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Predicting the Orioles’ All-Star selections

Posted on 30 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The latest American League All-Star voting update made it clear that no Orioles players will be elected as starters, but that doesn’t mean Buck Showalter’s club won’t be well-represented in Cincinnati.

Starters voted by the fans will be announced on Sunday night while the All-Star reserves and pitchers will be revealed on Monday evening.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s top candidates to be invited to baseball’s All-Star Game on July 14:

The most deserving: 3B Manny Machado
Skinny: The Orioles and their fans still pray that the 22-year-old’s knee problems are finally behind him, but there’s no disputing that Machado has blossomed into a superstar this year. Leading the club in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, stolen bases, and runs, Machado has already set a career high in home runs and will surpass his career mark in walks before the All-Star break. The 2010 first-round pick has played Gold Glove defense at third base from his first day in the majors, but Machado is rapidly developing the kind of bat that could make him an MVP candidate in the years to come. He ranks fourth among AL position players in wins above replacement — according to the rankings from Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and ESPN — making him a lock as an AL All-Star reserve.

The first-time selection: LHP Zach Britton
Skinny: Instead of again spelling out why Britton should become the 10th Orioles closer to make an All-Star Game since 1979, I ask you to check out the piece I wrote over the weekend explaining why.

The mainstay: CF Adam Jones
Skinny: Despite the fact that he’s already missed more than twice as many games in 2015 (11) than he had in his previous three seasons combined (five), Jones still makes a strong case for an invitation to Cincinnati as he entered Tuesday sporting a career-high batting average and on-base percentage. Already a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field, Jones might be having the best defensive season of his career, which is high praise for an outfielder already possessing that kind of a track record. Already a four-time All-Star selection in his career, Jones will likely be given a boost by his league-wide reputation and still ranks third among Orioles players in homers and RBIs despite missing close to two weeks of combined action.

The deep sleeper: RHP Darren O’Day
Skinny: Considering Kansas City manager Ned Yost is managing the AL and loves using a bullpen, I wouldn’t be completely shocked to see him give a nod to O’Day. The submarine hurler has struck out a career-high 12.1 batters per nine innings and sports a career-best 1.21 ERA, which ranks seventh in the majors among relief pitchers. Because the game determines home-field advantage for the World Series, Yost could see the National League’s unfamiliarity with O’Day as enough reason to add him to the roster.

My All-Star picks: In order of most confident to least, I’ll go with Machado, Britton, and Jones to make it, but a deep list of outfield candidates could squeeze the 29-year-old center fielder out, especially with injuries stunting his numbers a bit and because he wasn’t voted in this year for the first time since 2012.

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After slow start, bullpen becoming steadying force for Orioles

Posted on 26 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Monday brought an even bigger surprise than the Orioles’ ability to hand Houston starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel his first loss of the 2015 season.

After Steve Pearce had clubbed a two-run home run to right-center to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning, you figured manager Buck Showalter would turn to Darren O’Day or Tommy Hunter to pitch the eighth. O’Day hadn’t pitched since Saturday and Hunter hadn’t worked since Friday, but Showalter instead called upon rookie Oliver Drake, who had pitched three scoreless innings in the 1-0 loss to Miami in 13 innings on Saturday night.

The move raised a few eyebrows, but Drake came through once again, pitching a perfect inning with two strikeouts in his second major league appearance. Showalter cited Drake’s ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate as his rationale for going to the Naval Academy product — two left-handed hitters were due up in the inning and Brian Matusz wasn’t available — but it’s no secret that the 27-year-old right-hander has already impressed with his nasty split-fingered fastball.

“It all works off his fastball command. He has a way to make you look between velocities,” Showalter said. “Even if you’re right on one of the velocities, you might not get there. You saw it on the fastball to [Colby] Rasmus. He doesn’t have to throw 95 [mph] to get a reaction. When you have to defend the other-speed pitch, that 90 looks 100.”

Monday’s win featured three scoreless innings from Brad Brach and Drake before closer Zach Britton slammed the door on the Astros in the ninth, continuing an impressive run for Orioles relievers after a rocky April. Dating back to April 29, the Baltimore bullpen has posted a 2.23 ERA in its last 65 2/3 innings.

