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Nelson Cruz and Steve Smith: An Oriole and a Raven searching for redemption

Posted on 26 April 2014 by johngallo

One man wants to forget his past; the other is motivated by it.

One man is sorry for the mistake he made; the other is adamant he did nothing wrong to be sent packing.

One makes a living hitting home runs; the other earns his paycheck scoring touchdowns.

One was a strike away from winning a World Series in 2011; the other was denied a championship on a field goal with four seconds left in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Nelson Cruz, the Orioles’ designated hitter and outfielder, and Steve Smith, who Ravens fans want to be the second coming of receiver Anquan Boldin, hope their futures in Baltimore are as bright as their pasts. Cruz made the All-Star Game twice as a Texas Ranger, while Smith was named All-Pro twice as a Carolina Panther.

Two players, two sports, two careers that took unlikely turns, yet both are connected by a single word in Baltimore: redemption.

Turbulent, yet successful pasts

Nelson Cruz is off to a strong start in Baltimore, as he led the Orioles in homers (6), runs batted-in (23), runs scored (16) and on-base percentage (.391) through 22 games. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Cruz’s time in Texas was over following the 2013 season, when he turned down the Rangers’ one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer after serving a 50-game suspension last season for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy in connection with the sport’s investigation of the Biogenesis of America, an anti-aging clinic in Florida.

Smith’s 13-season run in Carolina was marred by punching two teammates – receiver Anthony Bright during a film room meeting in 2002 and defensive back Ken Lucas at a training camp practice in 2008 – and highlighted by leading the squad to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance in 2004. It ended in March when the Panthers felt he was no longer worth a $7 million hit to their salary cap.

Cruz, 33, is from Monte Cristi, a poor city in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic, where he worked in his uncle’s shop as a mechanic from age 10 to 16. He played professionally for three seasons in the Dominican Republic after signing as an undrafted free agent by the Mets in 1998. In 2000, he arrived in the U.S. after being traded to Oakland – not bad for a teenager who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan before falling in love with baseball.

Smith, 34, is from inner-city Los Angeles, where he never took the SAT while becoming an all-California Interscholastic Federation receiver at University High School. He took the bus to his $5.75 an hour job running the cash register and sweeping floors at Taco Bell, where worked from his junior in high school until he left nearby Santa Monica College. That’s where he and teammate and future All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson had college recruiters flocking to the junior college. Smith earned a scholarship to the University of Utah, where he dominated the Mountain West conference en route to being drafted in the third round (74th overall) by the Panthers in 2001.

Both have traversed the country en route to Baltimore, which represents where they hope to find redemption, yet could be the last place they ever play.

Think about it: What team will sign Cruz if he flops as an Oriole after putting up amazing numbers that could have been the result of using performance-enhancing drugs? What team will sign Smith if he can no longer get open as he did so effortlessly when he was among the NFL’s best receivers as a Panther?

Cruz’s road to Baltimore included stops in Oakland, Milwaukee and Texas, where he highlighted his eight years in as a Ranger by belting six homers and driving in 13 runs en route to being named the most valuable player of American League Championship Series in 2011. His six homers and 13 RBIs are major league records for a championship series. The Rangers lost the World Series to St. Louis in seven games, after being a strike away from a title-clinching win in Game 6.

“Whatever happened in the past, I look to move forward and have a great year with the Baltimore Orioles,” Cruz said at his press conference, where he was joined by eight Oriole teammates after signing a one-year, $8 million deal with February.

Smith had just one stop as a professional, Carolina, where all he did was set more than 30 career, single-season and single-game team records on offense and special teams, including becoming the franchise’s career leader in total touchdowns (75), receiving touchdowns (67), receptions (836) and receiving yards (12,197).

“Steve Smith has been one of the NFL’s finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team’s history,” Carolina General Manager Dave Gettleman told the team’s website after waiving Smith. “This was not an easy decision. As a team, we made a step forward last year; however, we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL.”

Steve Smith is adjusting to life as a Raven by attending voluntary workouts, where he’s jelling with teammates, learning the playbook and developing a hatred for Baltimore’s biggest rival. (Courtesy of Baltimore Ravens)

When he was released, the five-time Pro Bowler vowed he’d make the Panthers pay, claiming they’ll be “blood and guts everywhere” when he plays them. The teams meet in Week 4 on Sept. 28 at M&T Bank Stadium.

