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BALTIMORE — With the Orioles returning home following a deflating three-game sweep at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the question on everyone’s mind was who would take the ball in the ninth inning for manager Buck Showalter.
Having blown his last three save opportunities to run his total to a league-worst nine for the season, closer Jim Johnson told reporters in the Orioles clubhouse that he remains confident and that Showalter continues to express confidence in him. And while it’s true that the Baltimore manager maintained Friday that Johnson was still the best option on the team, he also provided himself wiggle room to make a change if he feels it to be necessary.
“I think we have a lot of options and he’s one of them,” Showalter said. “We’re lucky to have all those options. Different guys have failure. I know the finality of it and I know the questions should and need to be asked and it’s frustrating for Jimmy and me. I’m frustrated for him. There’s some things we haven’t done in other innings, too, but I understand the finality of that inning.”
Johnson still leads the majors with 39 saves, but the embattled right-hander is just 9-for-16 in one-run saves as many have pointed to the Orioles’ horrendous 56-9 mark when leading after eight innings and an underwhelming 14-21 record in one-run games after going a remarkable 29-9 in contests decided by one run last year. Those ugly realities have led most to the conclusion that the Orioles need to make a change at the closer spot — at least temporarily.
Showalter has repeatedly expressed his confidence in Johnson this year — including when the 30-year-old reliever blew four of five save chances in late May — but that loyalty is now appearing to contradict the ultimate goal of winning enough games to qualify for postseason play. If Showalter is planning a change, it comes as no surprise that he isn’t broadcasting that for both competitive reasons and respect for the 2012 All-Star closer.
Some have suggested even just giving Johnson a mental and physical respite for a number of days to see if that straightens him out for the stretch run, but the club has already tried to do that at a couple points this season, according to Showalter. If the next save opportunity comes Friday or later this weekend or even next week, the Orioles aren’t tipping their hand whether it will once again be Johnson or somebody else trotting to the hill in the ninth inning.
“If we decide to do that, there’s not going to be some big announcement,” Showalter said. “It will be something I’ve talked to people about and you’ll probably know about it when the gate opens. There are a lot of things that have to be done for us to get 27 outs before they score more runs than we do.”
Even Showalter’s biggest supporters have questioned the sanity of continuing to use Johnson in the ninth inning, a reality not lost on the manager as the Orioles start an important nine-game homestand to take them to the final days of August.
He’s very aware that the Orioles have lost some games that they shouldn’t have won, but Showalter’s intense loyalty to his players that is typically viewed as his greatest strength looks much more like a weakness at this point.
“I’m a fan, too. I get frustrated. We’re all fans of the Orioles,” Showalter said. “I’m a fan of the Orioles and I want us to win. If there are adjustments that need to be made along the way, I understand the sense of urgency with 42 games [left]. But I also know we’re still in a position to do what we set out to do this season and we won’t give in.”
No timetable for Adair’s return to club
As the organization did in announced Rick Adair’s personal leave of absence on Friday morning, Showalter remained respectful of his privacy and would not divulge any details about the circumstances with which the pitching coach is dealing.
Bullpen coach Bill Castro will assume the duties of pitching coach while former Orioles left-hander and minor-league instructor Scott McGregor will serve as the interim bullpen coach. Castro has major league experience as a pitching coach after previously serving in that capacity with the Milwaukee Brewers as recently as 2009.
Many reacted to the news by immediately speculating that this was a polite way to dismiss Adair, but the Orioles have been emphatic that the reason for the leave of absence isn’t related to his job performance. We could eventually learn there is more to this story, but it’s also important to remember coaches and players are also human beings with everyday trials just like anyone else.
“We all have some things in our lives we need to take care of that are more important than this, believe it or not,” Showalter said. “We’re just fortunate to be in an organization that is willing to do those things, and we’re fortunate to have people like Billy and Scott that can make it seamless. It has nothing to do with the job Rick is doing. Rick’s been doing a good job. Just some challenges we all have that we need to take some time and take care of.”
Showalter held a team meeting Friday afternoon to inform them of the shuffling along the coaching ranks and to address any rumors that might hear about Adair’s absence. Castro met with Orioles pitchers individually prior to the series opener against Colorado.
Gausman dealing with arm soreness
After top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery earlier in the season, the last thing Orioles fans wanted to hear Friday was that 2012 first-round pick Kevin Gausman was skipped in the Triple-A Norfolk rotation with some soreness in his right arm.
Showalter made it clear that this isn’t considered to be anything serious, but the club also presented a similar prognosis when Bundy first complained of forearm discomfort. Of course, pitchers frequently deal with sore or tired arms and it doesn’t mean Gausman is facing any type of long-term issue at this time, but it will be something the Orioles will monitor for the time being.
“He feels good. He’s not happy about not pitching, but just had a little soreness,” Showalter said. “[It will] probably be the last time he ever tells us about it. That’s usually how it goes. They don’t seem alarmed about it. There was some give and take about whether they were even going to do it.”
The good news is that Showalter acknowledged the extra rest would benefit Gausman in terms of his workload and referred to the likely scenario of Gausman helping out the major league club in September and beyond.
Gausman last pitched on Aug. 8 when he allowed two earned runs in five innings of work for the Tides.
Changing it up
For the second time over the last week, Showalter flipped first baseman Chris Davis and right fielder Nick Markakis in the batting order as Davis was hitting third and Markakis fifth in Friday’s lineup against the Colorado Rockies.
Showalter admitted there were a variety of reasons for making the change, ranging from a desire to get Davis more at-bats to simply wanting to shake things up in hopes of jump-starting the offense. With both Davis and Markakis swinging from the left side, the change keeps the lineup in order in terms of making it difficult for a bullpen to match up in the late innings as Showalter frequently alternates right-handers and left-handers.
“Nick doesn’t care if he hits ninth, first, second, third, twelfth. He would probably have a problem with hitting twelfth,” Showalter quipped. “It’s just something we feel like is a good approach for today. We’ll see where it takes us.”
While Davis is in the midst of an MVP-caliber year, Markakis’ .282 batting average, .335 on-base percentage, and .372 slugging percentage are all career lows, making an easy argument against the right fielder remaining in the No. 3 slot in the lineup. It will also be interesting to see what it means for Davis with Adam Jones hitting directly behind him in the order compared to either Matt Wieters or J.J. Hardy as we’ve seen for most of the season.