The group has been even better of late by allowing just six earned runs in its last 30 1/3 innings. The success has improved the club’s bullpen ERA to 3.32, which ranks sixth in the American League. It’s helped that the Orioles rank only 12th in the AL in relief innings, a reflection of starters working deeper into games than they did in April.

It’s a pleasant change after the bullpen posted a 4.35 ERA in the opening month of the season.

With the bullpen being the backbone of their success over the previous three seasons, the Orioles figured to lean heavily on Britton, O’Day, and Hunter this year, but the emergence of Brach since the second half of last season has been an encouraging development. The 29-year-old right-hander leads the club with 22 2/3 relief innings this season and has lowered his ERA to 3.57 after a difficult start. Since being scored upon in his first four outings of 2015, Brach has pitched to a 2.00 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 18 innings of work.

Despite an uneven beginning to the season for the 20-22 Orioles, seeing the likes of Brach and Drake pick up the slack in some meaningful situations bodes well now and for the long haul.

“That helps with us later on in the season,” Brach said. “You don’t have to throw the same guys out there every single time. You see some of the teams that kind of have the same guys they go to every time. It kind of keeps us on our toes. On the same token, any situation could be any guy and everybody’s got to be ready to go, so it keeps us ready to go and sharp during the game.”

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Walks again pivotal in Orioles’ 7-5 loss to Boston

Posted on 25 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles pitching entered Friday’s series opener against the Boston Red Sox leading the major leagues with 67 walks in 16 games.

And free passes at inopportune times once again hurt the Orioles in dropping their fifth consecutive game in a 7-5 final at Camden Yards.

“We only walked two guys tonight, and the two really bit us against a good team,” said manager Buck Showalter, who pointed to the high number of bases on balls being his biggest pet peeve of the young season prior to Friday’s game. “The walks hurt us, but at least we cut down on them. They really bit us.”

In the fifth inning, starter Miguel Gonzalez issued a bases-empty, two-out walk to Mookie Betts before eventually allowing a three-run homer to David Ortiz and a solo shot by Hanley Ramirez. The four-run frame spoiled an otherwise-solid outing by the Orioles right-hander.

With the scored tied 4-4 with two outs and the bases empty in the top of the eighth, lefty specialist Brian Matusz was summoned to pitch to the switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval, who was 0-for-13 against southpaws so far in 2015. Instead of following up Tommy Hunter’s 1 2/3 innings of strong work by getting his man, Matusz walked Sandoval and was promptly lifted in favor of Darren O’Day. A Manny Machado fielding error and a Brock Holt three-run homer later, Baltimore trailed 7-4.

Of course, the home runs were the death knells, but the two-out walks paved the way for trouble.

“We didn’t do the little things tonight,” said O’Day, who credited Holt for hitting a quality 1-2 pitch over the right-field scoreboard. “We made a lot of small errors, and our strength is paying attention to detail. We just didn’t do it tonight — both sides of the ball.”

Machado’s fielding miscue — the Orioles have now committed eight errors over their last five games  — came after he had struck out in an eight-pitch at-bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.

It didn’t take much, but the Orioles continue to do the little things poorly and it cost them another game on Friday.

* Baltimore has now lost five straight for the first time since a six-game losing streak from Sept. 19-24, 2013.

* Matusz has walked seven batters in 7 1/3 innings, which is tied for fourth on the club. He’s tied for 11th in innings pitched.

* Gonzalez gave the Orioles only their fifth start of the season to go six innings or more. The 30-year-old has provided the last two, both coming at home.

* Counting the 2014 postseason, O’Day has given up seven homers in his last 20 innings dating back to Sept. 2 of last year.

 

 

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Numbers behind Orioles’ 6-5 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 08 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A 6-0 lead through two innings typically leads to a relaxing night of baseball, but it was anything but that for the Orioles Tuesday as they held on for dear life in an eventual 6-5 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite being staked to the early lead, starter Wei-Yin Chen struggled his way through 4 1/3 innings as his fastball velocity was down and he lacked his normal crispness with his off-speed pitches. Kevin Gausman worked 2 1/3 innings in relief to earn the victory, but the right-hander allowed a two-run shot off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier in the sixth to make it a one-run game.