“When you look at the Ravens, they’ve had an amount of great success with integrating older players and younger players and fusing them together and understanding the right combination,” Smith told the Ravens’ website after signing a three-year deal worth a reported $11.5 million. “That part is very intriguing to me and also brings a challenge that I’m up for….They are getting an old guy in age, but a young guy’s spirit and work ethic.”

What’s next?

Where would the Orioles be right now without Cruz? Maybe not 11-11 and in second place in the American League East following a loss to the Royals on April 25. Cruz leads the team in homers (6), runs batted-in (23), runs scored (16) and on-base percentage (.391). His .588 slugging percentage is tied with Steve Clevenger, who has played in seven games compared to Cruz’s 21.

“Nelson is a great hitter,” catcher Matt Wieters told reporters after Cruz blasted two homers during a 10-8 win over Toronto on April 23. “I always had trouble calling pitches against him so I’m glad he’s on our team. He’s a huge addition to the middle of our lineup.”

“We all know what he’s capable of,” Manager Buck Showalter said of Cruz after the game.

Meantime, Smith is adjusting to life as a Raven by attending voluntary workouts, where he’s jelling with teammates, learning the playbook and developing a hatred for Baltimore’s biggest rival.

“My dislike 4 @steelers will grow everyday I’m in the #caste,” Smith tweeted.

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Britton continues coming up huge for Orioles bullpen

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Britton continues coming up huge for Orioles bullpen

Posted on 16 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Miguel Gonzalez earned the win and Tommy Hunter secured his fourth save, but it was Zach Britton who deserved a gold star for his work in the Orioles’ 3-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.

The left-handed pitcher moved his streak of scoreless innings to 11 1/3 to begin the season after blanking the Rays over three frames to bridge the gap from Gonzalez’s five-inning start to Hunter in the ninth inning as Baltimore swept an abbreviated two-game set in unseasonably cold conditions on Wednesday afternoon. Britton wasn’t perfect in his longest appearance of the season, but his strikeout of Wil Myers on a low-and-away sinking fastball in the seventh not only thwarted a bases-loaded scoring chance but provided the latest example of just how dependable the 26-year-old has been.

Entering spring training without any minor-league options remaining and coming off two straight disappointing seasons in which he battled a tender shoulder and inconsistency, Britton has embraced his middle-relief role while being one of the Orioles’ most valuable players thus far. He’s allowed just four hits and has struck out seven while walking four in his 11 1/3 innings this season.

“The first weapon is that he can get left- and right-handed hitters out,” manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s huge for a relief pitcher. He’s in a good place right now. You can see it presentation-wise as much as physically. We had other people who could pitch, but the situation puts you in a nice little rocking chair sometimes when you have a left-handed pitcher who can defend himself against right-handers. And that comes from his starting background and also comes from a pretty good sinker.”

Britton’s effectiveness with a sinker consistently in the low to mid-90s has led some to question whether the southpaw is worthy of another chance in the starting rotation. Showalter was comfortable in allowing Britton to throw 42 pitches since he hadn’t pitched since a 30-pitch outing on Saturday, but this development was particularly interesting given that the Orioles used only two relievers on Monday, were rained out Tuesday, and will enjoy another off-day Thursday before beginning a four-game set against the Boston Red Sox over the weekend.

Beyond right-hander Evan Meek, who pitched 1 2/3 innings Monday and was dealing with flu-like symptoms over the last two days, the rest of the bullpen was fresh even though Showalter alluded to other relievers potentially feeling the effects of the bug that’s been going through the Baltimore clubhouse over the last week.

Of course, Showalter isn’t going to broadcast any potential desire to stretch out Britton to the point that he would once again become a starting option and the latest turn through the rotation — sans Ubaldo Jimenez — provided improved results, but there’s no harm in having a relief option that can bring both length and results in close games like Britton has done. It’s the same way the Orioles used Arthur Rhodes — another former left-handed starting prospect — with great results in their 1996 and 1997 playoff seasons.

