Tag Archive | "Chris Tillman"

Orioles must slow speedy Royals in quest for AL pennant

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Orioles must slow speedy Royals in quest for AL pennant

Posted on 09 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles manager Buck Showalter almost sounded coy when asked about the speed of the Kansas City Royals as his club made final preparations for the American League Championship Series scheduled to get underway Friday night.

With five Royals players recording double-digit steals in the regular season and another rookie — Terrance Gore — stealing three bases in his first four postseason games, the Orioles face a tall order in slowing Kansas City’s speed demons, a factor many view as a potential tipping point between two clubs that are very similar beyond their contrasting offensive styles.

“They’re not automatically going to all of a sudden run slower tomorrow,” Showalter said. “If anything, they’re going to run faster. You don’t control that. It’s impossible. It’s one of those givens. Try to keep them off base as much as you can.”

Sure, there’s no better remedy for neutralizing speed than preventing runners from reaching first, but the Orioles don’t sound nearly as concerned about the Kansas City running game Thursday as the many outsiders trying to break down this matchup. As some ponder whether the season-ending elbow injury to Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters will finally catch up to Baltimore in this best-of-seven series, the Orioles spent Thursday pointing out that their regular style of play always involves containing an opponent’s running game.

Most of the attention falls on the shoulders of the catching tandem of Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph, but the ability to stop potential thievery runs deeper.

Even with the two-time Gold Glove selection Wieters limited to just 22 games behind the plate this season before an elbow injury eventually led to Tommy John surgery, opponents still attempted the fourth-fewest number of steals in the AL against Baltimore this season. The Orioles ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners trying to steal with Joseph — a 28-year-old rookie not known for his defensive work in the minors — and the veteran Hundley handling the catching duties for much of the season.

And that’s when you begin to see where the real responsibility lies in controlling an opponent’s running game.

“The easiest way [to neutralize it] is quick times to the plate, no question,” said former Orioles outfielder and current vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson, who swiped 315 bases in his 15-year career. “As a base stealer, you steal bases off the pitcher. It doesn’t matter to me if [13-time Gold Glove winner] Ivan Rodriguez was behind the plate; if the pitcher was slow, I’m going.”

Look no further than Game 1 starter Chris Tillman to see how much emphasis the Orioles have placed on pitchers being fast to the plate and holding runners since Showalter’s arrival during the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was admittedly poor when it came to holding runners during his early years with the Orioles before Showalter and Wieters preached the need for him to shorten his delivery to prevent runners from going wild on the bases.

It was a mindset that several pitchers have needed to learn the hard way during Showalter’s tenure, with some even earning demotions to the minors as a result.

Tillman has not only posted back-to-back 200-inning seasons to emerge as the ace of the Baltimore rotation, but the 26-year-old has allowed only two stolen bases since the start of the 2013 season.

“When Buck got here, it was a big pet peeve of his,” Tillman said. “You’ve got to be quick and give your catchers a chance. Anytime the opposing guys get an extra 90 feet for free, you’re not doing yourself a favor. It’s an organizational thing now. Early on, I don’t think it was. I was young and immature and didn’t know any better, to tell you the truth.”

Of course, the Royals aren’t just any other club in stealing 153 bases to lead the majors in the regular season, and they appear to have only gotten better in that department with the addition of the speedy Gore to go along with Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, and Nori Aoki. They have gone a remarkable 12-for-13 attempting to steal in four postseason games.

But the Orioles feel confident in their scouting and preparation and their biggest weapon in helping to neutralize an opponent’s running game, which is none other than bench coach John Russell.

“A lot of it comes from the bench,” Hundley said. “John Russell does an unbelievable job knowing tendencies, knowing when to throw over, knowing when to pitch out. He doesn’t get enough credit. He controls all the pick-offs and all that stuff. How good he is at it helps us out — me and Caleb — a bunch. And it takes a lot of pressure off the pitchers, because they know he’ll put them in a very successful position.”

It remains to be seen how Showalter will distribute the catching duties over the course of the series, but Hundley is expected to start Game 1. The 31-year-old veteran acquired from the San Diego Padres in late May handled a larger portion of the playing time down the stretch despite throwing out only 19 percent of runners trying to steal this season. In contrast, Joseph gunned down 40 percent during his rookie season even though his defense was often viewed as a hindrance in his minor-league development for years.

Regardless of who might be behind the plate, the mindset isn’t expected to change for Orioles pitchers as they will do what they always do — even against the speedy Royals.

“All the pitchers feel comfortable with it, because it’s something we’ve always put the onus on,” Wieters said. “It shouldn’t be anything different in their minds as far as what they need to do. They stick with their same times to the plate, and it gives us a chance. As a catcher, that’s all you want. There are certain guys that you won’t throw out, but we feel like every pitcher out there is giving the catcher a chance to make a good throw and hopefully get an out.”

Ultimately, the Orioles know they can’t reinvent the wheel when trying to slow a club that ran wild against the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card Game and continued their aggressiveness against the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series. They’ll simply stick with their regular habits of being quick to the plate and holding runners effectively while likely being savvy in attempting to interrupt runners’ timing with pick-off attempts or by simply holding the ball a little longer in some instances.

Showalter isn’t going to change who the Orioles are at this late stage, nor should he try to with a club that won 96 games this season with plenty of its own strengths. And he saw firsthand in September how a pitcher can fall apart on the hill if he’s dwelling on a fast runner and not focusing on the hitter at the plate.

“We’ve talked about it, but we’re not going to rob from Peter to pay Paul,” Showalter said. “I think one time we had Quintin [Berry] pinch‑running for us late in the year, and without naming the [opposing] pitcher, you could tell his whole delivery changed trying to keep him from stealing second. He gave up three hits, back to back to back. We didn’t steal a base, but we didn’t have to.

“But we’ve got some things that they might have to adjust to, too.”

