Tag Archive | "Chris Tillman"

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Orioles once again looking part of first-place club

Posted on 29 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles pitched two shutouts, their top six relievers threw a combined 18 pitches, and Adam Jones finally made his return to the lineup on Sunday.

The Buck Showalter garden gnome giveaway was a huge hit.

And, oh yeah, the Orioles found themselves back in first place in the American League East for the first time since April 19.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona might have been asking himself why he waited until the ninth inning of Game 2 to get ejected after his team’s abysmal day, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for a better doubleheader. In tossing shutouts in both games of the twin bill — a 4-0 win in the opener and an 8-0 final for the nightcap — the Orioles did something they hadn’t accomplished since Sept. 6, 1974 when they twice blanked the Indians in a doubleheader at old Cleveland Stadium.

“It was big. It was a good day,” said Game 2 winner Chris Tillman, who pitched a much-needed seven shutout innings to help his own psyche after Ubaldo Jimenez tossed eight scoreless frames in the opener. “Ubaldo went out and did an outstanding job. There was a lot of offense today in both games. It was really fun to watch.”

On the same day they won the 5,000th game in club history, the Orioles came out of the weekend only reinforcing what many have begun thinking more and more over the last four weeks. They’re looking like a first-place club and woke up Monday morning in that very position, percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in a division where four clubs are currently separated by one game.

It’s a different season and a different club, but you couldn’t help but notice that the Orioles seized first place for good on July 3 last season. The similarities are there with an excellent defense, a stellar bullpen, and a revitalized offense hitting home runs, but even the starting pitching got into the act after struggling in recent weeks by allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings of work against the Indians.

Right now, the AL East is far from the poor division it looked to be six weeks ago as three clubs — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and New York — would have qualified for the playoffs if the season had ended on Sunday. Whether the Orioles will follow the same script of 2014 remains to be seen, but 18 wins in 23 games to move to the top of the division would have any club feeling good about itself.

“It’s a return for that, but it can be very fleeting,” Showalter said. “The only thing I look at is the loss column now and then. I don’t pay much attention to the other part of it.

“See if you can stay engaged and have a chance to roll the dice in September. That’s what it’s about. Position yourself to be in it in September and play meaningful games when the leaves start turning. It’s not that complicated.”

Continuing to win at a .783 clip as they have for more than three weeks isn’t sustainable, but the Orioles learned last year that it doesn’t take prolonged winning streaks to pull away from the pack if you consistently win series. If you combine the four games — two home and two away — against Philadelphia, Baltimore has now secured seven consecutive series wins.

Unlike the Orioles clubs from a few years ago, this group of players has the experience of bouncing back — like when they were six games below .500 earlier this month — that brings confidence the rest of the way. They know it won’t be this easy over the final three months of the season, and Showalter makes sure his players are prepared for that reality, never wanting them to be too high or too low after any result.

“We have the ups and downs,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who hit his career-high 15th homer on Sunday and continues sprinting toward superstar status a week shy of his 23rd birthday. “We started off a little slow. We had players injured, and we’re just getting back into it. Everybody’s starting to get healthy. This is just the midway point.

“There’s a lot more baseball ahead, a lot more slumps, a lot more games lost coming ahead, but we’ve got to stay focused and stay with the mindset that we have.”

The Orioles know they aren’t perfect.

Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are still sifting through a crowded corner outfield situation that will likely require parting ways with one or two options. As a whole, the group has been more productive in June, but the Orioles have to hope they’ll make the right decisions and the remaining pieces will continue getting the job done.

Tillman’s strong performance on Sunday was a step in the right direction as he and Bud Norris still have a long way to go to quell concerns over their immense struggles in the first half of 2015.

But these issues don’t feel insurmountable and certainly aren’t any worse than the weaknesses the other AL East contenders are facing. Even in winning 96 games and the club’s first division title in 17 years last year, the Orioles had their flaws.

It’s tough to ignore the similarities with 2014, even down to the contributions from unexpected sources such as Jimmy Paredes, Chaz Roe, and Chris Parmelee a year after Steve Pearce, Brad Brach, and Caleb Joseph emerged from the shadows.