Before arguing that Britton should move into the rotation, it’s important to acknowledge that what he’s done while facing hitters one time through the order is a different story from being entrusted to retire batters three or four different times as a starter. Assuming success in relief translates into being an effective starting pitcher is often fool’s gold, and Britton has found a niche working out of the bullpen.

The temptation is certainly there to envision him as a starter again, even if the memory of his 4.95 earned run average, 1.725 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), and meager 4.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in eight appearances (seven of them starts) last season make it unsettling to try to mess with something that isn’t broken. But Britton hasn’t looked this good since his rookie season in 2011 when he was 5-2 with a 2.35 ERA in his first 10 starts and appeared on his way to becoming a mainstay in the Baltimore rotation.

No changes in the starting rotation are imminent — nor should be at this early stage of the season — but Britton has provided Showalter with a major bullet out of the bullpen who could become an intriguing alternative if the likes of Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, or Bud Norris slip in the coming weeks. The return of Troy Patton from suspension in the near future will also add another left-handed arm to the bullpen.

Regardless of what happens, the Orioles are pleased to simply see Britton back on track.

“He’s throwing the ball with a lot of confidence,” Hunter said. “He’s got a game plan, and he’s sticking to it. Him and [catcher Matt Wieters] are on a good page right now. I’ll pat him on the butt and hope he keeps it up.”

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Tuesday night’s Orioles-Rays game postponed due to rain

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Tuesday night’s Orioles-Rays game postponed due to rain

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Dealing with significant rain and falling temperatures throughout the day, the second game of a three-game set between the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays was postponed on Tuesday night.

No makeup date was immediately announced by the Orioles, but fans were encouraged to keep tickets and parking passes until more information was made available at a later time. Prior to the postponement, manager Buck Showalter suggested in his pre-game press conference that the possibility existed of playing a straight doubleheader on Wednesday, but the decision was made not to play a twin bill.

The Orioles and Rays will meet for a 12:35 p.m. game on Wednesday to conclude their series. Tuesday’s scheduled starter, Miguel Gonzalez, will start on Wednesday while Chris Tillman will be pushed back to Friday when the Orioles begin a four-game set in Boston. Gonzalez will be opposed by Tampa Bay right-hander Jake Odorizzi.

The club also announced that the commemorative Jackie Robinson No. 42 jerseys players were scheduled to wear during Tuesday’s game would be used on a later date.

Jones, Meek sent home with illness

Before Tuesday’s game was postponed, the Orioles were preparing to play the Rays without the services of center fielder Adam Jones, who was sent home earlier in the day with an illness.

A nasty bug has made its way through the Baltimore clubhouse and has stricken others such as pitcher Brian Matusz and hitting coach Jim Presley. Relief pitcher Evan Meek was also sent home on Tuesday even though he wasn’t available to pitch anyway after he threw 1 2/3 innings in Monday night’s win.

The Rays had also changed their starting pitcher Tuesday afternoon as reliever Brandon Gomes would have filled in for Odorizzi, who was also dealing with an illness.

Machado update

Third baseman Manny Machado sprinted three times from 90 feet and three times from 180 feet and also took five at-bats in a simulated game played at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Sarasota on Tuesday.

According to Showalter, the 21-year-old was scheduled to run the bases on Wednesday in what represents the last major test before he prepares to start a minor league rehab assignment.

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Machado approaching final hurdles before rehab assignment

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Machado approaching final hurdles before rehab assignment

Posted on 14 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Manager Buck Showalter has a date in mind for when we might see third baseman Manny Machado back in the Orioles lineup but isn’t ready to share it just yet.

The 21-year-old took another significant step toward his return on Monday as he began sprinting, running at full speed six times from 90 feet at the club’s spring training facility in Sarasota. Machado also had four at-bats in a simulated game in addition to the sprinting.

Machado will sprint from 180 feet Tuesday before attempting to clear the last major hurdle of running the bases this week.

Should the All-Star third baseman respond favorably to that task, he is expected to play in at least two or three extended spring training before beginning a rehab assignment that can last up to 20 days for a position player on the major league disabled list. Such a schedule would make a return to the Orioles possible by late April or — more realistically — early May even though Showalter hinted that Machado may not need the full 20 days of minor-league games to get ready after taking part in baseball-related activity to varying degrees since late January.

