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Long, painful week for Orioles ends with no relief

Posted on 22 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles had a chance to stop the bleeding on Sunday after a difficult 1-4 start to an eight-game homestand.

Waiting out a rain delay of more than four hours on the heels of two of their worst losses of the season, the Orioles watched first-place Toronto squander another late lead in a loss at Cleveland. Second-place Boston fell hard in Detroit. Even Seattle — who entered the day one game behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot — blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning to lose to lowly Milwaukee.

A victory in the finale of the four-game set with Houston would have shrunk the Orioles’ American League East deficit to just 1 1/2 games and increased their lead over the Mariners. It wasn’t a must-win game, but it represented a valuable opportunity to salvage a four-game split, exhale, and regroup after allowing an unseemly 27 runs to the Astros the previous two nights.

Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed after poor performances by Wade Miley, Chris Tillman, and a host of long relievers had decimated the bullpen to the point that infielder Ryan Flaherty pitched the ninth inning of Saturday’s loss. Enduring two different rain delays, Gallardo allowed one run over the first four innings on Sunday.

Then, the fifth came.

Two-time Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado bobbled a chopper off the bat of Teoscar Hernandez for an error to begin the inning. Four batters later, a Carlos Correa line drive to right-center went off the glove of right fielder Chris Davis for a two-run double that would give the Astros a 4-1 lead. Manager Buck Showalter said after the game that his normal first baseman had lost the ball in the lights, but the two defensive miscues led to three runs for Houston.

The bottom of the fifth wasn’t much better as Adam Jones singled home Nolan Reimold to make it a 4-2 deficit, but the center fielder overslid second base as he advanced on the throw home and was then tagged out, ending the inning and adding a baserunning mistake to the poor defense in the top half of frame.

Taking nothing away from a strong eight-inning performance by 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, the Orioles cost themselves dearly in that fateful inning. Of course, it didn’t help that the bats largely fell silent again after the Baltimore pitching hadn’t given them much of a chance on Friday or Saturday.

Gallardo deserved better over his seven solid innings of work, but the Orioles have done whatever it takes to lose on this current homestand. In a two-game sweep against Boston, little went right across the board. After a 13-5 blowout victory over the Astros in the series opener, the Orioles made major league history Friday night by homering four times before recording a single out and amazingly lost by seven as Miley and the bullpen surrendered a combined 15 runs.

Despite falling to just 11 games over .500 for the first time since June 22, the math tells you the Orioles are still in fine shape and only a modest winning streak away from potentially being back in first place. But it doesn’t feel that way with a maddeningly inconsistent offense, a shorthanded bullpen, and a starting rotation reverting to its first-half form after showing some improvement since the All-Star break.

Since a four-game winning streak in which they swept Cleveland and won the opener of a series with Colorado to improve to an AL-best 58-40 on July 25, the Orioles have gone 9-16 and have been passed by both the Blue Jays and the Red Sox in the division.

It isn’t panic time yet, but losing the final three games against Houston — a team that came to Baltimore having lost four in a row and 13 of its previous 19 — felt alarmingly reminiscent of last year’s four-game home sweep to Minnesota that led to a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games ending any real chance of making the postseason. Of course, the Orioles are in better position now than last year at that point, but their 2016 season appears to be at a crossroads.

The offense has slumped for the better part of six weeks now, once again too dependent on the home run. Dating back to the last West Coast trip, the last six hits apiece from Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo have all been homers, illustrating the largely all-or-nothing performance from the lineup.

The health of No. 1 starter Chris Tillman remains in question despite him saying his shoulder felt fine after his worst start of the season on Saturday. Acquired at the deadline to fortify the rotation, Miley is sporting a 9.53 ERA in his four starts with the Orioles.

The bullpen is once again without Darren O’Day, who doesn’t appear particularly close to returning from a strained rotator cuff. Closer Zach Britton has been nothing short of brilliant all year, but getting to him is becoming increasingly difficult with fellow All-Star reliever Brad Brach struggling since the break.

The Orioles had been nearly invincible at Camden Yards this season in winning 70 percent of their games there, but they no longer have the best home mark in the majors after dropping six of their last seven in Baltimore.