The biggest key will be maintaining their mental toughness by not allowing Kansas City’s preference for a track meet to take away from what they do best.

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Ten talking points for Orioles-Royals ALCS matchup

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Ten talking points for Orioles-Royals ALCS matchup

Posted on 08 October 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Orioles prepare to play the Kansas City Royals for the first time ever in the postseason and for the right to advance to their first World Series in 31 years, here are 10 talking points to break down their meeting in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday night:

1. It isn’t Eddie Murray vs. George Brett, but the tradition of yesteryear in each city makes this series a blast.

Yes, it’s been three decades since either the Orioles or Royals found themselves playing in the Fall Classic, but that’s what makes this series so much fun as younger baseball fan will be exposed to the history of each franchise. From 1973 through 1985, Baltimore and Kansas City combined to win two World Series titles, four AL pennants, and 10 division championships and were regarded as two of the model franchises in the major leagues. This history may not mean much to the current players or have any impact on the play on the field, but the fans’ thirst for a World Series will be palpable at both Kauffman Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

2. You won’t find more contrasting offensive styles with the stakes so high.

It’s thunder against lightning as the Orioles led the major leagues with 211 home runs while the Royals stole more bases (153) than any of the 29 other clubs. Meanwhile, Baltimore stole the fewest number of bases (44) in the big leagues and Kansas City ranked 30th with only 95 home runs. Five Royals players hit double digits in swiped bags while the Orioles’ leader in the category was David Lough with eight. Seven Orioles hit 12 or more homers — Manny Machado and Chris Davis will not play in this series — compared to just three for Kansas City. Despite their contrasting styles, the Orioles finished the regular season ranked sixth in the AL in runs with 705 compared to Kansas City coming in ninth with 651. Baltimore has the better offense over the long haul, but the Royals will try to turn a short series into a 100-meter dash while the Orioles emphasize their advantage in the shot put.

3. The Royals stack up more favorably to the Baltimore defense that Detroit did.

The Orioles still have the edge in the field, but Kansas City has a number of Gold Glove-caliber players including catcher Salvador Perez and outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. The Orioles rank third in the AL in BaseballReference.com’s defensive efficiency statistic while the Royals came in sixth in the regular season. Baltimore made the third-fewest number of errors (87) in the AL this season while Kansas City ranked 10th with 104. Both clubs made sparkling plays in the Division Series and rely on their defense to make a difference in close games.

4. Scoring early will be a high priority for both clubs.

Unlike the luxury the Orioles had against Detroit in the Division Series, they cannot expect to wait out starting pitchers for scoring opportunities in the late inning against the Royals, whose trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera might be even better than their own triumvirate of Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Darren O’Day. The Orioles’ 3.10 bullpen ERA ranked third in the AL while Kansas City’s 3.30 mark ranked fifth, which will cause both lineups to feel the urgency to break through prior to the sixth inning. Even with so many other great names in each bullpen, the wild cards could be right-hander Kevin Gausman and Kansas City lefty Brandon Finnegan, who made a major impact in the Wild Card Game after only being drafted in the first round out of Texas Christian a few months ago.

5. The spotlight will be much brighter on Adam Jones to produce in this series.

It’s cruel to judge any player on a sample size of only 37 at-bats, but the Orioles center fielder has amassed only four hits in his postseason career and will feel the heat if his bat doesn’t wake up in the ALCS. Being an aggressive hitter throughout his career, Jones must fight the urge to over-swing, especially when he has opportunities to drive in runs. The 29-year-old singled and walked in his final two plate appearances of the ALDS, which the Orioles hope are signs of better things to come this October for a player who’s meant so much to the club’s success over the last three years. Nelson Cruz carried the Orioles in the ALDS, but Jones waking up would make them even more difficult to beat in a best-of-seven series.

6. The Orioles are better equipped to handle Kansas City’s jackrabbits on the base paths.

The Royals are an incredible 12-for-13 attempting to steal in the postseason, which has certainly provided Buck Showalter with some restless nights this week. However, the Orioles will have more success in slowing Kansas City runners than either Oakland or the Angels because of their focus on slowing an opposing club’s running game. Baltimore ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal, but the fact that they faced the fourth-fewest number of stolen base attempts is a reflection of how well pitchers hold runners and how quick they are to the plate to help catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Of the two, Joseph is more adept at gunning down runners (a 40 percent success rate to Hundley’s 19 percent), so it will be interesting to see how much more Showalter might lean on the younger catcher in this series after Hundley started two of the three ALDS games.

7. Former Oriole starter Jeremy Guthrie pitching against his former club in the ALCS will be somewhat surreal.

With apologies to Baltimore reserve Jimmy Paredes, Guthrie is the most intriguing name to face his former team in this series and had the misfortune of being dealt away from the Orioles just before their resurgence in 2012. The classy right-hander has found a home with the Royals where he’s continued to be a solid member of the rotation and has been rewarded with a taste of the postseason after pitching respectably on some otherwise awful Orioles clubs from 2007 through 2011. Though Guthrie probably wouldn’t be slated to start before Game 4 unless the Royals elect to go with Danny Duffy in the rotation and put him in the bullpen, it will be interesting to see the Orioles face the 35-year-old, who acts as a symbol of the club’s past as they seek their first AL pennant in 31 years.

8. Neither club received enough credit for its starting pitching during the regular season.

The Orioles and Royals are known for their stout bullpens, but their rotations have been very effective despite lacking big names. The projected Game 1 starters, Chris Tillman and James Shields, are two of the better pitchers in the AL — the latter for a longer period of time — but each has just one All-Star appearance to his name. Baltimore’s starter ERA of 3.61 ranked just a hair below the Royals’ fourth-ranked 3.60 mark in the AL. The strong bullpens for both sides decrease the chances of any starter pitching particularly deep into games, but there’s no reason to think either side will have problems in this department.