“Manny’s feeling good. Hopefully, he’ll feel as well tomorrow as he did today,” said Showalter, who exchanged text messages with Machado and spoke with minor league medical coordinator Dave Walker on Monday. “He’s been down this road enough that he knows. He wants to get it right the first time. He’s got a lot of good people around him who won’t let him get ahead of himself. The things they’re putting him through, it’s going to be pretty obvious if he can do them, he’s ready to go.”

The Orioles have used the combination of Ryan Flaherty and rookie Jonathan Schoop at third base in Machado’s absence this season. All three errors committed by Baltimore have come at third base where Schoop committed two miscues in Friday’s 2-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

While the organization continues to be conservative with Machado, Monday’s developments certainly presented some light at the end of the tunnel that’s remained somewhat ambiguous since the infielder complained of soreness from scar tissue that forced him to stop running in mid-March. Of course, the Orioles will at least hold their breath as Machado tries to cut around the bases this week, which is what he struggled with during spring training.

“As Dave said today, ‘He’s got a good face going right now,’” Showalter said. “We all know what he’s talking about.”

In other injury-related news from Sarasota, pitching prospect Dylan Bundy threw 35 pitches from the mound and mixed in some changeups to go with his fastball for the first time on Monday. Bundy is expected to begin throwing curveballs later this week.

Outfielder Nolan Reimold continues to receive treatment on his surgically-repaired neck but is still not taking part in any baseball-related activity after being moved to the 60-day disabled list earlier this month.

Here are Monday’s lineups:

TAMPA BAY
2B Ben Zobrist
CF Desmond Jennings
DH Logan Forsythe
3B Evan Longoria
RF Wil Myers
1B James Loney
LF Brandon Guyer
SS Yunel Escobar
C Ryan Hanigan

SP Chris Archer (1-0, 1.38 ERA)

BALTIMORE
RF Nick Markakis
DH Nelson Cruz
1B Chris Davis
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
LF David Lough
SS J.J. Hardy
2B Steve Lombardozzi
3B Ryan Flaherty

SP Wei-Yin Chen (1-1, 6.75 ERA)

Follow WNST on Twitter for updates and analysis throughout the evening at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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Orioles still waiting for early return on $50 million investment

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Orioles still waiting for early return on $50 million investment

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Even after investing a franchise-record amount of money for a free-agent starting pitcher, the Orioles knew they weren’t getting a sure-fire ace when they signed right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract in February.

His career has been consistently inconsistent, looking every bit the part of an ace at times and appearing more like a fringe fifth starter in other stretches of his major league career.

But the Orioles need much better than what they’ve gotten through three starts as Jimenez surrendered five earned runs and 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings in Sunday’s 11-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. He gave up two more home runs and saw his record fall to 0-3 to accompany a 7.31 earned run average and 2.06 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched).

Whether giving up homers (four in 16 innings) or walks (10) in his first three outings — all against American League East opponents — the root of Jimenez’s struggles are simple to identify but more complicated to fix with unorthodox mechanics that require plenty of maintenance over the course of a six-month season.

“His command,” manager Buck Showalter said. “If you look at his history, he gets better as the year goes on. He’s actually pitched competitively for us. He’s real close to keeping us there.”

The Baltimore skipper was being generous in referencing Sunday’s deficit only being 3-1 entering the top of the sixth inning, but Jimenez started the game with a career 5.10 ERA in April, easily his worst month throughout his eight-year career. Last season, it was even worse as Jimenez posted a 7.13 ERA over his first five starts before rebounding to post a 3.30 ERA and help Cleveland qualify for the postseason.

But history doesn’t make Jimenez — or the Orioles — feel any better as he tries to make a strong impression to justify the long-term investment paid to him. Of course, three starts — good or bad — will not determine whether executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette made a wise addition this winter, but the Orioles added Jimenez with thoughts of the high ceiling he possesses when he’s right on the mound.

So far, he hasn’t been able to climb out of the basement as he gave up a Eutaw Street homer to Colby Rasmus in the first inning and a home run to Brett Lawrie with one out in the sixth before being lifted a batter later. Jimenez only gave up 16 home runs all last season and is a quarter of the way to that mark before Easter Sunday.