No, things aren’t always as bad as they seem when a team is struggling like the Orioles are right now. The good news is that they didn’t lose any ground Sunday with their competitors all falling.

But instead of stopping the bleeding and starting to reverse their recent fortunes, the wound grew deeper in another frustrating loss.

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After promising stretch, Orioles pitching again looking too vulnerable

Posted on 17 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles pitching staff appeared to be turning a corner not long ago.

Despite a maddening offensive slump that led to three straight losses in Oakland last week, the starting rotation had rattled off seven straight quality starts as the latest sign of its second-half improvement. There had been some hiccups here and there from the bullpen, but Darren O’Day had finally returned a couple weeks before and the group still led the American League in ERA.

All the Orioles needed was their all-too-powerful offense to awaken from its second-half slumber and they’d seemingly be ready to take off at the right time in an all-too-tight AL East battle with Toronto and Boston.

Then, word came over the weekend that O’Day was dealing with a strained rotator cuff that required a cortisone injection and another trip to the disabled list. Manager Buck Showalter said Tuesday that the hope is for the veteran right-hander to be ready to return at the end of the minimum 15-day DL period, but a shoulder issue is one of the last things you want for a pitcher, particularly one as important as O’Day to Baltimore’s success over the last five years.

Making matters worse are the recent struggles of All-Star setup man Brad Brach, who pitched incredibly well during O’Day’s extended absence earlier in the season. The right-hander gave up the deciding two-run homer to Boston’s Mookie Betts in Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to elevate his ERA to 4.50 in 12 innings of work since the All-Star break. It would have been unfair to expect Brach to maintain the microscopic 0.91 ERA he posted in 49 1/3 innings in the first half, but you do wonder if such a stressful workload and some simple regression to the mean are catching up to him down the stretch.

If they’re to endure this latest O’Day absence, the Orioles need Brach to find his first-half form sooner rather than later.

Of course, Showalter revealing Tuesday night that 15-game winner Chris Tillman would not pitch on Wednesday due to shoulder soreness creates more restlessness. Tillman is currently slated to start against Houston on Saturday, but there is clearly enough concern to scratch your ace from a critical game against the AL East foe who just pulled even with the Orioles for second place in the division.

Dylan Bundy will now try to continue his impressive run as a starter against the highest-scoring offense in the major leagues.

It could all be fine with Tillman making that Saturday start without any issue and a rested and healthy O’Day returning to action before the end of the month, but executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette should be feeling more urgency to fortify the pitching staff ahead of the waiver trade deadline in two weeks. At the very least, the Orioles would benefit from another reliable reliever to ease the burden on Brach and Mychal Givens in trying to bridge the gap to All-Star closer Zach Britton.

Right now, the remainder of the bullpen consists of three long relievers — Vance Worley, Tyler Wilson, and the seldom-used Ubaldo Jimenez — and unproven left-hander Donnie Hart. The Orioles entered Tuesday’s game still sporting an AL-leading 3.15 bullpen ERA, but the parts just don’t breed confidence right now.

Doubts have persisted all year about the pitching, but the latest developments aren’t doing the Orioles any favors.

The offense rising to the occasion like it did in the first half would surely quell concerns, but the Orioles can only hope that a couple of sore shoulders won’t derail what’s been a surprisingly strong season.

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Orioles come home from long road trip with good feeling

Posted on 14 August 2016 by Luke Jones

It would have been easy for the Orioles to mail it in when they fell behind 7-1 in San Francisco on Sunday.

Playing the final game of a long 10-day road trip — the last seven days in the Bay Area — and still a cross-country flight away from their second day off since the All-Star break, the Orioles looked like a team largely going through the motions for several innings as starter Wade Miley allowed six earned runs and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. The defense wasn’t sharp, and the Baltimore lineup was retired on a total of 15 pitches from Giants starting pitcher Johnny Cueto in the third and fourth innings.

You could hardly blame fans who might have turned the channel or elected to enjoy an early-evening nap at that point, but they missed something special as the Orioles bounced back to score seven times over the final three innings with the exclamation point being a Jonathan Schoop three-run homer with two outs in the ninth. Whether this is remembered as a season-defining win remains to be seen — Orioles manager Buck Showalter loves to cite Earl Weaver’s adage of momentum being as good as the next game’s starting pitcher — but a 5-5 road trip feels much better than a 4-6 mark for a club that’s struggled on the road all season.