“This team tries as much as we can not to think about last year,” said Chris Davis, who hit his club-leading 16th homer on Sunday night. “It was obviously a great year, but it’s over with. You have to turn the page and focus on what’s at hand. I think we’re proud of the way we’re playing right now and battling these last few days and playing with somewhat of a short roster.

“Guys have stepped up and have done a great job.”

And the Orioles have stepped to the top of the AL East as a result.

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Orioles continue rolling despite June rotation struggles

Posted on 25 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have played their best baseball of the season over the last three weeks.

Having won 15 of their last 20, Baltimore returns home Friday with a 38-34 record, one game better than the club was through 72 games last year. After a nightmarish May, the Orioles lineup has averaged 5.9 runs per game and outscored opponents by a 118-69 margin in the last 20 games.

The bullpen continues to excel with a 2.08 ERA in 164 2/3 innings dating back to April 29, but Thursday’s 8-6 win over Boston offered a tiny glimpse into what has to be a lingering concern in manager Buck Showalter’s mind despite his club’s recent success.

Returning from the 15-day disabled list on Thursday, Miguel Gonzalez lasted just five innings and allowed four earned runs and eight hits while laboring to hold the comfortable 6-1 lead he was presented in the fourth inning. It would have been unfair to expect too much from the right-hander in his first start for the Orioles since June 9, but it was the 14th time in the last 20 games in which a starting pitcher has failed to complete six innings. The Orioles have received only one start of seven or more innings over that time, which was Wei-Yin Chen’s eight shutout innings against Philadelphia on June 15.

Showalter told reporters following Thursday’s game that he needed to rest Darren O’Day, Chaz Roe, and Brad Brach, leaving him to use T.J. McFarland and Tommy Hunter to bridge the gap to Zach Britton. It worked out for the Orioles as they won their sixth consecutive series, but not before the left-handed closer was working in his fourth game in six days to pick up his 21st save of the season.

The bullpen continues to be terrific, but the starting rotation must get deeper into games if Showalter wants to keep his relievers fresh for the second half. In 23 June games, starters have posted a 4.58 ERA and are averaging just 5.22 innings per outing while the bullpen has posted a miniscule 1.80 ERA.

In 2014, the starting rotation pitched to a mediocre 4.49 ERA in April and May before taking off in June with a 3.47 mark and posting an exceptional 2.98 ERA in the second half of the season.

Gonzalez, Chen, and Ubaldo Jimenez have performed well enough this season to feel confident in the trio moving forward, but Chris Tillman is having the worst season of his career thus far and Bud Norris still can’t avoid the big inning as we witnessed again in Wednesday’s loss to the Red Sox. Every time either of the two struggles, there is a growing temptation to turn to Kevin Gausman, who pitched to a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts last season and is the most talented hurler in the organization.

For now, the Orioles continue to benefit from a swinging-door spot in the bullpen that’s been filled by the likes of McFarland, Tyler Wilson, Oliver Drake, and Mychal Givens at various points to give their most reliable arms a breather when possible. But such a luxury would disappear if they’re forced to move either Norris or Tillman to a long relief role since neither pitcher has a minor-league option.

The results of the last three weeks remind us of last year when the Orioles took off in the second half of the season to win their first American League East championship in 17 years. Their offense has come alive, the defense has been excellent, and the bullpen has dominated for two months now.

If the starting rotation can step up like it did right around this time a year ago — at least closer to that  2014 level — the Orioles will not only take off, but they’ll become the clear favorite in the AL East.

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Even after huge win, Orioles facing tough dilemma with Tillman

Posted on 21 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles had much to be happy about following their 13-9 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday to earn their biggest series victory of the season.

Despite blowing an early 7-0 lead, the Orioles secured their fifth consecutive series win and moved back to three games above .500. Not only did they snap the Blue Jays’ eight-game winning streak at Rogers Centre on Saturday, but the Orioles have now won two straight series against their American League East foe after a 1-5 start against the highest run-producing lineup in the majors.