“Tough one, really bad one,” Jimenez said. “I couldn’t be there for the team once again. I’m missing right down the middle of the plate. I’ve been making too many mistakes right down the middle.”

It’s too soon to panic as Jimenez’s track record suggests he’ll be much better than what he’s shown, but the Orioles are counting on him to be a top-half-of-the-rotation starter to go along with Chris Tillman. Improved starting pitching is a must for Baltimore to get back to the playoffs for the second time in three years.

In fairness, Jimenez is just one of several problems to plague the Orioles in their 5-7 start as an underperforming offense was limited to just five runs over the weekend and the defense has been shaky with Gold Glove winners Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy missing time. The Orioles have no choice but to be patient with their free-agent prize, hoping the good Jimenez will surface sooner rather than later and provide the quality pitching he’s capable of for significant stretches.

It hasn’t been there in the first half of April, but Showalter expressed confidence after Sunday’s outing that Jimenez is “better than that.”

“He’s got the right mentality. He’s been through tough times before, but he wants it to end now,” Showalter said. “I guarantee you. I understand what the numbers say, but you guys have seen it. It’s very close to there being some quality outings, but at this level and against this competition, close sometimes gets you in trouble.”

And close isn’t good enough in the AL East.

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Hardy receives cortisone injection, undergoes MRI on back

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Hardy receives cortisone injection, undergoes MRI on back

Posted on 11 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Shortstop J.J. Hardy was not in the lineup as the Orioles began a three-game set with the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, but measures taken on Thursday appear to have the infielder ready to return over the weekend.

Missing six of the last seven games with lower back spasms, Hardy underwent magnetic resonance imaging and received a cortisone injection for his back and was instructed to rest after previously planning to work out at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on the off-day. The 31-year-old returned to the ballpark Friday to take infield and batting practice and expects to be back in the lineup on Saturday, a sentiment shared by manager Buck Showalter.

“I’ve made a bunch of big strides the last couple days,” Hardy said. “I came in today early and took some groundballs and took some swings. It all felt good. I’ll go through a normal day of practice and anticipate being in there tomorrow.”

Showalter added that Hardy was “more available” to come off the bench in the series opener than he was in the final game of the Yankees series. Ryan Flaherty has been filling in at shortstop with rookie Jonathan Schoop handling third base and Steve Lombardozzi playing second.

Hardy said his history of back issues earlier in his career has caused him and the training staff to take a cautious approach in not wanting to come back too soon and risk the back spasms being a recurring issue throughout the season.

“If I don’t play today, that will be six games and I can still play 156,” Hardy said. “That is kind of my goal. Trying to rush it and miss another six games because I tried to come back too early is definitely something I don’t want to do.”

In four games this season, the two-time Gold Glove Award winner is 5-for-15.

Outfielder David Lough was once again out of the lineup on Friday, but he is available off the bench, according to Showalter. He underwent concussion tests in Baltimore on Wednesday before returning to New York for the series finale and being used as a defensive replacement.

It remains uncertain what exactly is causing Lough’s symptoms at different points since mid-March, but Showalter said the organization is confident it is not because of a concussion.

Third baseman Manny Machado is scheduled to have two at-bats in a simulated game in Sarasota on Saturday, an encouraging step in his recovery from offseason knee surgery.

The 21-year-old will not run the bases but will face veteran left-hander Johan Santana at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. Machado has yet to begin sprinting, but his participation in a sim game can’t be viewed as anything but good news.

Machado will be eligible to go on a minor league rehab assignment lasting up to 20 games once he is fully cleared to play, but it remains uncertain when that will happen.

Right-handed pitching prospect Dylan Bundy threw 35 fastballs off a regular mound in Sarasota on Friday as he continues his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery last year.

Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb was scheduled to throw out the first pitch for Friday night’s game.

Here are Friday night’s lineups:

TORONTO
LF Melky Cabrera
2B Maicer Izturis
RF Jose Bautista
DH Edwin Encarnacion
1B Adam Lind
C Dioner Navarro
CF Colby Rasmus
3B Brett Lawrie
SS Ryan Goins

SP Dustin McGowan (0-1, 13.50 ERA)

BALTIMORE
RF Nick Markakis
DH Delmon Young
1B Chris Davis
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
LF Nelson Cruz
2B Steve Lombardozzi
SS Ryan Flaherty
3B Jonathan Schoop

SP Chris Tillman (1-0, 1.35 ERA)

Follow WNST on Twitter for updates and analysis throughout the evening at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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Weeks on way to New York as Orioles expected to make DL move

Posted on 09 April 2014 by Luke Jones

The Orioles are expected to make a roster move Wednesday as manager Buck Showalter indicated after Tuesday’s 14-5 win over the New York Yankees that a player will be placed on the 15-day disabled list.