Instead of a night in cruise control for the Orioles, the pitching staff consistently found deep counts and needed a whopping 176 pitches to secure the victory, including a combined 42 from Darren O’Day and Zach Britton. With O’Day (24 combined pitches) and Britton (42 total pitches) having pitched in each of the first two games and potentially unavailable for the series finale, the Orioles will need a strong outing from No. 3 starter Miguel Gonzalez.

Fortunately, Baltimore will receive a day off to rest up before the home opener at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday afternoon.

* One of the biggest questions facing Steve Pearce in his quest to prove his 2014 campaign wasn’t a fluke will be whether he can sustain the success against right-handed pitching that he found a year ago.

The soon-to-be 32-year-old owns an underwhelming career .700 on-base slugging percentage against right-handers, but that’s including his .856 mark in 272 plate appearances last year. Pearce has always hit southpaw pitching well (a career .878 OPS), which is the main reason why major league clubs continued to give him opportunities despite a reputation as a “Quad-A” player over his first eight major league seasons.

The all-too-early verdict in 2015 has been encouraging to say the least as Pearce has clubbed two homers against right-handed pitching in two games.

It’s remarkable to think how important Pearce has become to this club after he was designated for assignment less than 12 months ago.

* When he acquired outfielder Travis Snider from Pittsburgh in late January, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette cited his strong second half in 2014 as a sign that the former first-round pick had finally begun realizing his potential.

After the All-Star break last year, the former Pirate posted an .880 OPS with nine homers and 24 RBIs. Small sample size alert aside, Snider has reached base in seven of eight trips to the plate and already has three RBIs in two games.

The Orioles hope Snider is just hitting his stride at age 27 and can give them good production this season for a fraction of what Nick Markakis commanded in free agency.

So far, so good.

* You think Chris Davis was eager to make his 2015 debut and play in his first real game since Sept. 10, 2014?

Serving as the designated hitter on Tuesday, Davis swung at six of the first seven pitches he saw in his first two at-bats and appeared too anxious early in the game. However, his best at-bat came in the eighth when he flied to deep right after a nine-pitch encounter with Rays right-hander Kevin Jepsen.

Davis finished 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the sixth inning.

It goes without saying how critical a bounce-back season from Davis would be in replacing the power production left behind by Nelson Cruz. And it’s even more critical for the 29-year-old’s future as he’s set to become a free agent this coming offseason.

* The Orioles collected six runs and five hits over the first two innings against Tampa Bay starter Nathan Karns, but Everth Cabrera had their only hit the rest of the way as he collected a single in the top of the seventh.

Yes, the pitching staff should have been better in minimizing stress after an early six-run lead, but the offense essentially checked out after Pearce’s two-run homer in the second.

 

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2015 Orioles preview: Darren O’Day

Posted on 23 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just two weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Zach Britton
March 13 – Chris Davis
March 14 – Wei-Yin Chen
March 15 – Jonathan Schoop
March 16 – Travis Snider
March 17 – Kevin Gausman
March 18 – Alejandro De Aza
March 19 – Tommy Hunter
March 20 – Manny Machado
March 21 – Brad Brach
March 22 – Steve Pearce

RHP Darren O’Day

Opening Day age: 32

Contract status: Will become a free agent after the 2015 season

Minor-league options remaining: None

2014 stats: 5-2 with four saves, 1.70 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.6 K/IP, 6 HR, 68 2/3 innings

Why to be impressed: The right-hander posted arguably the best season of his career in 2014 as he continued to be the heart and soul of what’s been a very good three-year run for the Baltimore bullpen. Right-handed hitters posted a .497 on-base plus slugging percentage while lefty batters owned a .633 OPS, making him an excellent option against just about anyone in the late innings.

Why to be concerned: O’Day has pitched 62 or more innings in each of the last three years, which is a gigantic workload for even a reliever with a submarine delivery that’s typically easier on the arm. Despite his terrific numbers in the regular season, O’Day wore down in September (7.00 ERA in nine innings) and allowed two home runs and four earned runs in 2 2/3 innings in the playoffs. Late in the season, O’Day struggled against left-handed hitters, which was reminiscent of his 2013 campaign in which lefties posted a .922 OPS against him.