You could argue their wins on Saturday and Sunday were the biggest of the season so far as the Orioles outscored the Blue Jays by an 8-1 margin in the final three innings of both games.

But the impressive resiliency reminiscent of last year doesn’t erase a major problem staring manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles squarely in the face.

Once again, Chris Tillman was bad on Sunday.

Really bad.

After the Orioles scored seven runs off Scott Copeland in the top of the second, their best starter over the previous three seasons could only record one out in the bottom half of the inning before giving way to the bullpen. Everything he threw was up in the strike zone and over the heart of the plate, once again making you wonder if his lower back issues continue to linger and are impacting his ability to fully extend with his delivery.

You don’t go from being so good for three seasons to this poor without wondering if there’s something wrong physically. Tillman threw first-pitch strikes to only two of the 10 Blue Jays hitters he faced and allowed six runs, six hits, and two home runs in just 1 1/3 innings on Sunday.

“Chris has just got to get back into attack mode,” Showalter told MASN after Sunday’s win. “You trust the pedigree and the background, but he’s capable of better than that. We need to get that from him.”

How poorly has Tillman fared in four starts against Toronto this year? The right-hander has a 15.00 ERA in 15 innings against the Blue Jays. Against everyone else, Tillman has a respectable 3.92 mark.

Of course, the Blue Jays have hung a slew of crooked numbers on the scoreboard this season, but Sunday’s outing elevated Tillman’s season ERA to 6.22, which dwarfs Ubaldo Jimenez’s 4.63 mark at this point last season that led to the latter being sent to the disabled list and, eventually, the bullpen. Even with numbers skewed by Toronto, you just can’t forgive Tillman’s poor 2015 performance because he’s frequently faced the Blue Jays as they’re a major league opponent just like every other lineup he’s faced.

At least the Orioles don’t face Toronto again until early September.

A few weeks ago, we pointed to Tillman’s difficult first two months a year ago as good reason for remaining confident as he rebounded from a 5.20 ERA in his first 13 starts of 2014 to allow three or fewer earned runs in his next 20 outings to ultimately finish the regular season with a 3.34 ERA. But we’re less than two weeks away from the Fourth of July and last year’s early struggles pale in comparison to what we’ve seen so far in 2015 as he’s registered just five quality starts in 14 outings and is averaging 4.5 walks per nine innings.

Forget about the longtime debate over whether Tillman is really an ace as the 27-year-old isn’t currently performing like someone worthy of remaining in a major league rotation, but herein lies the problem. The right-hander is out of minor-league options and the Orioles obviously aren’t releasing him — he’s under club control through the 2017 season — but you wonder how many more chances Showalter can give his Opening Day starter of the last two seasons before he has little choice but to send him to the bullpen.

To be fair, fellow starter Bud Norris sports an ERA (7.57) more than a run higher than Tillman’s, but his 3.78 ERA in three starts since returning from the DL at least provides some optimism that he’s made some adjustments after a month-long absence.

Both need to be on notice at this point as it relates to their spots in the rotation.

With Kevin Gausman healthy and back in a starting routine after being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday, the Orioles have a starter waiting in the wings who posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts for a division-winning club last year. Time is running out for Tillman to reverse a nightmarish start to the 2015 campaign.

As Showalter pointed out, the 6-foot-5 hurler is a major reason why the Orioles completed three straight winning seasons and twice made the postseason over that time, but the starting pitcher would be the first to tell you he’s been a weak link in 2015.

You just wonder how much longer the Orioles can wait as they find themselves in the midst of another tight division race while their de facto ace entering the season continues going nowhere fast.

 

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Regardless of where, Gausman needs to pitch every fifth day

Posted on 20 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Darren O’Day’s escape act and clutch hitting from Caleb Joseph and Manny Machado provided the Orioles their biggest win of the season on Saturday, but a familiar question was being asked after the game.

What’s next for 24-year-old pitcher Kevin Gausman?

Activated from the 15-day disabled list to make his first start of the season, Gausman was far from Walter Johnson against Toronto, but it was good seeing the right-hander on the hill once again. Struggling to command his pitches through five innings, Gausman was fortunate that several balls squared up by Blue Jays batters were hit right at his fielders, but his ability to keep the Orioles in the game eventually led to their first win at Rogers Centre in five tries this season.