9. This series may feature the two best relievers in baseball right now — and neither are closers.

While Britton and Holland have been two of the best ninth-inning men in baseball in 2014, Miller and Davis are the scariest weapons in their respective bullpens as they combined to strike out 212 hitters in 134 1/3 innings during the regular season. Miller’s ERA was 1.35 in 23 regular-season appearances for the Orioles after being dealt by Boston while Davis posted a 1.00 ERA in 71 appearances for Kansas City this year. Showalter has already demonstrated he’s not afraid to use Miller for more than one inning in the postseason while Davis was a starter as recently as last season, making you think he can be stretched out as well. Regardless of who ends up winning this series, it would be shocking if Miller and Davis aren’t the busiest bullpen arms in the best-of-seven showdown.

10. Buck Showalter has a sizable advantage over Ned Yost on this stage.

The strong sentiment shared among many around baseball is that the Royals have won in spite of their manager, who prefers the small-ball tactics detested by sabermetricians. Meanwhile, Showalter often speaks of his preference to not waste his offense’s 27 outs per game and rarely calls for sacrifice bunts and other tactics such as the hit and run. You do wonder if the Orioles’ strong bullpen will press Yost to lean even more on manufacturing runs than he normally does, but Showalter is more likely to stay the course with his lineup — even against the Royals’ stingy relievers. As for bullpen management, the skipper who is more willing to break the standard thinking of when to use his relievers will give his team the edge. Showalter is the superior tactician and has already shown his willingness to stretch his best relievers during the Division Series.

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Orioles’ strengths, Detroit’s weaknesses surface in Game 1

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Orioles’ strengths, Detroit’s weaknesses surface in Game 1

Posted on 03 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — An eight-run inning naturally changed the narrative of the Orioles’ 12-3 win over the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, but the winning formula was already in place.

A couple home runs, solid starting pitching, and a bullpen as effective as any in the game had put the Orioles in position to seize the opening game of the series before they came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. And that’s when Detroit’s biggest weaknesses surfaced in transforming a tightly-contested 4-3 game into a blowout before a maniacal 47,842 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Thursday night.

No, the formula wasn’t flawless as starter Chris Tillman’s high pitch count chased him after five innings and right-hander Darren O’Day surrendered a solo shot to Miguel Cabrera in the eighth, but manager Buck Showalter made it clear he was going to use his best bullpen assets — the trio of Andrew Miller, O’Day, and closer Zach Britton — to protect the opportunity. With Tillman at 105 pitches, Showalter went right to Miller in the sixth inning with the heart of the Detroit lineup — Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez — due up.

The big guns needed to be ready a little earlier than usual.

“We’ve talked to them since the season was over about how this was going to work,” Showalter said. “The way we have normally used them, they know that it’s all hands on deck. And it felt like that spot of their order was good for Andrew. And the next group of guys was good for Darren. I knew that I would pitch Zach in the eighth inning.”

Miller responded with 1 2/3 innings and O’Day got through an inning before allowing the homer to Cabrera. Britton then retired the only batter he faced to conclude the top of the eighth.

We’ll never know if the first-year closer would have pitched a clean ninth for the first four-out save of his career, because the Orioles lineup took advantage of the Tigers’ biggest deficiencies in the bottom half of the inning.

Despite the Tigers owning a more-balanced offense and the last three AL Cy Young Award winners in their rotation, their bullpen and defense lag far behind the Orioles in those areas, which led to their demise in turning a winnable contest into a humbling defeat. Errors by shortstop Andrew Romine and center fielder Rajai Davis didn’t help, but the trio of Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, and Phil Coke only reinforced the many concerns about the Detroit bullpen throughout the season.

In contrast, the Orioles played crisp defense and allowed only one run in four innings of relief to go up 1-0 in the best-of-five series.

“I feel like everybody’s clicking right now at the same time,” said Miller, who expressed no concerns about bouncing back quickly after matching a season-high 32 pitches. “If you can get the ball to the next guy, we’re going to be in good shape. You trust that you go in there and give it your best until you run out of gas, and Buck asks the next guy to come in and we’re going to be pretty good.”

The offensive explosion in the Orioles’ final turn at the plate made the outcome elementary, but it will be interesting to see how Showalter handles his staff with such a quick turnaround Friday afternoon.

Game 2 starter Wei-Yin Chen will have his work cut out for him against a lineup that hit a league-leading .285 against left-handed pitching in the regular season, making you think the Orioles would be happy if he can give them five or six innings while keeping the score close. You’d imagine Showalter would prefer to stay away from Miller on Friday, but O’Day only threw 16 pitches and Britton five, meaning both will be available on Friday.

Perhaps we’ll see the flame-throwing Kevin Gausman as the change of pace behind Chen to bridge the gap to the late innings and put the Orioles in position to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Whatever the case, Showalter has options in the bullpen unlike Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who probably felt he was only throwing gasoline on the fire that was the bottom of the eighth.

On Thursday night, Baltimore’s biggest strengths and the Tigers’ most painful weaknesses came into focus, and it resulted in a convincing win for the Orioles.

“It’s a different season. It’s a different set of rules,” Showalter said. “Everything is different. Now your team has to make the adjustments, and I think our guys know that. We’ve got to figure out how to win two more games from these guys. It’s going to be tough.”

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Tillman ready for next step as Orioles’ postseason ace

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Tillman ready for next step as Orioles’ postseason ace

Posted on 01 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Just a few years ago, not many would have believed Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman would be the one taking the ball for the opening game of a playoff series.

Acquired with outfielder Adam Jones as the centerpieces of the Erik Bedard trade in February 2008, Tillman carried a career 5.58 ERA in 36 starts over his first three major league seasons in which he shuffled back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. The struggles left him as an afterthought in many minds as the Orioles embarked on what turned out to be a surprising 2012 season that resulted in their first postseason appearance in 15 years.