There was something fitting about Schoop finishing off the colossal comeback with a three-run homer on what would have been the late Hall of Fame manager’s 86th birthday.

The Orioles owned just one win when trailing after eight innings all season, but they did secure their 34th comeback victory of 2016, third most in the majors. As flawed as they might be and as quickly as many want to dismiss their playoff chances at any sign of trouble, these Orioles under Showalter continue to be as resilient as they come.

They now return home and will play 25 of their final 45 games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where their 39-17 record has made them the best home team in the majors in 2016. That’s certainly good news for a club that needed a miraculous Sunday win to improve to 27-34 on the road.

All but 10 of those remaining games come against teams currently holding winning records, but the Orioles have fewer remaining road contests than either Toronto or Boston, an advantage over the final seven weeks of the regular season.

The Orioles have obvious flaws, but they’ve spent all season in first or second place and have provided more joy than frustration in a season in which outside expectations weren’t all that great at the start.

A loss hardly would have meant the sky was falling, but the showing wasn’t pretty for much of Sunday. Then, the Orioles reminded us what we should have already remembered countless times over the last five years.

You don’t doubt their resiliency or effort.

Bullpen pick-me-up

Lost in Schoop’s heroics on Sunday was a good bullpen performance of 4 2/3 scoreless innings a day after right-hander Darren O’Day was officially placed on the disabled list with a rotator cuff strain.

The perfect eighth from All-Star setup man Brad Brach was particularly encouraging after the right-hander entered Sunday with a 3.60 ERA since the All-Star break and a 5.40 mark in August. As they did when O’Day was sidelined with a hamstring injury for nearly two months earlier in the season, the Orioles will lean heavily on Brach to turn the ball over to All-Star closer Zach Britton, who improved to 37-for-37 in 2016 save chances on Sunday.

It will be challenging enough to weather another O’Day absence, but the Orioles need Brach to get on a roll again if the bullpen has any chance of continuing to own the best ERA in the AL.

Pearce injury

Hitting for reliever Donnie Hart, Steve Pearce just missed hitting a three-run homer in the eighth inning as he was able to come off the bench for a second straight day after missing five days of action.

A flexor mass strain in his right elbow is bound to limit Pearce’s ability to play defense the rest of the way, but the Orioles desperately need his bat against left-handed pitching. Baltimore is hitting .234 with a .690 on-base plus slugging percentage against left-handers and will see a pair of southpaw starters — Eduardo Rodriguez and David Price — in a two-game set with the Red Sox beginning Tuesday.

Pearce is hitting .339 with an 1.104 OPS against lefties this season.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 3-2 win over Texas

Posted on 04 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 106th game of the 2016 season.

1st Matt Wieters not only provided the deciding two-run single off Rangers ace Cole Hamels in the bottom of the first, but the catcher also made the biggest defensive play of the evening in the ninth. On a pitch that got away from closer Zach Britton, Rougned Odor took off from first base in an effort to get the potential tying run in scoring position, but Wieters pounced on the ball and fired a strike to Jonathan Schoop, who didn’t even have to move his glove to tag the sliding Odor for the second out of the inning. Entering the night with a .179 average against left-handed pitching, Wieters delivered a big hit as a right-handed batter for the second straight night — he homered from the right side late in Tuesday’s win — and was the offensive standout on a night when runs were at a premium.

2ndKevin Gausman turned in seven good innings to earn his third win of the year, but the final numbers don’t really tell the whole story of his outing. Coming off arguably his worst start of 2016 at Toronto, the right-hander had already allowed a first-inning homer and an RBI single in the second before walking Nomar Mazara to put two runners on with no outs in the second. The outing was teetering toward disaster before he retired the next three hitters to escape trouble. From that point, Gausman commanded his fastball well and needed only 58 pitches to complete the next five innings after he had thrown 50 over the first two frames. Four of his seven strikeouts came on fastballs while he effectively used his split-changeup for the other three. He received some good luck as some squared-up contact was gobbled up by his infield defense, but his strong recovery after a rough start was impressive.