2015 outlook: It was concerning to see O’Day struggle the way he did at the end of last season after performing at such an outstanding level for five months, making you wonder if manager Buck Showalter needs to monitor his workload more carefully. He figures to get the ball often again this year with Andrew Miller no longer a late-inning option. It would be tough for O’Day to match his 2014 numbers, but another ERA south of 2.40 is in order as long as the veteran reliever stays healthy.

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Davis says using Adderall “never a baseball issue” for him

Posted on 31 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Breaking his silence to the local media about the suspension that cost him the opportunity to play in the 2014 postseason, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis expressed regret in letting down his teammates and explained his reason for using Adderall on Saturday.

Now the 28-year-old looks to bounce back from a nightmarish 2014 season in which he hit only .196 and was suspended 25 games on Sept. 12, just days before the Orioles clinched their first American League East title since 1997.

“It was a moment of weakness,” Davis said. “Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about the big picture. It was a mistake I wish I could go back and undo.”

Davis confirmed that he has received a therapeutic-use exemption to once again use the drug prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Major League Baseball did not grant Davis an exemption for the 2013 and 2014 seasons after having one in previous years, and the slugger admitted to using the drug “a couple times” last year even though he knew he was at risk of testing positive.

The first baseman would not reveal when his first failed test occurred or why he lost his previous exemption, only saying he “didn’t take the right steps.” However, Davis made it clear that his use of the drug shouldn’t be associated with his performance — good or bad — on the field as he downplayed the need to use the drug for baseball.

The drug helps sharpen focus, which is why it’s considered a banned substance with an exemption.

“It was never a baseball issue. For me, it was off the field — just an everyday life thing,” Davis said. “There were a lot of times when I was young where teachers had brought it up and kind of mentioned [ADHD], but we never really went down that road. When I was diagnosed in 2008, I was prescribed Adderall and I realized how much of a difference it made just in my everyday life. For me, that was kind of the reason I went down that road.”

Several of his teammates were asked how his return will impact the clubhouse with the general consensus being that the Orioles have moved on from last year. Though Davis was invited to rejoin the club for the AL Championship Series last October, many teammates expressed disappointment in his poor judgment at the time the suspension was announced.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy pointed to Davis’ exemption for the 2015 season as evidence that it’s a non-issue. Though he’ll be allowed to participate in spring training and play in Grapefruit League contests, Davis will serve the final game of his ban on Opening Day against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 6.

“I guess we should have won one in the American League Championship Series. We screwed that up,” said relief pitcher Darren O’Day, who played with Davis in Texas. “I think that’s in the past. We’ve all talked to Chris about it; he’s talked to us about it. We’ve addressed it as a team. He’s moving on, and we’re moving on. We’re expecting him to be right back where he was with the sweet swing and hitting balls out of left field. It’s going to be fun.”

Understandably, many will remain skeptical of Davis after he was so outspoken against the use of performance-enhancing drugs during his 2013 campaign in which he slugged a franchise-record 53 home runs, but he is focused on rebounding in his final season before becoming a free agent. The Orioles have discussed a long-term extension with Davis’ agent, Scott Boras, in the past, but it appears likely that the first baseman will want to rebuild his value during the 2015 campaign before potentially hitting the open market.

Davis pointed to a slow start and the oblique injury suffered in late April as the primary reasons why he was unable to get on track in 2014 after producing his overwhelming numbers a year earlier. In 127 games, Davis saw his home run total fall from 53 to 26 as he posted a .704 on-base plus slugging percentage a year after producing a 1.004 mark.

“I’ve been doing a little bit different workout this [winter]. I’ve been working on my bunting down the third-base line a lot,” said Davis, cracking a smile as he alluded to the exaggerated infield shifts opponents used against him last season. “But I’m ready to get started. I wish we started tomorrow.”

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Orioles pick up options on Chen, O’Day as expected

Posted on 30 October 2014 by Luke Jones

The Orioles offered no surprises in their decisions to exercise 2015 contract options for pitchers Wei-Yin Chen and Darren O’Day on Thursday.