It wasn’t until that July that Tillman finally got another chance in the rotation and established himself as a major league starter by going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts. Even with Tillman having such an impressive second half, manager Buck Showalter elected to send him to the bullpen in the 2012 playoffs where he did not pitch.

Last year, he established himself as the staff ace and was named to his first All-Star Game. And after being named the Opening Day starter for the first time earlier this year, Tillman will take another step in his dramatic progression by making his postseason debut against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series Thursday night.

“It has been a journey, to say the least,” Tillman said. “I had a couple of rough years early on and kind of turned things around come 2012. I think that goes to show where the organization is at, not just personally, but all the way throughout. … For myself, like I’ve always said, it’s a big puzzle, and you’re trying to find the pieces to it and put the puzzle together.”

Completing his second consecutive 200-inning season and posting a 20-start streak of allowing three or fewer earned runs that wasn’t snapped until his final outing of the regular season, Tillman’s final 2014 numbers that included a 13-6 record with a 3.34 ERA weren’t such a sure thing as late as early June. Slow starts in the early innings and poor fastball command led to Tillman holding a 5.20 ERA through his first 13 starts.

His early-inning pains and a lingering groin issue led many to wonder if a market correction was finally taking place after his superb 1 1/2 years, but the 26-year-old instead made adjustments and went on the most successful run of his career, posting a 2.38 ERA over his final 21 starts to not only silence doubters but make it an elementary choice for Showalter to choose him as the Game 1 starter against the Tigers.

“He’s just a really hard worker. I know his talent is really immense,” catcher Nick Hundley said. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for how good he is. It’s a tough game. You don’t roll out here and put up Nintendo numbers like he has the last three or four months without being really good.”

Tillman will be opposed by 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, leading many to overlook the tall right-hander once again, but his numbers since early June suggest he is as dangerous as any starting pitcher remaining in the postseason. The only question will be how he responds to the limelight of his first playoff appearance, but Tillman is often praised by teammates and coaches alike for his even demeanor, which should allow him to handle what’s sure to be a raucous crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

For the California native, it’s just another step and just another start, even while anticipating some butterflies.

“The only difference is the stakes are higher. I take every game the same way,” Tillman said. “They’re all important. There is not one that’s less important than the other. Once the game starts and the bell rings, that’s where we’re comfortable as a team. Might have extra feelings before the game, be nervous, but if you’re not nervous, you need to find another job.”

Hot corner, hot topic

When asked about how he anticipated handling the third base position, Showalter wasn’t tipping his hand Wednesday as the Orioles have given starts to Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, Kelly Johnson, and Alexi Casilla at the hot corner since Chris Davis was suspended for amphetamine use on Sept. 12.

The growing pains have been clear as the Orioles had appeared to settle on Davis as their regular replacement for the injured Gold Glove winner Manny Machado before the slugger was banned for 25 games, a stretch that makes him ineligible until the ninth game of the postseason should the club advance. Baltimore made seven errors at third base over the final 10 games of the regular season.

“I feel confident in the people that will be playing and they’ve got a good track record,” Showalter said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to be as good as Manny. [He] had a historical year defensively, but we’ve been able to present ourselves well over there. I feel confident that we will continue to do that.”

Most believe Showalter will go with the strongest available defensive option in the postseason, which would be Flaherty despite the utility infielder committing three errors over his final four starts at third.

The 2012 Rule 5 pick said he is feeling more comfortable after getting extensive time at third base for the first time since the beginning of the year when he was filling in for the still-rehabbing Machado. Flaherty has made five errors in 27 starts and 255 1/3 total innings at third base this season.

“Part of my job here was to be able to be flexible and move around,” Flaherty said. “Getting over there the last couple weeks with Manny being gone, with Chris being gone [has helped]. You feel a little more comfortable the more you’re there.”

Rotation, roster remain secret

Showalter said Wednesday that he won’t announce the rest of his starting rotation until the conclusion of Game 1, but Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris will be the three starters behind Chris Tillman — in some order.

The 23-year-old Kevin Gausman was told to be ready for Game 1, a surefire sign that he will pitch in relief during the Division Series. However, it remains to be seen how many will be joining him in the bullpen as the Orioles are debating whether to go with a six-man group of relievers and a six-man bench or seven relief pitchers and five on the bench. A six-man bullpen would include Gausman, closer Zach Britton, right-handers Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter, lefty Andrew Miller, and either righty-hander Brad Brach or left-hander Brian Matusz.

“The decision for us is going with 10 or 11 [pitchers], and we’ve kicked it around until we’re blue in the face like everybody does,” Showalter said. “If you knew exactly what was going to be needed for each game, it would be real easy to do.”

The deadline to finalize the Division Series roster is 10 a.m. Thursday.

“Cheerleader” Machado progressing well

Machado was back at Camden Yards to watch Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series before reporting to Sarasota to continue rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee.

The 22-year-old remains optimistic that he’ll be 100 percent for the start of spring training in February.

“I’m doing everything,” said Machado, who is embracing the role of cheering for teammates despite not being able to play. “Activating the muscles and trying to get my quads back. I’m basically full-go [in a] couple weeks, hopefully. I have full range of motion already, and hopefully in a couple weeks, I’ll start riding the bike and get that going.”

Mr. Oriole pays visit

Hall of Fame third baseman and Orioles legend Brooks Robinson was a special guest speaker before the 2014 Orioles completed their workout at Camden Yards on Wednesday.

“His message was that he’s excited to see how excited Baltimore is,” Tillman said. “To us, that’s special. He’s been there. He’s been there for the World Series, for the playoffs, and he said this is the most fans he’s ever seen walking around the streets wearing their Baltimore Orioles jerseys and are proud of it.”