Despite throwing first-pitch strikes to only 11 of the 21 hitters he faced and inducing only seven swinging strikes, Gausman allowed two earned runs and four hits while walking one and striking out one while facing the top run-producing offense in the majors.

With Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez both expected to return this coming week, it appears Gausman will again be squeezed out of the starting rotation for the time being. Many have clamored for Bud Norris to be sent to the bullpen, but it’s unlikely to happen right now with the right-hander posting a solid 3.78 ERA in his three starts since returning from the DL. Chris Tillman has been the other starter in question with a 5.58 ERA entering Sunday, but his track record over the previous three seasons likely gives the Opening Day starter a little longer leash.

What shouldn’t happen with Gausman is a return to the Orioles bullpen where he developed shoulder tendinitis after receiving sporadic work to begin the season. The idea of a shortened-up Gausman is fine at the end of the season like we witnessed last October, but it’s shortsighted with more than three months to go in the regular season and two question marks in the current rotation.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea to have Gausman on call at Norfolk with Tillman and Norris being put on notice in the meantime. And the best thing they could do from a health standpoint would be to allow the 2012 first-round pick to remain in a starting routine.

To be clear, Gausman isn’t a finished product as anyone who has watched him closely agrees he needs to improve his secondary stuff. His split-changeup is a devastating pitch when he commands it — he couldn’t against the Blue Jays on Saturday — but he must continue to work on his curveball, a pitch he began throwing this spring for the first time since college.

The good news is his curve looked better against Toronto than his slider ever did in his first two seasons, but the breaking pitch remains a work in progress. And it’s something he should harness as a starter with the Tides if he isn’t taking the ball every fifth day for Buck Showalter.

As talented as Gausman is, the Orioles certainly haven’t made things easy on him as he’s ping-ponged between Triple A and the majors since May 2013. Even Saturday’s start in which he threw 91 pitches came on short rest and after he had only thrown a maximum of 61 pitches in any of his three rehab outings earlier this month.

You’d like to see what the kid could do if he’s simply left alone to pitch every five days, but we know how Dan Duquette and Showalter look for every possible edge in micromanaging the 25-man roster.

Though far from his best day, it was good seeing Gausman in a starting role on Saturday.

It needs to stay that way, even if that means his latest trip down to Norfolk.

 

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Thoughts on Tillman’s struggles, Pearce, Jones

Posted on 01 June 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-pitch Pearce

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

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

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

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

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

As Jones goes, so do Orioles

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

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

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

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

Road “w-O’s” must end

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

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

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

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Orioles failed to get well despite May home cooking

Posted on 31 May 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Orioles lineup continues firing blanks in month of May

Posted on 27 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Buck Showalter rarely dwells on the negatives after a loss.

It’s just not his style — at least publicly anyway — as he prefers focusing on the positive after any given contest over a 162-game schedule. But his reaction to Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Houston Astros was a little different.

While recognizing the strong performance of starter Chris Tillman that was spoiled by a few suspect pitches in the seventh inning and the failures of reliever Brian Matusz an inning later, Showalter continued coming back to the same theme that has plagued the Orioles throughout the month of May.

“We obviously haven’t been giving our pitchers much margin for error,” Showalter said, “but [Tillman] gave us a real good chance to win tonight. Probably even a little bit better than that.

“Once again, we can sit here and talk about [other factors] and rightfully so, but until we start getting some things going offensively, it really makes for a tough atmosphere to pitch in.”

The Orioles have scored just seven runs over their last 40 innings.

They’ve produced three or fewer runs in 13 of their 23 games this month and two or fewer in 11 of those.

Tuesday night’s cleanup man (Chris Davis) sports a .208 average and the No. 5 hitter (Steve Pearce) is batting .188. Delmon Young — who’s spent plenty of time in the heart of the order — is slugging a paltry .333 despite a respectable .287 average.