Reports indicate that outfielder David Lough is going to the DL after he didn’t appear in Tuesday’s win. The 28-year-old dealt with a neck injury in mid-March, but it remains unclear whether the same ailment is affecting him again.

Infielder Jemile Weeks is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Norfolk as he traveled to the Bronx ahead of Wednesday’s series finale. Weeks has the ability to play the outfield in a pinch and will provide Showalter an extra infielder as shortstop J.J. Hardy has dealt with lower back spasms, sidelining him for four of the last five games.

Showalter said Tuesday that Hardy was close to returning to the starting lineup, but the Orioles have been forced to use the trio of Ryan Flaherty, Steve Lombardozzi, and rookie Jonathan Schoop in the infield without a bench option in Hardy’s absence.

An official announcement is expected on Wednesday afternoon.

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Hardy moving closer to return to Orioles lineup

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Hardy moving closer to return to Orioles lineup

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Luke Jones

The Orioles lineup finally broke out in a 14-5 win on Tuesday and received good news about the status of shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Though the 31-year-old was sidelined for the fourth time in five games while dealing with lower back spasms, manager Buck Showalter said prior to Tuesday’s game that Hardy would have been available to come off the bench if necessary. Of course, the convincing win over the New York Yankees made Hardy’s use unnecessary as the Orioles provided more than enough offense to support a shaky outing from starter Wei-Yin Chen.

“A lot better, much more available,” Showalter told reporters of Hardy’s status prior to Tuesday’s win. “I’m optimistic he’d be an option [Tuesday]. We’ll see how the rest of the day goes. I wouldn’t have said that [Monday]. He’s improved, very close to being ready to start. … You can tell just by his face. So that’s good.”

With All-Star third baseman Manny Machado still on the 15-day disabled list while recovering from offseason knee surgery, the Orioles have been without a pair of Gold Glove defenders on the left side of the infield.

Left with a short bench, Showalter has been forced to use Ryan Flaherty, Steve Lombardozzi, and Jonathan Schoop at three infield positions, but the trio combined to go 8-for-15 with four runs scored on Tuesday to ease concerns about the bottom of the order.

With the Orioles scheduled to play a night game Thursday to conclude their three-game set with New York before an off-day, Showalter could elect to keep Hardy on the bench for one more game to be on the safe side before the Orioles return to Camden Yards to begin a six-game homestand.

Chen struggles again

Lost in the offensive explosion occurring in Tuesday’s win was another lackluster effort by Chen, who earned the win despite allowing four earned runs and nine hits in five innings of work.

In two starts, Chen has allowed eight earned runs and 21 hits over 10 2/3 innings. The Taiwanese lefty has yet to issue a walk this season, but he’s often been up in the strike zone while catching too much of the plate.

The Yankees and Red Sox did have their share of hits that weren’t exactly clobbered against Chen — suggesting he’s been unlucky on top of his overall ineffectiveness — but his start to the 2014 season continues a disturbing trend from the end of last season. Over his last nine starts dating back to Aug. 27, 2013, Chen has allowed 72 hits over 46 innings of work while posting a 6.65 earned run average and a 1.85 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched).

Of course, Chen’s track record over the first two-plus seasons of his career suggests he’s much better than what he’s shown recently, but his lack of command within the strike zone has been alarming.

Bats finally wake up

After being held to just 22 runs in their first seven contests, the Orioles plated 14 runs and bashed 20 hits to quell premature panic about the offense. The last time the Orioles collected 20 hits was May 10, 2011.

All nine starters collected at least one hit and all but one (Matt Wieters) had multi-hit games. Wieters, Adam Jones, and Delmon Young each hit home runs to match the Orioles’ total of three long balls in the first seven contests of the year.