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Tillman officially named Game 1 starter of ALDS

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Tillman officially named Game 1 starter of ALDS

Posted on 23 September 2014 by Luke Jones

In what was hardly a surprise considering his status as the staff ace, Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman has been named Game 1 starter of the American League Division Series that will begin next week.

Manager Buck Showalter confirmed the news with reporters in New York prior to Tuesday’s game against the Yankees, but he had hinted last weekend that Tillman would pitch the series opener when he indicated the right-hander would pitch on an extra day of rest in each of his next two starts, pushing him to Oct. 2 when the ALDS is scheduled to begin.

Tillman has eclipsed the 200-inning mark for the second straight year and currently owns a streak of 20 consecutive starts in which he’s allowed three or fewer earned runs, tied with Steve Barber for the second-longest streak in franchise history. The 26-year-old is 13-5 with a 3.26 ERA in 33 starts this season and will be making his postseason debut after he did not appear in the 2012 playoffs.

Showalter will wait to name the rest of his starting rotation until the Orioles’ ALDS opponent is determined. Baltimore is currently slated to play the Detroit Tigers as they held a one-game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central entering Tuesday. However, the Orioles are still pursuing the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage as they trail the Los Angeles Angels by 2 1/2 games going into Tuesday.

The order has yet to be determined, but most expect Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris to make up the rest of the ALDS rotation with Kevin Gausman moving to a relief role.

 

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Five questions for Orioles in final 10 games of regular season

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Five questions for Orioles in final 10 games of regular season

Posted on 18 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Orioles may have already wrapped up their first American League East title in 17 years, but a number of questions are left to be answered as they play out the remainder of the regular season.

Here’s a look at what remains on manager Buck Showalter’s mind for his 92-60 Orioles as they enter the final 10 games before the postseason …

1. Is it more important to go for the No. 1 seed in the American League or to rest everyday players?

Even though a 43-31 road record suggests the Orioles shouldn’t be afraid of playing away games in October, it’s difficult to argue with wanting home-field advantage considering Showalter’s club is a remarkable 30-8 at Camden Yards since June 30 and hasn’t lost consecutive home games since June 28-29. Entering Friday, they trailed the Los Angeles Angels by 2 1/2 games for the best record in the major leagues, a deficit that is far from insurmountable with the Angels playing Seattle and Oakland three times each — all six games are on the road — in their final nine games.

But Showalter also knows players who are fresh — or are at least as fresh as possible in October — are even more important to the Orioles’ chances of playing deep into the postseason. The early indications are that we’ll see position players such as Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce sit on a rotational basis of one or two per game, but Showalter has also said resting pitchers will be the higher priority.

The club’s top relievers have already been rested periodically over the last couple weeks as we’ve seen the likes of Ryan Webb, Evan Meek, and Brian Matusz pitch in some high-leverage situations while Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller, and Zach Britton have gone unused in certain games when they’d usually be available. Showalter could also elect to give a spot start or two to Ubaldo Jimenez or Joe Saunders to align his rotation and give some extra rest to starters who have historically benefited from extra days like Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez.

Entering Friday, the Orioles owned an eight-game lead over current No. 3 seed Detroit, so there isn’t any real danger of losing their grasp on the second seed if the Angels hold a steady lead into next week.

2. “I Don’t Know’s on third?”

While many have focused on the lost power potential of Chris Davis when news broke of his 25-game suspension last week, his absence at third base — where he was doing a solid job filling in for the injured Manny Machado — created the bigger dilemma as we’ve seen the trio of Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, and veteran Kelly Johnson share time at the hot corner since last week.

Flaherty is the best defensive option, but his .645 on-base plus slugging percentage creates another weak spot in a lineup that’s already carrying the inconsistent rookie second baseman Jonathan Schoop and one of the catching duo of Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Paredes and Johnson have provided some heroics with the bat in recent days, but neither provides a great deal of confidence defensively and they don’t have a track record — Johnson’s numbers in recent seasons are far inferior to the hitter he was four or five years ago — suggesting their offense will make a great impact in October, anyway.

It’s unlikely that Showalter will make a definitive choice for October, but his strong affinity for defense might make Flaherty the best bet of the three to receive extensive time — at least against right-handed starters — unless Paredes or Johnson continue to rake over the final 10 games going into the playoffs. Of course, there’s no guarantee that both Paredes and Johnson make the postseason roster.

3. Who will make up the four-man rotation for the playoffs?

Not counting Ubaldo Jimenez who appears all but certain to be left off the postseason roster, the Orioles really can’t go wrong with all five of their starters currently sporting an ERA of 3.62 or lower.

However, it would appear that Kevin Gausman is the starter left out considering he’s the least experienced of the group. Showalter’s decision to leave Chris Tillman out of the rotation in the 2012 postseason is a good indication that he’ll lean on experience, but the Orioles would be foolish not to put Gausman’s power arm in the bullpen to spell any starter showing signs of early trouble.

For the sake of ranking the remaining four from top to bottom, Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez, and Norris would be a fair order based on how they’ve pitched in recent weeks.

4. Which 25 players will make up the Division Series roster?

The Orioles elected to keep 12 pitchers for the Division Series two years ago, which gave them an eight-man bullpen and plenty of flexibility to match up.

There shouldn’t be too much drama in the bullpen as Britton, Miller, O’Day, Gausman, Matusz, Brad Brach, and Tommy Hunter would fill the first seven spots with the final slot potentially going to long man T.J. McFarland or right-hander Ryan Webb. With three of the four rotation members right-handed, McFarland could be Showalter’s preference in the event of an early exit by a starter as he’d be a long reliever throwing from the opposite side to face a lineup designed for the right-handed starter.

Working under the assumption that Jones, Markakis, Cruz, Hardy, Pearce, Schoop, Joseph, Hundley, Flaherty, Delmon Young, and Alejandro De Aza are locks, Paredes, Johnson, and outfielders David Lough and Quintin Berry would be the realistic candidates fighting for two spots. It will be interesting to see if Showalter values having either Lough or Berry as a pinch-running option and late-inning defensive replacement, which would push either Paredes or Johnson off the roster with the other  guaranteed to make it as an option at third base.