And as expected, the Orioles declined options for right fielder Nick Markakis and catcher Nick Hundley, making both free agents. Of course, the organization continues to negotiate in hopes of reaching a long-term extension with the longtime outfielder, but Markakis will now receive a $2 million buyout. Hundley’s $5 million club option did not include a buyout.

After going 16-6 with a 3.54 ERA, Chen will make $4.75 million in 2015 as he’s been one of the Orioles’ most dependable starting pitchers with a 3.86 ERA in 86 starts over the last three seasons. The Taiwanese lefty originally signed a three-year, $11 million contract on Jan. 10, 2012.

The backbone of a strong Orioles bullpen over the last three years, O’Day — who will make $4.25 million next season — may have had the best season of his career in 2014 despite September struggles that crept into the postseason when he allowed four earned runs and two home runs in 2 2/3 innings. In the regular season, O’Day pitched to a 1.70 ERA in 68 appearances, but his 7.00 ERA in the month of September was concerning as he gave up three home runs to left-handed hitters.

The decision to pass on a mutual $17.5 million option for Markakis was expected, but assessing the 2003 first-round pick’s value is a tricky proposition with his offensive decline in recent years. The 30-year-old hit .276 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs in 642 at-bats this season, but he’s posted slugging percentages below .400 in each of the last two years.

Acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for relief pitcher Troy Patton in late May, Hundley hit .233 with five home runs and 19 RBIs. It was always considered highly unlikely that the Orioles would pick up his option with starting catcher Matt Wieters expected back from Tommy John surgery next season.

With Chen and O’Day officially in the fold for the 2015 season, the Orioles have 32 players on their current 40-man roster.

The following members of the 2014 40-man roster are now free agents: Markakis, Hundley, Alexi Casilla, Nelson Cruz, Kelly Johnson, Andrew Miller, Johan Santana, Joe Saunders, and Delmon Young.

Clubs have five days of exclusive negotiating rights with their own free agents before other teams are allowed to make offers beginning on Nov. 4.

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Orioles can only look forward in trying to erase ALCS deficit

Posted on 12 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It felt as though the momentum was finally shifting in the Orioles’ direction.

Tied 4-4 with the Kansas City Royals in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Orioles had just gunned down pinch runner Jarrod Dyson trying to steal on a perfect throw from catcher Caleb Joseph and retired the side a moment later when Eric Hosmer flied out to center. A sold-out crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards that balanced enthusiasm with concern for much of the evening could sense the Orioles were on the verge of finally breaking through for their first in-game lead of the series.

Those cheers only grew louder as Nick Markakis reached on an error by reliever Kelvin Herrera and Alejandro De Aza walked to start the inning, bringing the heart of the order to the plate. Even after Adam Jones swung through three straight pitches, spirits were once again elevated when Nelson Cruz singled to left to load the bases with one out for Steve Pearce and J.J. Hardy.

But instead of the Orioles pushing runs across the plate, Kansas City delivered a body blow as Pearce popped to shallow left and Hardy flied out to right. The threat was over with no damage done.

Two innings later, an infield dribbler, a sacrifice bunt, and Escobar’s sharp grounder inside the first-base bag gave Kansas City the lead and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series as they went on to win 6-4 on Saturday.

The saying goes that you’d rather be lucky than good, but the Royals have been lucky and good in putting the Orioles on the ropes as the teams now travel to Kansas City for the next three games of the series. Sure, the upstart Royals have benefited from a number of broken-bat hits, bloopers, and dribblers in the first two games of the series, but they’ve also homered four times, pitched tremendously in relief, and put at least one runner on base in 18 of their 19 innings at the plate in the ALCS.

“The hot team makes things go their way,” said closer Zach Britton, who surrendered Escobar’s game-winning double in the top of the ninth. “They are hot, they beat [the Los Angeles Angels], and they are continuing that right now. We scored some runs, and we’re not able to shut them down. The big key — if we want to win this series — is when we get that momentum, keeping it on our side.”

No, the Orioles haven’t been firing on all cylinders as their starting pitching has been poor and normally-reliable relievers Darren O’Day and Britton have struggled, but they’ve lost two games by a combined four runs with Kansas City scoring the winning runs in the final inning each time. It isn’t a case of the Royals being dramatically better, but Ned Yost’s club has endured every shot from the Orioles and returned one just a little bit stronger.