Wieters and Young each collected three runs batted in against Yankees pitching.

 

 

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Lough, Lombardozzi receive first starts with Orioles

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Lough, Lombardozzi receive first starts with Orioles

Posted on 02 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Trying to build upon the good vibes of their season-opening win over the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles returned to Camden Yards on Wednesday with a pair of changes to their lineup in the second meeting of a three-game set.

David Lough was penciled in to start in left field while the newly-acquired Steve Lombardozzi received his first start at second base as manager Buck Showalter tries to get all of his position players a start in the early days of the 2014 season. With right-hander John Lackey going to the hill for Boston, Lough was already expected to start in left — with Nelson Cruz moving to the designated hitter spot — and understands his role hitting in the No. 2 spot in the order.

“Just get on base. I get on base, I score,” said the 28-year-old Lough, who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Danny Valencia in the offseason. “Look who is hitting behind me. A lot of great hitters.”

Meanwhile, Lombardozzi was excited to receive his first start with his hometown team after growing up in Columbia and graduating from Atholton High. Rookie Jonathan Schoop is expected to receive most of the playing time at second base — the position at which Showalter would like to play him exclusively — but Lombardozzi’s versatility makes him a valuable piece the Orioles acquired from the Detroit Tigers near the end of spring training.

Entering his fourth major league season, Lombardozzi played second base, shortstop, third base, and left field in his three years with the Washington Nationals even though he acknowledged prior to Wednesday’s game that his best position is second base.

Lombardozzi wasn’t sure of an exact count but expected plenty of family members and friends to be in attendance for his Orioles debut.

“I’ve definitely got some nerves, but I’m really excited to get out there and help this team win,” Lombardozzi said. “It was cool being out there for Opening Day. I came to a couple of them growing up. I’m very fortunate to be back close to home. It’s a good feeling to be with this organization.”

Markakis continues to lead off

Though he is still receiving treatment for a stiff neck, Nick Markakis was once again in the lineup and leading off as Showalter indicated the right fielder would remain in the top spot for the foreseeable future.

With Nate McLouth now in Washington and David Lough still trying to establish himself as an everyday player, Markakis represents the best option that the Orioles have despite lacking the prototypical speed for a leadoff hitter. The 30-year-old received his first extensive time in the role in 2012 when he batted .335 with five home runs, 28 runs batted in, and an .879 on-base plus slugging percentage in 54 games

“He doesn’t mind doing it. He embraces it,” Showalter said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a club that never dwelled on where they hit in the order like this one. I hope it’s because they kind of trust what we’re trying to get done. I asked Nick in the spring, ‘In a perfect world, where would you want to hit in the order?’ You can imagine what Nick’s response was. ‘I don’t care. Whatever you need me to do.’”

Showalter acknowledged that Lough’s speed might make him an attractive option in the leadoff spot at some point this season.

Santana, Bundy progressing

Showalter continues to be encouraged by the progress of veteran left-hander Johan Santana, who threw 30 pitches off a full mound in Sarasota on Tuesday. The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner threw his full assortment of pitches as he continues to try to build up his velocity after last year’s surgery on his left shoulder capsule.

The bigger question than how hard he can throw will be whether Santanta can find that ideal 10-miles-per-hour difference between his fastball and changeup, according to Showalter.

“He had one of the best changeups in baseball,” Showalter said, “but if his velocity is only 85, can he drop his changeup to 75? I don’t know. And is 85 enough? I think the hitters are going to answer a lot of those questions. In my mind, [I know] what I’d love to see on the gun in a perfect world. But all indications are so far, so good. He hasn’t had any setbacks.”

Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy threw 25 fastballs from a mound on Wednesday as he continues to work his way back to full strength from Tommy John surgery. Showalter continues to be pleased with his progress even though he’s not quite as far along as Santana.

Outfielder Francisco Peguero had the cast removed from his right wrist on Wednesday and remains on the 15-day disabled list.