The suspended Davis isn’t eligible to return until after the first eight games of the postseason, so his status isn’t a factor for the Division Series.

5. Will the Orioles be able to maintain their edge?

With so much discussion about Showalter needing to rest his everyday players, there’s a fine balance between providing a breather and accidentally turning off a competitive switch that isn’t guaranteed to come back on in October.

This could be a real concern for many clubs locking up a playoff spot in mid-September, but the mental toughness shown from the likes of Jones and Markakis all the way down to Paredes and De Aza makes you think the Orioles are incapable of losing their focus. Of course, the possibility of still being able to catch the Angels for the top seed provides extra incentive for players to remain engaged over the final 10 games.

Considering they’ve overcome season-ending losses to two All-Star players and haven’t even blinked since Davis’ suspension began last week, it would be difficult to fathom the Orioles finally having a mental letdown at this late stage. The Orioles may ultimately fall short in the playoffs, but it won’t be due to a lack of focus or going through the motions.

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Orioles’ ability to overcome adversity begins with starters

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Orioles’ ability to overcome adversity begins with starters

Posted on 14 September 2014 by Luke Jones

With Friday’s surprising news of Chris Davis being suspended 25 games for amphetamine use, the same question that’s been tossed the Orioles’ way all season was uttered once again.

How can they overcome this?

Despite an 88-60 record entering Sunday that had them days away from the American League East championship, the Orioles have faced anything but a problem-free campaign in 2014.

All-Star players Matt Wieters and Manny Machado have suffered season-ending injuries. Top free-agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez has not only failed to meet expectations, but has been banished to the last spot in the bullpen and is very likely to be left off the postseason roster. And even before Davis’ suspension that now bans him until at least the AL Championship Series — if the Orioles advance that far — the slugger was hitting only .196 a year after hitting a franchise-record and league-leading 53 home runs.

“The game usually gives you back kind of what you put into it,” said manager Buck Showalter after the Orioles’ doubleheader sweep of the New York Yankees on Friday. “Everybody’s putting something into it.”

The narratives of resiliency and a different hero every night have frequently rung true, but they don’t paint the entire picture of how the Orioles have managed to all but run away with their first division title since 1997. We knew the Orioles would hit home runs and play exceptional defense entering the season, and those skills have certainly been there all year.

But the biggest question would be the pitching, particularly in the rotation. Even with the struggles of their $50 million addition in Jimenez, the starting pitching has not only silenced the doubts, but has been a strength since the first two months of the season. Through the end of May, the starting rotation had posted an underwhelming 4.49 ERA as the Orioles were 27-27. Since June 1, starters have pitched to an impeccable 3.20 mark, which would be tops in the AL if extrapolated over the entire season. The Orioles have gone 61-33 over that period of time, a .649 winning percentage.

Even with the unevenness of April and May included, Baltimore ranks sixth in the AL in starter ERA, which nearly any fan would have gladly taken at the start of the season. The current team ERA of 3.50 would be the Orioles’ lowest in a full season since 1979 when the AL champions posted a 3.26 ERA.

When being compared to the other top clubs around baseball, the Orioles are often sold short for lacking a true ace, but that hasn’t stopped the starting rotation from becoming the strong heartbeat of a club nearly 30 games above .500 in mid-September. All five members of the current rotation sport an ERA of 3.74 or better, making Showalter’s job a difficult one when deciding which four will make the postseason rotation.

Not only has the quintet of Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Kevin Gausman pitched effectively, but the group has been durable with only Gonzalez and Norris spending brief time on the disabled list this season. After using a total of 12 or more starters in each of the previous three seasons under Showalter, the Orioles have sent just seven starters to the hill in 2014 with long reliever T.J. McFarland only receiving one spot start.

Four Oriole starters — Tillman, Chen, Norris, and Gonzalez — have made 24 or more starts. For perspective, only three made 24 or more starts in 2013 and just one did it in 2012 when the Orioles earned their first postseason trip in 15 years.

Upon learning of Davis’ suspension on Friday, the Orioles responded by promptly sweeping a twin bill over the Yankees in which they allowed one run in 20 total innings. The nightcap was particularly indicative of what the Orioles have become as they fielded what looked like a spring training lineup that included only four players from the Opening Day order and three who weren’t even on the 40-man roster at the start of the year. It was no problem for Bud Norris, who pitched seven shutout innings against the fading Yankees in a 5-0 victory.

“Good pitching solves a lot of problems, issues, whatever you might want to call it,” said Showalter as he reflected on the work his club did following the Davis announcement on Friday. “That’s usually where it starts.”

And it’s why the Orioles shouldn’t be counted out, even after this latest blow to the lineup.

 

 

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Tillman quietly pitching like ace all summer for first-place Orioles

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Tillman quietly pitching like ace all summer for first-place Orioles

Posted on 26 August 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Five home runs and a sparkling defensive play by Adam Jones understandably drew the attention in the Orioles’ 9-1 win over Tampa Bay to snap a three-game losing streak Monday, but it’s been one of those seasons for starting pitcher Chris Tillman.

Improving his record to 11-5 and improving his streak of consecutive starts allowing three or fewer earned runs to 15, Tillman hasn’t received the same accolades he did a year ago when he was named to his first All-Star team. The 26-year-old doesn’t light up a box score with gaudy strikeout numbers, but his results have been consistent throughout the summer for the first-place Orioles.

“It comes back to being confident in my delivery,” said Tillman, who allowed one unearned run and three hits in seven innings against the Rays. “When you trust your delivery, you are not afraid to throw any pitch in any count.”