Baltimore now faces a steep climb to get back in the series as no team has ever won an LCS after dropping Games 1 and 2 at home. But there have been teams to bounce back from that same scenario in the World Series as the 1996 New York Yankees were embarrassed by the Atlanta Braves in the first two games in the Bronx before they won four straight for their first championship in 18 years. The 1985 Royals and 1986 Mets also won titles after dropping World Series Games 1 and 2 at home, so the chore isn’t impossible, even if unlikely.

The Orioles can either roll over for the red-hot Royals, who’ve won all six postseason games they’ve played, or they can focus on a simple task. Facing former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie in Game 3, the Orioles need an early lead to lift their in-game spirits and a win on Monday. That’s all they can try to control at this point.

“You’ve got to earn everything, every inning, every at‑bat,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Like I said last night, you can’t bottle the concentration level and everything that goes into these games. Humanly, you couldn’t do it for the 200 games we play a year. You see at this time of year guys are firing, and you’re getting the best from everybody.”

While many are now counting out the Orioles more because of Kansas City’s current play and karma than anything else, one of Baltimore’s biggest strengths under Showalter has been an ability to compartmentalize every game and every series over the course of a 162-game schedule. Rarely have we witnessed the Orioles too high after an important win or too low after a significant loss.

The atmosphere in the clubhouse following Saturday’s defeat was predictably quiet, but center fielder Adam Jones wasn’t about to concede anything to the Royals after they handed the Orioles consecutive defeats at Camden Yards for the first time since June 28-29.

“The series ain’t over. If you guys are thinking it’s over, why are we going to show up on Monday?” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of baseball to play in this series. Let’s get back after it. We’re going to go to [Kansas City]. We’ve been a very good team on the road, so let’s go there and have some fun. Eat some barbecue.”

For a club that’s endured season-ending injuries and suspensions to All-Star players while still winning 99 games counting the playoffs, a 2-0 deficit in the ALCS is the latest trial to overcome. It won’t be easy as Kansas City holds a whirlwind of momentum that started with an improbable win over Oakland in the AL Wild Card Game.

Ultimately, it could just be the Royals’ year when we look back at the 2014 postseason.

But the first challenge for the Orioles moving forward is to win on Monday to make it a 2-1 deficit and put a little pressure on the Royals as they play in front of their home crowd. Kansas City has embraced the role of being the underdog this month, so it will be interesting to see how Yost’s players respond to being the favorite for at least the next couple games.

If the Orioles needed it, the speedy outfielder Dyson even offered some bulletin board material when asked by the Kansas City Star whether he expected the series to return to Baltimore.

“I don’t. And I don’t think they think that, either.”

Baltimore went 46-35 on the road, so maybe a day off and the opportunity to play away from the home crowd will allow the Orioles to reset mentally. The prospects of winning two of three in Kansas City — where the Royals were only 42-39 this year — aren’t impossible if the Orioles stay true to themselves in their style of play, which is pretty darn good despite the results of Games 1 and 2 that can’t be changed.

A 2-0 deficit can’t be erased entirely in one contest, but a win in Game 3 would sure make things far more interesting.

“We had chances and we just didn’t get it done,” Jones said. “Plain and simple. Ain’t no excuses in here. Take it to K.C. and get back after it.”

That’s been the mindset under Showalter for the last three winning seasons, and it’s the reason not to throw in the towel on the 2014 season just yet.

Perhaps the Orioles have a few body blows of their own to stun the Royals with before this series is over.

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Late innings suddenly not so comfortable for Orioles

Posted on 11 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Amidst changing faces and three different closers over the last three seasons, Darren O’Day has remained the backbone of the Orioles bullpen.

We saw it firsthand against the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series as he inherited a disastrous situation created by closer Zach Britton in the ninth inning and induced a 6-4-3 double play from designated hitter Billy Butler to escape a bases-loaded jam and keep the Orioles tied 5-5.

But the right-hander’s fortunes changed in the top of the 10th as Alex Gordon led off with a tie-breaking homer to help send Kansas City to an 8-6 win on Friday night. In isolation, the Orioles could chalk it up as a rare mistake for the submarine pitcher who posted a 1.70 ERA in the regular season, but Gordon’s blast continued a disturbing trend that began right around Labor Day.

