.8 percent in 2014) and walking just 3.3 percent (8.1 percent last year).

These factors along with allowing just one home run all season have given Britton a 1.47 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark, which indicates he’s been even better than his ERA suggests. In contrast, Britton’s 3.13 FIP a season ago reflected his strong dependence on good defense to make plays for him.

Among qualified relief pitchers, Britton ranks 16th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2015 after ranking 104th in that department a year ago. Yes, we know pitchers don’t need to strike out hitters to be successful, but prosperity is more sustainable when you’re consistently missing bats and walking fewer hitters.

There isn’t anything dramatically different about the way Britton is pitching this year as he’s thrown his sinker a touch less (88.7 percent of the time compared to 89.3 percent last year) and his slider a little more frequently (11 percent to 8.5 percent) — the average velocity of each pitch is virtually identical to last year’s — but it’s been the effectiveness of the latter pitch that appears to have taken him to another level. Of his 30 strikeouts in 2015, 11 have come via the slider compared to just 13 of his 62 punch-outs coming on that secondary pitch last season.

To be clear, Britton is still a ground-ball machine as he ranks third among MLB relievers with a 68.4 percent grounder rate — he led the majors at 75.3 percent last year — but the southpaw is simply taking matters into his own hands more often and relying a little less on pitching to contact than he did in 2014. In crunch time, the grounder-inducing sinker remains his bread and butter, but his ability to strike out more hitters is only helping his cause.

Having converted 15 of his 16 save opportunities so far, Britton hasn’t received quite as many opportunities as you’d like with the Orioles hovering a few games below .500. But manager Buck Showalter has shown great trust in Britton as he’s recorded two four-out saves and a five-out save already this season.

Even if the Orioles have struggled to recapture their winning formula from 2014, Britton is emphatically removing any lingering doubts that he’s the real deal in the ninth inning and solidifying his place as one of the better closers in baseball.

 

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MLB upholds eight-game ban for Orioles lefty Matusz

Posted on 05 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Despite Milwaukee relief pitcher Will Smith seeing his eight-game suspension reduced earlier in the day, Orioles left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz saw his ban upheld by Major League Baseball on Friday.

Matusz began serving his eight-game suspension for having a foreign substances on his right forearm in a May 23 game in Miami. His appeal hearing took place in Houston on Wednesday with executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter in attendance.

He will be eligible to return on June 14 in a game against the New York Yankees.

The Orioles will now play a player down on their 25-man roster as Matusz sits for the next eight games. Showalter told reporters in Cleveland that the lefty pitcher will likely go to Sarasota to stay in shape over the next week.

To say the least, it’s curious that Smith saw his suspension reduced to six games while Matusz still received eight games from MLB. Showalter had expressed optimism earlier in the week that his pitcher’s discipline would be lessened.

In 18 1/3 innings in 2015, Matusz has posted a 1-2 record with a 3.44 ERA, but he has walked 11 batters compared to 14 strikeouts. The southpaw has allowed four of eight inherited runners to score this season.

The Orioles promoted relief pitcher Cesar Cabral from Triple-A Norfolk to give themselves another left-hander in the bullpen.

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What will Wieters bring to 2015 Orioles?

Posted on 04 June 2015 by Luke Jones

It was just over six years ago when Matt Wieters made his major league debut.

At the time, the Orioles were in the midst of their 12th straight losing season and in search of a savior. The fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft was deemed by many as the next Johnny Bench or at least Joe Mauer with power, but it never quite worked out that way despite Wieters having a good career before undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.

Six years later, the defending American League East champions may not need a savior, but they sure need a lift after losing five of their last six to fall five games below .500, their worst start since the 2011 season. They hope their three-time All-Star catcher can provide the kind of spark that can help turn their fortunes around.

Of course, expectations should be realistic as Wieters will return to the major leagues for the first time in nearly 13 months Friday night in Cleveland. It remains unclear when he’ll be ready to catch on consecutive days, but the Orioles will take what they can get from the 29-year-old, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the season.

“All feel. It’s going to be a slow process with it,” said Wieters last week about his part-time status as a catcher. “I’ve sort of come to terms with it that it’s not going to come just like that back to catching four, five days in a row. It’s all by feel. Every other day is better than not playing at all for me right now.”

Of course, no one is suggesting that Wieters alone will make the dramatic difference on the field as the emotional lift of his return might be the biggest short-term benefit for an Orioles club desperately trying to regroup. After losing two clubhouse leaders in Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz over the winter, the club will welcome back one of its most respected members with open arms.

Caleb Joseph, the Orioles’ primary catcher over the last year, has played admirably in Wieters’ place from a defensive standpoint and has improved his offense in his second major league season. With the likelihood of Wieters departing via free agency, many view Joseph as an acceptable replacement — at least for a year or two.