It was less than three months ago when Tillman’s mechanics were failing him as his early-inning woes knocked him out of games, making many wonder whether his impressive 16-win season from a year ago was more aberration than breakthrough. Following a disastrous one-inning start against Texas on June 5 — the second time in four outings in which he’d been chased before recording an out in the second inning — Tillman’s ERA had ballooned to 5.20, a mark higher than even that of the maligned Ubaldo Jimenez.

Whether it was finally getting over a nagging groin issue or simply working on repeating his delivery with pitching coach Dave Wallace, Tillman has been a different pitcher ever since while posting a 2.15 ERA in his last 100 2/3 innings spanning 15 starts. Only twice over the last 15 starts has Tillman failed to complete at least six innings, and the Orioles have gone 10-5 when Tillman has taken the hill over that stretch.

On Monday, Tillman lowered his season ERA to 3.41 and improved to 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA in three starts spanning 21 innings against the Rays in 2014.

“One of the keys is you see him carry a crisp fastball early in the game,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s had that for a while now — knock on wood. That’s usually an indicator. And the curveball is of use to him. He can get it in there.”

After so much discussion about Oakland acquiring Jon Lester and Detroit trading for David Price while the Orioles did not add a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, Tillman’s 2.15 ERA over his last 15 starts — close to a half season — stacks up favorably to Price (2.08 in 117 innings) and Lester (1.89 in 104 2/3 innings) over their last 15 outings split between their former and current clubs.

Tillman’s inconsistent start to the season forced him to play catchup for much of the summer, but there should be no debating who would take the ball for Showalter in Game 1 of a playoff series. That wasn’t the case three months ago when some clamored for Tillman to be placed on the disabled list or even to be sent to the bullpen to straighten out his woes.

Of course, the tall right-hander hasn’t been alone as the Baltimore pitching staff has sometimes carried an uneven offense that entered Monday ranking last in the American League in batting average (.231) and on-base percentage (.284) since the All-Star break while still leading the majors in home runs. But Tillman has been at the head of the class in a rotation that may not scare you in the same way that Oakland’s or Detroit’s does, but it’s a group that continues to produce results just like Tillman did Monday night.

“Every fifth day, all our pitchers have been good,” shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “But every fifth day when he takes the mound, we feel like we have a great chance to win.”

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“It could be worse” shaping into 2014 theme for Orioles

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“It could be worse” shaping into 2014 theme for Orioles

Posted on 15 June 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The theme of the 2014 season has begun taking shape through the first 68 games as the Orioles stand at 35-33 and 4 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East.

It could be worse. 

A 5-5 homestand doesn’t sound too devastating when acknowledging seven of those contests came against the two best teams in the AL, but it feels very underwhelming when the Orioles’ normally-maligned rotation provided nine quality starts against Oakland, Boston, and Toronto. A 5-2 loss on Sunday prevented Baltimore from taking three of four from the first-place Blue Jays despite a fourth straight quality start against an offense entering Sunday ranked second in runs and first in on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in the league.

No, they didn’t lose any ground to the first-place club in the division and remain firmly in the race in an underwhelming AL East, but the weekend and the homestand could have been better. The Orioles were electing to focus on the positive after Sunday’s loss.

“Not frustrating,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “They’re a good team. We could have gotten swept; we could have swept them. Look at the bright side — we got two out of four. Now, let’s go on the road and start the series off right [Monday] in Tampa.”

The loss came at the hands of Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ, who entered Sunday with a 4.37 ERA after giving up 12 earned runs in his previous three starts. The Orioles were held to a meager 29 runs over these last 10 games, with the high point of frustration coming in the Red Sox series when they allowed just one run total but still couldn’t complete a three-game sweep.

Any offense will go through its peaks and valleys over the course of a 162-game schedule, but the Orioles just haven’t been able to put it together. When they’re clicking offensively, the pitching has gone down the tubes, and the Orioles’ better stretches of pitching have come when the lineup struggles as it did during the second-longest homestand of the year.

Of course, the pitching issues were expected this season, but the Orioles entered Sunday ranked ninth in the AL in runs scored. The offensive inconsistency is that much more frustrating when they enter a rare stretch in which the starting pitching thrives.

“If you go through a little spell and you’re not swinging the bats well, your pitching allows you to stay competitive to that point,” manager Buck Showalter said. “So, it just depends how you want to look at it, but you’d like to have both of them clicking. But we haven’t been able to do that consistently yet.”

The silver lining in Sunday’s loss was the performance of right-hander Chris Tillman, who turned in his second straight quality start after a disastrous one-inning start in Texas on June 4 that had everyone questioning his status in the rotation. Both Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez have disappointed through the first 2 1/2 months of the season, but the rest of the rotation has pitched well recently, including 23-year-old Kevin Gausman after his latest promotion.

Even with others pitching well, the Orioles need Tillman to regain his 2013 All-Star form and can only hope his 13 innings of work during the homestand are steps in the right direction despite the two losses. Against Toronto on Sunday, he allowed three earned runs over seven innings, his longest outing since his complete-game shutout in Kansas City on May 16.

“We’re getting somewhere. Starting to feel like my old self,” said Tillman, who didn’t record any strikeouts or walks against the Blue Jays. “Making better pitches and feeling confident in the ability to make a pitch. Command the strike zone, that’s big. Made some big pitches at times, but also left some balls up.”

The Orioles’ long list of issues and misfortunes have been repeated over and over this year.

Catcher Matt Wieters will visit Dr. James Andrews for a second time on Monday and may officially learn he will need season-ending elbow surgery.

First baseman Chris Davis is on pace to hit roughly half the number of home runs he hit last year and shortstop J.J. Hardy is still looking for his first long ball of the season in the middle of June.

Third baseman Manny Machado has been a mess at the plate and fetched a five-game suspension for his embarrassing bat-throwing incident last weekend.