Beyond the white-hot Jimmy Paredes, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Caleb Joseph, the Orioles haven’t gotten nearly enough production from the rest of the lineup. And with Jones struggling recently — he was 0-for-3 Tuesday and has just three hits in his last 25 at-bats — the run shortage has been even more magnified.

“I just think we’ve got to slow the game down,” said Davis, who struck out two more times and hit a sacrifice fly in the sixth for the only Baltimore run on Tuesday. “When you’re not scoring a lot of runs, you’re not swinging the bats like you know you can, the tendency is to press and try to overdo it. I think you’ve seen that in the last few games, just guys getting out of their approach, out of their rhythm and trying to do too much with pitches that aren’t good pitches to hit.”

The Orioles were counting on Davis to look more like the force he was in 2013 — or at least in 2012. Instead, he’s looked just like the frustrated hitter we saw a season ago and has struck out 64 times in 170 plate appearances, registering the highest strikeout rate of his career by a substantial margin.

You keep waiting for veterans like of J.J. Hardy and Alejandro De Aza to start swinging the bat like they have in the past and for Young to start showing a little bit of power. Aside from a couple key home runs in the last week, Pearce hasn’t come close to approaching his 2014 production. Travis Snider hasn’t been the young replacement for the declining Nick Markakis that the Orioles envisioned.

The many clamoring for some change are justified, but Triple-A Norfolk doesn’t have many appealing options to even try at the moment. Former Minnesota Twins first-round pick Chris Parmelee has an .818 on-base plus slugging percentage and Nolan Reimold has begun heating up recently, but that’s about it.

Perhaps a returning Matt Wieters provides a spark as early as next week, but can you realistically expect him to offer much more offense than Joseph after not playing in the majors in more than a year?

The Orioles hope Jonathan Schoop can return sometime next month, but there’s no guarantee how soon that will be.

For now, Showalter has little choice but to ride out the storm — or the drought — by continuing to mix and match in hopes of finding some semblance of consistent production beyond the top three spots in the order. And executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette needs to be exploring what might be out there on the trade market over the next two months.

At 20-23, the Orioles still find themselves in the thick of the American League East and are just one game out in the loss column behind first-place New York. There are 119 games remaining in the 2015 regular season for Baltimore.

But much more is needed from the offense than it’s provided all month if the Orioles want to remain within striking distance.

 

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Orioles receive lift from unexpected source

Posted on 18 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles needed a lift in more ways than one on Sunday.

The short-term need of a starting rotation without an ill Bud Norris or an ailing Chris Tillman was apparent as Baltimore begins a brutal stretch of 21 games in 20 days on Tuesday.

On top of that, the Orioles were facing the prospects of being swept at home after falling four games below .500 for the first time in four years on Saturday night. A pick-me-up was in order after a struggling offense had wasted stellar outings from Wei-Yin Chen and Ubaldo Jimenez in the previous two games against the Los Angeles Angels.

A change in karma was required for a club struggling to find its footing through the first six weeks of the 2015 season. Even though their early-season concerns remain, the Orioles needed a new wrinkle to end the series on a positive note and head into their final off-day for three weeks with a good feeling.

And that’s exactly what rookie Mike Wright provided in turning in 7 1/3 shutout innings in a 3-0 win before 41,733 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Displaying impressive poise, Wright became the first pitcher in franchise history to toss a scoreless start without walking a batter in his major league debut as he also added six strikeouts while surrendering just four hits.

Wright’s fastball was on display from the very beginning, recording his first major league strikeout when he blew a 98 mph fastball past 2014 American League MVP Mike Trout in the top of the first. His fastball was still touching 97 mph in the eighth inning as he mixed in his slider, changeup, and curveball throughout the afternoon to keep Angels hitters off balance.

Though rated as only the Orioles’ No. 8 prospect by Baseball American last offseason, the 2011 third-round pick out of East Carolina earned Sunday’s opportunity after steadily working his way up the organizational ladder over the last few seasons. If only for one afternoon, Wright put the hype surrounding the likes of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and Hunter Harvey on the back burner while he enjoyed the limelight, leaving to a standing ovation in the eighth.