For the time being, Joseph will continue to be a major part of what the Orioles do as he and Wieters alternate catching duties.

“He’s done great. I’m real proud of that guy,” Wieters said of his understudy. “To see as far as he’s come defensively is really amazing. He really put the time in and the effort in and really worked to make himself I feel like one of the better defensive catchers in the league.

“That’s saying something for a guy who for a while was thought of as an ‘offensive’ catcher. To really take the time and effort that it takes to making yourself good defensively, a lot of credit goes out to his work ethic.”

As well as Joseph has played, that doesn’t mean he’s as good as a healthy Wieters.

And therein lies the great unknown.

What exactly will the Orioles be getting with the return of the veteran backstop? Will he still provide plus offense at his position and Gold Glove-caliber defense as a part-time starter?

His opposite-field home run for Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday was a good way to conclude a rehab assignment in which he hit .313 with a homer and three RBIs in 19 plate appearances. Perhaps the absence of the wear and tear of catching over the last year will do wonders for his offense, which would be a positive development for a Baltimore offense that’s been horrendous since early May.

The Orioles can’t truly know how this will go, but they’re welcoming the opportunity to find out at this point.

If anything, they hope a change in karma will do them good.

Wieters won’t be a savior, but the Orioles hope he can be a catalyst to help turn around their season.

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Hardy day to day after undergoing MRI for left oblique issue

Posted on 02 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Missing from the Orioles lineup for a second straight night, J.J. Hardy underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam for a left oblique issue and is considered day to day.

Manager Buck Showalter said after Tuesday’s 6-4 loss to the Houston Astros that the results of the MRI were encouraging and Hardy would be reevaluated on Wednesday. The shortstop missed Monday’s game with what was described as left side soreness, but he acknowledged to reporters that he was concerned that it might be something that could sideline him for longer than a day or two.

Hardy missed 27 games due to a left oblique strain in his first season with the Orioles in 2011.

A frustrating season continues for Hardy after he missed the first 25 games due to a left shoulder injury suffered late in spring training. Lower back stiffness forced Hardy from a game on May 25, but the veteran infielder returned to the starting lineup the following night.

Needless to say, an injury-riddled start to 2015 is not what the Orioles envisioned when they signed Hardy to a three-year, $40 million contract extension last October. Only time will tell whether Baltimore was wise to give a 32-year-old shortstop with a history of having a cranky back a three-year contract.

Hardy is hitting .190 with two home runs and six RBIs in 87 plate appearances this season.

In other injury-related news, Adam Jones (left ankle) was back in center field for the Orioles on Tuesday after serving as the designated hitter on Monday. Jones missed two games with a mild sprain.

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Thoughts on Tillman’s struggles, Pearce, Jones

Posted on 01 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Even as Orioles pitching took a step forward with the second-best team ERA in the American League in the month of May, staff ace Chris Tillman has been unable to shake his early-season woes.

The 27-year-old allowed six runs (five earned) in 4 2/3 innings in Sunday’s 9-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, dropping his record to 2-7 with a 5.94 ERA after he went 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA a year ago. Many have wondered if Tillman’s back spasms last month have continued to linger — he’s no stranger to needing to manage his cranky back over the last few years — but the 6-foot-5 hurler insisted again Sunday that he’s fine from a health standpoint.

If Tillman isn’t dealing with a physical issue, then what’s been different for the right-hander in 2015?

It’s important to note that early-season struggles plagued Tillman a year ago before he posted a 2.38 ERA over his final 21 regular-season starts of 2014. In his first 13 starts of the season, he pitched to a 5.20 ERA and had two different starts that lasted just one inning apiece before an impressive stretch of 20 consecutive starts in which he allowed three or fewer earned runs.

There’s plenty of time for a pitcher who’s posted 200-plus innings in consecutive seasons to turn it around, meaning the Orioles must remain patient for the time being.

Another factor that’s clearly been a concern in the first two months is Tillman’s rate of 4.8 walks per nine innings, his worst since averaging 5.2 free passes per nine in 2011. Both innings in which Tampa Bay scored multiple runs against Tillman on Sunday involved a critical two-out walk, one to .077 hitter Nick Franklin in the second inning and another to slugger Evan Longoria after the starter had struck out the first two hitters of the fifth.

Tillman walked only 2.9 batters per nine innings last year and 3.0 in 2013 when he was named to his first All-Star team.

Perhaps the most interesting change from 2014 to now is the absence of veteran catcher Nick Hundley, who departed via free agency in the offseason. Hundley caught 18 of Tillman’s career-high 34 starts last season with the pitcher posting a 2.78 ERA in those outings. In contrast, Tillman had an inflated 5.29 mark in the seven starts in which Caleb Joseph caught.