After allowing only three home runs in the first five months of the season, O’Day has now surrendered five long balls since Sept. 2, with four of them against left-handed hitters. Batters from that side of the plate hit only .189 against him in the regular season, but O’Day’s recent difficulty against left-handed bats suddenly makes the Orioles’ back-end trio of Britton, O’Day, and Andrew Miller appear mortal. And it spells trouble against a lineup featuring Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas.

“Highs and lows of playoff baseball,” O’Day said. “I came in the inning before and got out of a situation you don’t expect to get out of and, as easy as that, just like I’m throwing batting practice, I gave up a home run. I take great pride in being able to get left-handers [out]. Lately, I haven’t been. Forget getting them out. You have to keep guys in the yard, left- or right-handed.”

Of course, O’Day wasn’t the only factor in explaining why the Orioles lost their first game of the postseason Friday as starter Chris Tillman struggled, the offense squandered some golden opportunities, and the defense missed a chance to limit the damage in a four-run fourth. But in a series in which the Orioles face a bullpen as imposing as their own, O’Day’s vulnerability against left-handed hitters could make for a trying series.

Since the acquisition of Miller, Baltimore has flourished while often creating a six-inning game for opponents with O’Day and the former Boston Red Sox lefty handling the seventh and the eighth before Britton would slam the door in the ninth. But it doesn’t take much for a bullpen to suddenly find itself in disarray.

As anyone in baseball will tell you, there’s nothing more volatile than relief pitching.

Just ask former Oriole Jim Johnson, who went from record-setting closer to unemployed in less than two years. He’s still trying to fully pick up the pieces from his failures in the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees two years ago.

“They’re good hitters and they’re good pitchers, and sometimes it doesn’t work out,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Those guys that all pitched tonight are the reason we’re sitting here playing a seven-game series for the American League championship. It will continue tomorrow.”

Showalter will continue to go with O’Day and Britton just as he should. As spectacular as Miller has been in the postseason — tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings — he can’t pitch multiple innings every night in a best-of-seven series.

Britton expressed confidence after the Game 1 loss that his wildness was an aberration, but Friday’s outing in which he threw only five strikes out of 20 total pitches did follow a shaky ninth-inning performance in Game 3 of the ALDS in which he allowed back-to-back doubles and needed a 5-4-3 double play to close out the series. You have to trust – and hope – his inability to throw strikes against the Royals in Game 1 was more a product of having not pitched in four days and not evidence of developing the yips on the second-biggest stage you’ll find in the majors.

The left-handed closer held up just fine pitching in the first two games of the ALDS, which earns him some benefit of the doubt.

But O’Day’s vulnerability against left-handed pitching has now lasted the better part of six weeks. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen this from the veteran as lefty hitters batted .309 with five home runs against him in 2013, but it does complicate the bullpen’s pecking order if he can’t be trusted in certain situations.

Lefty specialist Brian Matusz certainly didn’t inspire confidence later in the 10th by allowing a two-run homer to the lefty-hitting Moustakas, which ended up being the difference in the game after the Orioles staged their 10th-inning rally.

It could mean a few more high-leverage opportunities for the 23-year-old Kevin Gausman, but Showalter wants to use the right-hander to bridge the gap to the late innings if a starter runs into trouble as we saw with Tillman on Friday and Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2 of the Division Series last week.

To be clear, the Orioles shouldn’t panic after their series-opening defeat as 13 of 28 Game 1 losers have recovered to win the ALCS since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1985. Showalter will continue to ride the horses that got the Orioles to this point, and there’s a track record to suggest they’ll bounce back for the remainder of the series.

But with O’Day’s recent struggles against lefties and Britton’s alarming lack of control Friday night, the late innings suddenly aren’t as comfortable as they’ve been for most of the season.

And that will make you hold your breath even more when you’re just four victories away from advancing to the World Series — and now three losses from elimination.

“We will go get them [Saturday],” Britton said. “We have to win four, and it doesn’t matter what four you win so we’ll bounce back [Saturday]. We’ve done it before.”

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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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