Yes, the day belonged to the 6-foot-6 right-hander and the Orioles reaped the benefits as their lineup once again struggled through a nondescript afternoon — albeit against the talented Garrett Richards — before Adam Jones provided some much-needed insurance with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth.

There’s no telling what’s next for Wright as manager Buck Showalter will weigh his immediate options in the starting rotation, but the 25-year-old certainly earned another opportunity after shutting down an Angels club that had won five straight games. He became the first Orioles pitcher to post a scoreless start in his major league debut since Chris Waters did it against the Angels in 2008 and the first to do it at home since Anthony Telford shut down Oakland at Memorial Stadium in 1990.

The Orioles hope Wright makes many more meaningful contributions, but the aforementioned names serve as a reminder that you can’t take too much away from what we witnessed on Sunday.

You hope there’s more to come, but Wright provided a shot in the arm that the Orioles needed to feel better about the weekend and themselves.

Even if it was only for one afternoon.

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Orioles rotation in flux with rough stretch looming

Posted on 16 May 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 11:05 p.m.)

BALTIMORE — The Orioles are facing uncertainty in their starting rotation at the wrong time with a stretch of 21 games in 20 days beginning Tuesday.

With Bud Norris still recovering from bronchitis and Chris Tillman experiencing some lower back stiffness, manager Buck Showalter was not ready to name a starter for the series finale against the Los Angeles Angels until after Saturday’s loss when he revealed rookie Mike Wright would take the ball on Sunday. Norris has lost some weight as a result of the illness, but the Orioles hope he will be able to start Tuesday’s series opener against Seattle and might be available out of the bullpen Sunday if necessary.

Norris’ fever has subsided, which allowed him to return to the ballpark on Saturday since he’s no longer contagious.

It’s no secret that Tillman has managed lower back issues from time to time over the last few years, so Showalter didn’t want to make too much of the stiffness, expressing cautious optimism that the tall right-hander would be ready to pitch in the Mariners series. The Baltimore skipper said Tillman was feeling better on Saturday after his back issue flared up during his workday on Friday.

“We’ve managed through it two or three seasons now when it’s there,” Showalter said. “Just like all pitchers, the things that aren’t always public that guys deal with every outing, workdays are adjusted constantly based on what somebody’s feeling or not feeling. The thing that we’re challenged with is after Monday, we’ve got to have everybody on board for a long period of time.

“I’m going to take every precaution that our guys can present themselves healthy for that stretch.”

The Orioles were considering several other options for Sunday’s start, including T.J. McFarland or even another pitcher from Triple-A Norfolk. Wright was recalled earlier this week and will be making his major league debut after posting a 3-0 record with a 2.64 ERA in six starts for the Tides.

In other health-related news, Jonathan Schoop (right knee) began baseball-related activities on Saturday, a good sign after the second baseman was placed on the 15-day disabled list on April 18. The 23-year-old hit off a tee, played catch from 90 feet, and completed some agility drills in Sarasota.

“That went well,” Showalter said. “I was trying to get Manny [Machado] to talk to him to see if he could get something out of him that he wouldn’t give the trainers. That was encouraging to see.”

Schoop will begin taking grounders on Monday.

Right-handed pitching prospect Hunter Harvey will visit renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews on Monday for a second opinion on his right elbow. The Orioles doctors have recommended rest for the 20-year-old, but this is the second time in 10 months that he’s been shut down with a flexor mass strain.

Catcher Matt Wieters (right elbow) caught seven innings in an extended spring training game. The club decided to pull Wieters from the game due to the Florida heat and a number of struggling pitchers prolonging the game.

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An Orioles performance only a mother could love

Posted on 10 May 2015 by Luke Jones

There was something ironic about the Orioles turning in a performance only a mother could love in a 6-2 loss to the New York Yankees on the holiday Sunday.

In their fifth loss in six games, the Orioles struck out a club-record 18 times as Michael Pineda turned in the first 16-strikeout performance without a walk in the majors since Johan Santana did it in 2007. To be clear, the Yankees starter deserves plenty of credit as he lowered his season ERA to 2.72, but Baltimore’s frustration was evident throughout the afternoon, perhaps captured best in the fifth inning when Manny Machado slammed his bat in frustration after striking out.