It’s neither an excuse for Tillman nor an indictment of Joseph — who’s more than proven his defensive capabilities behind the plate in the last two seasons — but could there simply be some chemistry issues between the two? That’s not to suggest a personal rift by any means, but many of us have experienced times in life when we haven’t necessarily worked best with certain individuals for whatever reason.

In fairness to Joseph, Tillman sports a 4.19 ERA with him behind the plate this season while the starter gave up 15 earned runs in three starts when now ex-Oriole Ryan Lavarnway was catching.

Asked late last season about the frequent pairing of Tillman and Hundley, manager Buck Showalter made it clear he was uneasy about pitchers having personal catchers because it can act as a crutch. Even if Tillman isn’t as comfortable with Joseph behind the plate as he was with Hundley, he’s not one to make excuses and needs to be able to adjust to someone who’s had plenty of success with the rest of the pitching staff.

The idea of certain pitchers having personal catchers is nothing new as Dennis Martinez famously preferred Dave Skaggs over Rick Dempsey years ago. In 1997, backup Lenny Webster caught 30 of Scott Erickson’s 34 starts when the sinkerballer enjoyed his best season in Baltimore.

Of course, Hundley isn’t walking through that Orioles clubhouse after signing a two-year, $6.5 million contract with Colorado in early January. But perhaps the return of Matt Wieters will help Tillman regroup as he pitched to a 3.41 ERA in 28 starts with the veteran catcher behind the plate for him in 2013.

As it stands now, Wieters is slated to catch his first game with the Orioles in Cleveland on Friday night.

That also happens to be the next date for Tillman’s regular turn in the rotation.

First-pitch Pearce

Arguably the most frustrating moment of Sunday’s loss came in the bottom of the fifth when Steve Pearce grounded out to shortstop with the bases loaded and the Orioles trailing 6-2 to the Rays.

What made it worse was that Pearce swung at the first pitch — a split-fingered fastball from Jake Odorizzi — after the previous two hitters had walked on a total of nine pitches. It continues a surprising trend for Pearce, who is hitting just .189 but has been known for being a patient hitter throughout his career.

The 32-year-old is swinging at the first pitch in 33.1 percent of his 2015 plate appearances despite a career 22.5 percent mark and only swinging at the first pitch 24.5 percent of the time in his career 2014 campaign. This has contributed to his walk rate falling from 10.4 percent last year to just 7.3 percent this season, which is below the major league average.

He does have two key home runs when swinging at the first pitch in recent weeks, but his .222 average when connecting on the first pitch — that’s not including the number of times in which he’s falling behind in the count when not putting the ball in play — makes you wonder if he needs to return to a more patient approach. This and a .195 batting average on balls put in play (his career mark in that department is .286) explain why Pearce hasn’t come close to matching his career-best .930 on-base plus slugging percentage from a year ago.

Showalter and the Orioles love Pearce’s work ethic and versatility and are trying to remain patient that his fortunes will turn around, but they need him to start producing soon as he was a key cog on which they were counting after a largely-inactive offseason.

As Jones goes, so do Orioles

It’s unfair to attribute the successes or struggles of any club to one player, but it’s difficult to completely ignore how the Baltimore offense has aligned with center fielder Adam Jones so far in 2015.

In April, Jones posted a remarkable .400 average and 1.147 OPS with five homers and 19 RBIs while the Orioles ranked first in the American League in team OPS and were tied for first in home runs.

However, the four-time All-Star selection hit just one home run while posting a .239 average and .556 OPS in the month of May. Jones wasn’t alone in his struggles, of course, as the Orioles ranked last in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in May while scoring fewer runs than every club in the league except Boston.

Jones was bound to cool off from his absurd April production, but the Orioles obviously need his bat to turn around once he returns from a mild ankle sprain. It’s never as simple as one player being responsible for prosperity or shortcomings, but the club needs its best player and leader to get going for the summer months.

Road “w-O’s” must end

There was obvious disappointment that the Orioles didn’t take advantage of a stretch of 17 of 20 games played at home — going just 10-10 over that time — and now they will play 15 of their next 23 on the road.

Baltimore tied for the second-best away mark (46-35) in the AL last year, but an 8-14 road record this season is a major reason why the Orioles have hovered below .500 for much of the first two months. Of those eight road victories, four have come at Tropicana Field, which included two in a series moved from Camden Yards to St. Petersburg in which the Orioles acted as the home team and batted last.

Even if Showalter’s club simply wants to remain within striking distance of first place and the .500 mark, the road failures need to be reversed starting this week against Houston and Cleveland.