3rdDarren O’Day once again took the ball after pitching a perfect 1 1/3 innings on 17 pitches on Tuesday, and he did not disappoint. Facing the top of the Rangers order in a 3-2 game, the right-hander needed just seven pitches to retire Jurickson Profar, Ian Desmond, and Carlos Beltran. Since returning from the disabled list late last month, O’Day has pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed one hit and one walk while striking out seven.

Home — Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis made a collection of fine defensive plays to support a good pitching effort from Gausman. … Britton struggled with his control in the ninth before converting his 33rd save in as many tries to begin the season, which is the major league record for consecutive save conversions to begin a season by a left-handed pitcher. His 106th career save moved him past Tippy Martinez and into sole possession of third on the club’s all-time saves list. … Manny Machado collected his 31st double of the year in the first inning to surpass his total of 30 in 162 games last season. … Steve Pearce went 0-for-2 with a walk and two strikeouts looking in his first game back with the Orioles. … Baltimore improved to 39-16 in games played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. … Left-hander Wade Miley will make his Orioles debut on Thursday night while the Rangers send right-hander A.J. Griffin to the hill.

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Orioles activate O’Day prior to series finale with Cleveland

Posted on 24 July 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — More than seven weeks after injuring his right hamstring, setup man Darren O’Day has returned to the Orioles bullpen.

The 2015 All-Star selection was activated from the 15-day disabled list 30 minutes prior to the start of Sunday’s series finale with Cleveland. O’Day last pitched on June 1, but his return provides a signficant boost to a bullpen already ranking second in the American League and fourth in the majors with a 3.10 ERA.

Baltimore optioned left-handed reliever Donnie Hart to Double-A Bowie to make room on the 25-man roster.

In O’Day’s absence, Baltimore has leaned more heavily on Brad Brach, who has responded by posting a 1.19 ERA in 53 innings and earned a trip to his first All-Star Game earlier this month. It will be interesting to see how manager Buck Showalter sequences O’Day and Brach before getting to closer Zach Britton at the end of games. Entering Sunday, Britton had pitched on four consecutive days, but he had thrown a total of only 20 pitches.

Signed to a four-year, $31 million contract this offseason, O’Day, 33, posted a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings before going to the DL in early June. However, the right-hander had given up five home runs — matching his 2015 total — and walked 4.1 hitters per nine innings, a career-high rate.

O’Day has been the backbone of the Orioles bullpen since 2012, posting a 1.92 ERA and averaging just under 66 innings per year over his first four seasons in Baltimore.

Hart’s demotion means the Orioles are back to having only one lefty in the bullpen with Britton clearly not used for matchup purposes. The 25-year-old rookie had pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings over three appearances since being promoted to begin the second half.

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Five biggest Orioles disappointments of 2016 first half

Posted on 13 July 2016 by Luke Jones

In the midst of the tightest division race in the majors at the All-Star break, the Orioles have still endured their share of disappointing performers during a 51-36 start.

While plenty has gone smoothly for the first-place club, several players have turned in underwhelming performances in comparison to their expectations for the 2016 season. Those shortcomings make it more impressive that Baltimore has been able to excel in the competitive American League East.

After examining the biggest surprises of the first half earlier this week, below are my five biggest individual disappointments:

Dubious mention: Kevin Gausman, T.J. McFarland, Brian Matusz, Tyler Wilson, J.J. Hardy

5. Darren O’Day

The 2015 All-Star reliever’s inclusion on this list is obviously much more about his extended absence than his performance as his hamstring injury has put great strain on a bullpen trying to compensate for one of the worst starting rotations in the majors.

It also came after the Orioles invested a four-year, $31 million contract in O’Day this past offseason, but the club should feel good about the right-hander’s track record in coming back to contribute in meaningful ways in the second half.

Injury aside, O’Day would likely be the first to tell you that he wasn’t pitching at his best despite a respectable 3.15 ERA in 20 innings of work through June 1. His five home runs allowed are still the most surrendered by any Baltimore reliever this season and match his total in 65 1/3 innings last year. His walk rate of 4.1 per nine innings is also the worst of his career and substantially higher than the 2.1 per nine he averaged over his first four seasons with the Orioles.