Despite Sunday’s dubious achievement, the strikeout hasn’t been a universal problem for the Orioles — they entered the day ranked 15th in the majors — but Chris Davis struck out twice more on Sunday to give him a league-leading 48 in 116 plate appearances. Davis has managed to produce an .805 on-base plus slugging percentage with a club-leading seven home runs, but his contact rate of 61.9 percent entering Sunday was even lower than last season’s 63.6 percent, which doesn’t bode well for future performance.

Hoping to build on back-to-back quality starts, Bud Norris reverted to the pitcher we saw throughout spring training and most of April when he allowed four earned runs before being chased in the fourth inning. It would be unfair to ignore his last two outings in which he posted a 3.95 ERA over 13 2/3 innings, but the leash is shrinking rapidly as we approach Memorial Day.

Of course, the question of who would replace Norris was complicated with Kevin Gausman being placed on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis on Friday. Injuries are a cruel reality of the game, but it’s impossible not to wonder what role irregular work might have played in the most talented pitcher in the organization developing a cranky shoulder. It was one of the biggest concerns mentioned as a reason why some wanted Gausman to be working on a regular schedule in the starting rotation at Triple-A Norfolk if not pitching every fifth day in Baltimore.

The day also brought the latest cringe-worthy outing from Rule 5 pitcher Jason Garcia, who walked four batters and allowed an earned run in 2 1/3 innings. His performance mattered little to the final score, but the 22-year-old has now walked 11 batters in 13 2/3 innings and once again was sitting in the low 90s with his fastball, a far cry from the electric stuff club officials raved about as enough reason to try to carry him on the 25-man roster.

There are simply too many pitchers — Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and Steve Johnson, just to name a few — performing well at Norfolk to justify continuing the Garcia experiment if he can’t even pitch in mop-up situations. And his diminished velocity makes you wonder if the long-term payoff of keeping him in the organization is even worth it.

The corner outfield spots continue to create cause for concern as right fielder Delmon Young threw to the wrong base to allow a run to score in the fourth inning and left fielder Alejandro De Aza got a bad read on Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-run double. Even with a proper break, De Aza likely wouldn’t have caught the deep liner, but Orioles pitching simply doesn’t strike out enough hitters to survive with the spottier-than-usual defense we’ve continued to see over the first five weeks of the 2015 campaign.

Even the 2013 Gold Glove winner Machado has struggled to find his usual consistency in the field with a club-leading seven errors this season.

On top of his shaky defense, De Aza struck out twice more to drop his average to .211 with a .632 OPS. He has the second-worst strikeout rate on the club behind Davis, but he hasn’t provided near the production to justify much playing time.

De Aza and Steve Pearce (.556 OPS) were counted on to be consistent contributors in 2015, but both have struggled to even stay in the lineup with such disappointing numbers. Their struggles have provided plenty of ammunition to criticize an offseason in which Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis departed via free agency and only Travis Snider was added to the outfield.

The Orioles return home 13-16 and 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees in the American League East. Panic and hopelessness are still premature, but it’s fair to be concerned with Baltimore having already suffered separate losing streaks of five and four games in the season’s first five weeks.

As manager Buck Showalter would say, blaming the underwhelming start solely on the losses of Cruz, Markakis, and lefty reliever Andrew Miller — who still has a 0.00 ERA in New York — would be a convenient excuse to overlook other problems. The Orioles have received poor pitching performances from Norris and No. 1 starter Chris Tillman and not nearly enough offense from the likes of De Aza and Pearce as well as former All-Star shorstop Everth Cabrera prior to the recent return of J.J. Hardy.

There’s no such thing as must-win games in mid-May, but the Orioles now play 17 of their next 20 games at Camden Yards. To quell concerns and keep pace as the geriatric Yankees continue to play strong baseball, the Orioles would serve themselves well to take advantage of the home cooking after a brutal stretch on the road.

They can start by putting an ugly Mother’s Day behind them as quickly as possible.

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