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Orioles failed to get well despite May home cooking

Posted on 31 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Having limped home after a 1-5 trip in New York in early May, the Orioles envisioned getting well entering their most inviting portion of the 2015 regular-season schedule.

Despite owning a 13-16 record through the first five weeks of 2015, the Orioles were playing 17 of their next 20 games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an opportunity to not only climb back above the .500 mark but to seize first place in the underwhelming American League East. Instead of taking advantage of the home cooking, however, manager Buck Showalter’s club continued to take one step forward and the next one back with a 10-10 record.

It was far from a disaster as the Orioles incredibly moved 3 1/2 games closer to first place over those 20 games, but that’s more an indictment of a mediocre division than progress as we now turn the calendar to June. And it doesn’t reflect anyone feeling much better about the Orioles’ fortunes than we did three weeks ago as inconsistency has been the theme of the 2015 season through 49 games, just over 30 percent of the way through the 162-game marathon.

After averaging a robust 5.6 runs per game in April, the Baltimore lineup managed just 3.3 per contest in the second month of the season, not the only but certainly the biggest reason why the Orioles finished 13-16 in May. Showalter and players have cited opponents continuing to pitch backwards against Baltimore hitters by offering a steady diet of off-speed pitches, but the adjustments haven’t been made as the Orioles ranked last in the AL in batting average (.231), on-base percentage (.287), and slugging percentage (.358) in May. They can only hope two home runs each from Manny Machado and Delmon Young in Sunday’s 9-5 loss to Tampa Bay are a sign of better things to come in June.

It couldn’t get much worse at the plate than it was in May.

“We are just out there playing baseball,” said Machado when asked to pinpoint the offensive struggles. “We don’t care about how many runs we score. We [just] want to get the win at the end of the day. We’ll just going to go out there and score as many as we can and win a ballgame.

“We’ve got to keep swinging the bats. There are days you swing the bat well and pitchers are going to be dealing. You have to tip your cap off to them, [because] they have a job to keep as well. We’ve just got to keep swinging the bats and at the end of the day, it’s all about the [win].”

A number of hitters have underperformed, particularly at the corner outfield spots where the Orioles have already designated veteran Alejandro De Aza for assignment. You’d figure more changes could be coming if the organization was willing to part ways with De Aza despite currently being on the hook for what remains of his $5 million salary in 2015.

The Orioles hope the imminent return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters will provide a lift, but it’s impossible to know what they’ll get from the veteran who hasn’t played in a major league game in nearly 13 months. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop continues to rehab a right knee injury, but the club is being deliberate with his recovery in fear of a setback that could require season-ending surgery.

In fairness, there’s still too much talent in the Baltimore lineup to be as poor as it was in May, but that doesn’t mean they’ll score enough runs moving forward, either.

Overlooked because of the struggling offense, spottier-than-normal defense, and a losing record, the Orioles have pitched exceptionally well in recent weeks, finishing second in the AL in staff ERA (3.38) in May. It’s easily the most encouraging development of the month and the biggest reason why the club shouldn’t panic. The Orioles did this despite Opening Day starter Chris Tillman sporting a 5.94 ERA, the talented right-hander Kevin Gausman on the disabled list, and 2014 15-game winner Bud Norris an absolute mess.

This pitching prosperity followed a 4.78 ERA in April that ranked 13th in the AL.

Processing the first two months of the season, it’s no wonder Orioles fans are ready to pull out their hair.

It would be cavalier to assume the offense won’t continue to be a concern given the chasms — offensively and defensively — flanking center fielder Adam Jones that have yet to be filled, but there’s evidence to support the pitching can continue to succeed given the talent that hasn’t been much of a factor so far. There’s no sugarcoating how much Tillman has scuffled, but many were similarly concerned about the tall right-hander at this time last year before he finished as one of the best pitchers in the league over the final four months of 2014.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, but I feel like we’re heading in the right direction,” said Tillman, who allowed all six runs in Sunday’s outing with two outs. “I saw a lot of positives today. The negatives kind of overwhelm, but I think we are getting somewhere. I just have to make that last big step, and I think we’ll be all right.”

After playing .500 over the home-heavy last 20 games, the Orioles will now play 15 of their next 23 on the road after beginning the season 8-14 in away games. Showalter’s club will need to reverse that trend if they even want to continue hovering close to the .500 mark.

In the end, the Orioles may still be all right in what could be the worst division in baseball, but there are no guarantees. The AL East is begging for someone — anyone — to get hot at this point with New York and Tampa Bay occupying first place with just 26-25 records.

But you can’t help but feel the Orioles squandered a great chance to get well over these last few weeks that they might look back on with regret once September rolls around.

 

 

 

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