It remains unclear exactly when O’Day will be ready to be activated, but manager Buck Showalter is itching to have the backbone of his bullpen back in the mix.

4. Caleb Joseph

It almost feels cruel to include the backup catcher on this list after his gruesome testicular injury suffered on Memorial Day that required surgery and sidelined him for a month, but failing to collect a single RBI in 81 plate appearances can’t be ignored.

There was a fair argument this winter that the Orioles would have been better off not extending a qualifying offer to Matt Wieters and going with Joseph as the starting catcher at a fraction of the cost, but the latter has batted .160 with only two extra-base hits and a .409 on-base plus slugging percentage. In his defense, Joseph hasn’t received nearly as much playing time as he did last season when he posted an acceptable .693 OPS with 11 homers and 49 RBIs, but his struggles at the plate have been so extreme that you’d worry about an injury to Wieters at this point.

Joseph’s defense remains a clear strength and Wieters has had no perceived issues moving back to a heavier workload now being two years removed from Tommy John surgery, but the Orioles are likely going to need the understudy to get his bat going at some point in the second half.

3. Mike Wright

Perhaps it’s unfair to include a pitcher who had just 44 2/3 major league innings under his belt entering 2016, but the Orioles thought enough of Wright being in their rotation that they jettisoned veteran Miguel Gonzalez in an effort to save $4 million before the season.

Needless to say, the decision hasn’t worked out as Wright has posted a 5.97 ERA in 69 1/3 innings that included 12 starts. He has twice been optioned to Triple-A Norfolk and did not fare well in his latest return to the major leagues just before the break.

Wright has held right-handed batters to a .237 average, but lefties are hitting .355 with a 1.023 OPS, leaving many to continue to believe the hard-throwing 26-year-old is better suited for a relief role reminiscent of former Oriole Tommy Hunter. He has a plus fastball, but it’s fair to wonder whether his secondary stuff — or his composure — is cut out for a long-term starting role.

The reality is that the Orioles probably could have lived with a 4.50 to 4.75 ERA from Wright at the end of the rotation, but he’s fallen well short of that mark.

2. Yovani Gallardo

This free-agent marriage began on poor footing when the Orioles’ concerns about his right shoulder prompted them to rework the original three-year agreement into a $22 million deal for two seasons.

Struggling to touch the high 80s with his fastball in March and April, Gallardo pitched to a 7.00 ERA in only four starts before landing on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis and missing nearly two months of action. His velocity has improved since then, but the 30-year-old has completed six innings just twice in his nine starts and hasn’t recorded an out in the seventh inning or later since June 27, 2015.

Even at his best this year, Gallardo has been no better than a five-inning pitcher as opponents are hitting .333 with an .801 OPS when he goes through the order a third time. The problem is that Showalter can’t always afford to go to his bullpen that early when considering the struggles of the rest of the rotation.

Despite his 3.66 career ERA entering 2016, the warning signs with Gallardo were there this winter with a declining strikeout rate and diminishing velocity. A quarter of the way through the contract, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette’s decision to forfeit a first-round pick and fork over $22 million for Gallardo isn’t looking very wise.

1. Ubaldo Jimenez

Inconsistency has been the calling card throughout Jimenez’s career, but even that doesn’t fit anymore as he’s just been plain bad in 2016.

His 7.38 ERA is the highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 80 innings, leaving most to wonder how the Orioles can continue justifying keeping him on the 25-man roster, let alone in the starting rotation for a contending club. Jimenez is still owed roughly $20 million through the end of next season, but evidence continues to pile up that this is a sunk cost to move on from.

Lost in the countless discussions about his poor command and erratic mechanics is the fact that the 32-year-old’s average fastball velocity has dropped below 90 miles per hour, a far cry from the pitcher whose fastball sat in the mid-90s earlier in his career. His 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings look fine, but his 5.5 walks per nine match his career high and he’s putting on two baserunners per inning.

Jimenez desperately wants to turn around his fortunes to contribute, but his 2.81 ERA from the first half of 2015 — his only extended period of success in his three years with the Orioles — feels like an eternity ago. The command and the stuff may simply no longer be there for Jimenez to turn this ship around in his 11th major league season.