Here are Wednesday night’s lineups:

BOSTON
LF Daniel Nava
2B Dustin Pedroia
DH David Ortiz
1B Mike Napoli
LF Jonny Gomes
CF Grady Sizemore
SS Xander Bogaerts
C A.J. Pierzynski
3B Will Middlebrooks

SP John Lackey (0-0, 0.00)

BALTIMORE
RF Nick Markakis
LF David Lough
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
DH Nelson Cruz
C Matt Wieters
SS J.J. Hardy
3B Ryan Flaherty
2B Steve Lombardozzi

SP Ubaldo Jimenez (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

Follow WNST on Twitter throughout the evening for live updates and analysis from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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Orioles clear first hurdle of ninth-inning experiment to start 2014

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Orioles clear first hurdle of ninth-inning experiment to start 2014

Posted on 31 March 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The first trial of the great experiment that is the ninth inning was a success in the Orioles’ season-opening win over the Boston Red Sox on Monday.

Manager Buck Showalter sent new closer Tommy Hunter to the mound with a 2-1 lead and the 27-year-old eventually shut the door on the defending World Series champions despite some nervous moments along the way. There will be other uneasy times as a club with postseason aspirations tries to fill the void of Jim Johnson’s 101 saves over the last two years with a bullpen that had just 13 combined major league saves entering Monday.

The Orioles can add one more to that total as Hunter worked around a leadoff hit by pitch and a one-out single before retiring designated hitter David Ortiz — gulp — on a fly out to left and right fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. on a called strike three to send the Orioles to their 11th victory in their last 14 season openers. It took Hunter 22 pitches to get three outs, but there was no better way to acclimate him than against an offense notorious for wearing out pitchers with foul balls and deep counts.

So far, so good.

“That was fun. Hopefully, it’s like that a lot more,” Hunter said. “I had to earn it. That is a way of life in baseball. A one-run game to start the season off against the defending world champs. Here we are.”

Hunter passed his first test and showed the bulldog toughness you often find in successful closers, but there’s no telling whether his propensity for giving up the long ball or struggles against left-handed batters will ultimately lead to his undoing as the Orioles’ ninth-inning man. As Showalter said prior to Monday’s game, the hard-throwing right-hander is merely the first to receive the opportunity to do the job with the likes of Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb waiting in the wings if he falters.

In fact, the first glimpse at the rest of the bullpen was interesting as Showalter turned to left-hander Zach Britton for two strong innings in which he enticed six ground-ball outs. The Baltimore manager then surprisingly handed the ball to newcomer Evan Meek — a non-roster invitee to spring training — to begin the eighth before the former Pittsburgh Pirates reliever walked two batters and forced Showalter to bring in lefty specialist Brian Matusz for the final out of the inning.

Meek had pitched nine scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play to make the club out of spring training, but Showalter’s confidence in a pitcher who spent the entire 2013 campaign in the minor leagues was surprising with O’Day and Webb available.

“It’s not easy,” said Showalter of his bullpen’s four shutout innings. “It’s not always going to look aesthetically pleasing, but it’s a hard thing to do. And you’re playing the world champions and there’s a fine margin for error, whether it be Zach Britton or Evan Meek or Brian Matusz.”

Perhaps his eighth-inning use of Meek was a sign that the Orioles manager himself is still trying to gain a feel for a bullpen that lacks the experienced late-inning man on which you can depend. Baltimore tried to address that need in its pursuit of veteran closer Grant Balfour this winter, but when that deal was squashed, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette decided against throwing money at a veteran reliever with gaudy save totals.

That decision likely made it possible for the Orioles to sign left fielder and designated hitter Nelson Cruz — the offensive hero of Monday’s win with his seventh-inning home run — and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, but it remains to be seen whether the ninth inning becomes the Orioles’ Achilles heel in their quest to advance to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Deciding to jettison Johnson and his nine blown saves from a year ago was one thing, but leaving such inexperience in the closer role appears to be a treacherous path.

Of course, the club the Orioles defeated showed it can be done as Koji Uehara eventually settled into the ninth inning last year to save 21 games on Boston’s path to the title, but even the 38-year-old Japanese pitcher entered 2013 with 14 career saves, the same number the Orioles’ entire bullpen had at the close of business on Monday.

The first venture with Hunter was a success, but there must be more before anyone will rest easy in the ninth.

“I’d like to say they’ll get easier, but they won’t,” Showalter said. “One-run leads in the American League East — home or away — are hard to finish. You know you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We gave it ours, and we were fortunate to come out with one more run than they did and 27 outs.”

 

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