And Tillman and Jimenez have been the rotation’s worst two pitchers after being identified as the duo to lead the staff back to the postseason. The Orioles entered Sunday ranking 11th in starter ERA and sixth in bullpen ERA in the AL.

Still, the Orioles remain within striking distance and show no evidence of dropping out of the race anytime soon in such an underwhelming division. The problem is they’re not displaying any signs of being on the verge of snapping off an extended winning streak to stake their claim to the top of the division, either.

As we enter the second half of June, the Orioles have offered a vibe similar to last season — three steps forward, two steps back, two steps forward, three steps back.

Decent, but not good enough.

“It’s the game of baseball. Frustration is every day,” Jones said. “But that’s how the cookie crumbles. You can’t dwell on things. If you’re put in the situation, try and succeed. If you don’t, wait for another opportunity.”

Other opportunities will come, but you can’t help but feel the Orioles missed one over these last 10 games.

Yes, it could’ve been worse.

But it could have been better.

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Is moving to a six-man rotation what’s best for the Orioles?

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Is moving to a six-man rotation what’s best for the Orioles?

Posted on 05 June 2014 by Luke Jones

Orioles manager Buck Showalter often quips how his best-laid plans and toughest decisions tend to be made by the baseball gods, making Wednesday’s news of starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez possibly going to the disabled list with a strained oblique unfortunate but also fitting.

The injury came just a day after Showalter acknowledged the possibility of moving to a six-man rotation with left-handed pitcher and former two-time American League Cy Young Award winnter Johan Santana slated to be ready to return to the major leagues later this month. Baltimore’s starting pitching ranks 12th in the AL in earned run average and 14th in innings pitched, but no one starter has struggled significantly more than the others in trying to decide who might be replaced by the 35-year-old Santana.

Traditionalists still pining for the days of a four-man rotation and the 1971 Orioles will scoff at the notion of using six starters, asking why Showalter and the organization would want to make such a change when they don’t even have five starters consistent enough for their liking. One of the biggest arguments against a six-man rotation is that it limits the amount of work for your best pitchers, but no Orioles starter has performed well enough so far this season to really have such a gripe.

Assuming Gonzalez’s potential trip to the DL isn’t a lengthy one, what are the benefits of using a six-man rotation when Santana is ready to be activated?

The fundamental change does reduce the average starter’s workload by just over five starts in the course of a 162-game schedule, but it also adds an extra day of recovery time, which is an interesting variable considering how often Showalter has tried to gain an extra day of rest for the likes of Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen over the last couple seasons. Never one to shy away from thinking outside of the box, Showalter could reason that a six-man staff might require tinkering with pitchers’ between-start regimens — perhaps each member of the rotation has a day in which he’s available in the bullpen to account for the lost roster spot — but could also result in fresher arms come September.

Would a schedule in which a pitcher works every sixth day allow him to throw 15 extra pitches per start or — more importantly — to simply be more effective and efficient when he takes the hill because he feels stronger?

With the alarming increase in Tommy John surgeries for major league pitchers this year, some have discussed the merits of using the six-man rotation to alleviate stress on the elbow while pointing to Japanese baseball’s significantly lower rate of Tommy John surgeries compared to the major leagues. In this era of increased specialization and the desire to protect pitching investments reaching nine figures, it only seems to be a matter of when — not if — clubs begin shifting to six-man rotations in the same way that the standard changed from four starters to five beginning in the 1970s. It has already started with some clubs occasionally moving to six-man rotations to protect young pitchers’ innings limits and is likely to trickle down to underwhelming rotations — like the Orioles’ current group — before ultimately becoming the standard around the major leagues at some point down the road.

Moving to a six-man rotation would allow Showalter to add Santana to the mix without relegating a current starter to the bullpen where he might struggle to get regular work. One of the more overlooked challenges for a pitcher can be the in-season shuffle between starting and relieving, which can put significant strain on the arm. Should Santana’s surgically-repaired left shoulder not hold up or he simply prove ineffective after not pitching since 2012, the Orioles could either transition back to a five-man rotation or look to add 2012 first-round pick Kevin Gausman to the starting mix, which would also quell concerns about his innings limit in 2014.

There’s no clear-cut answer as some pitchers such as Chen and Gonzalez have thrived with extra rest while Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris have historically performed better working on four days’ rest. Perhaps a six-man rotation in which one or two starters take a higher priority in staying on turn would need to be designed, but Showalter’s mere acknowledgement of it being a possibility tells you the Orioles skipper has put extensive thought into it and has collected as much information as possible to make a potential decision.

Maybe we’ll see it or perhaps the baseball gods will intervene to prevent it from happening, but below is a look at the current starters’ results based on four, five, and six or more days of rest in their major league careers.

Chris Tillman
Four days: 4.47 ERA in 54 starts, 5.75 innings per start
Five days: 4.56 ERA in 18 starts, 5.59 innings per start
Six days or more: 3.82 ERA in 24 starts, 5.5 innings per start

Ubaldo Jimenez
Four days: 3.64 ERA in 131 starts, 6.23 innings per start
Five days: 4.31 ERA in 65 starts, 5.85 innings per start
Six days or more: 4.74 ERA in 27 starts, 5.42 innings per start

Bud Norris
Four days: 4.10 ERA in 65 starts, 5.81 innings per start
Five days: 4.49 ERA in 50 starts, 5.93 innings per start
Six days or more: 5.07 ERA in 21 starts, 5.49 innings per start

Wei-Yin Chen
Four days: 4.52 ERA in 30 starts, 5.84 innings per start
Five days: 3.89 ERA in 25 starts, 6.11 innings per start
Six days or more: 3.32 ERA in 11 starts, 5.91 innings per start

Miguel Gonzalez
Four days: 4.18 ERA in 25 starts, 6.12 innings per start
Five days: 2.77 ERA in 13 starts, 6.26 innings per start
Six days or more: 3.31 ERA in 14 starts, 5.83 innings per start

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