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Unorthodox as they might be, Orioles won’t apologize for success

Posted on 27 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Orioles manager Buck Showalter likes to warn against overlooking an orchid when in search of a rose.

A mantra repeated often over the last several years in Baltimore, perhaps it’s never been more appropriate than now as the Orioles take a 45-30 record and a multi-game division lead out west for a nine-game road trip.

We know the starting pitching is a substantial weakness. Everyone beyond the Oriole Bird and his mom will remind you of that. It’s become the required caveat to attach when trying to compliment a club that began the 2016 season with seven straight wins and has rarely stumbled, remaining in first or second place in the AL East all season.

Perhaps our not-so-lofty preseason expectations — from media and many fans alike — have conditioned us to dwell on the negative while anticipating the fall that simply hasn’t happened despite a 4.96 starter ERA that ranked 12th in the AL entering Monday. But that mindset shouldn’t diminish the many ways in which the imperfect Orioles have been special this season.

Unorthodox as it might be, it’s working.

The Orioles have followed a blueprint echoed in every team sport by thriving at home and trying to hold their own on the road. Their 31-13 record at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is sensational, but they now begin a stretch of 16 of their next 19 on the road where they have been an underwhelming — but hardly disastrous — 14-17.

Having already stacked 45 wins in their first 75 games, merely playing .500 ball on the road is an acceptable outcome in terms of playoff aspirations. Going just three games above .500 overall the rest of the way is the simple formula for 90 wins, which puts into perspective how good the Orioles have been to this point despite their starting pitching.

Baltimore begins the week ranked second in the AL in runs, first in home runs, second in doubles, fourth in hits, third in batting average, and first in slugging percentage.

Impressive for sure, but what about that on-base percentage for all these free-swinging sluggers who lack plate discipline?

The Orioles rank second in the AL with a .332 OBP and are a respectable seventh in walks, significant improvement from each of the last three years when they ranked 13th or 14th in the AL in free passes. The additions of a few more patient hitters such as Hyun Soo Kim, Joey Rickard, and Pedro Alvarez have certainly helped, but the movement goes beyond that.

Unconventional leadoff hitter Adam Jones has already drawn 20 walks, four shy of his total from last year and more than he drew in all of 2014 when the Orioles ran away with the division. Jonathan Schoop, more of a free swinger than Jones, has two more walks than he had last year in 29 fewer plate appearances. Incremental improvement is still improvement.

That’s fine, but they still don’t play “small ball” and are too homer-happy, aren’t they?

“I don’t want them to apologize for being strong,” Showalter said. “It’s the product of a good approach and a good swing and a good process that that’s the endgame — that [the ball] goes a little further than maybe some of them do. I love how some guy scratches out a walk and maybe they bunt him over and he gets over to third and some guy hits a sac fly and it’s 1-0. Then, the [opponent’s] first two guys strike out, a guy walks, and a big hairy guy hits it in the bleachers and it’s 2-1. Boy, you worked real hard for that one run. That’s good.

“But there’s a time and place. We try to play to our team’s strength.”

The home run is unquestionably a strength as the Orioles have four hitters — Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Jones — on pace for 30 or more home runs. Schoop is currently on track for 28 and two others — Matt Wieters and Pedro Alvarez — aren’t far off the pace to hit 20.

With three games remaining in June, the Orioles are seven shy of the major league record for homers in a single month — the 1987 Orioles and the 1999 Seattle Mariners each hit 58 in May — and are on pace to hit 259 this season, only five shy of the major league record held by the 1997 Mariners.

But the explanation for the prosperity goes beyond the powerful offense as the Orioles displayed over the weekend by turning double plays and making sparkling defensive plays throughout the four-game sweep over Tampa Bay. A superb infield defense can go a long way in helping your questionable-at-best starting pitching to survive just long enough to turn the ball over to the bullpen.

The Orioles rank second in the majors with a 2.91 bullpen ERA, and they’ve done that without Darren O’Day for almost a month. Closer Zach Britton is 23-for-23 in save opportunities and sports a 0.83 ERA while setup man Brad Brach owns a 1.05 ERA that should also draw All-Star consideration.

The bullpen’s 253 1/3 innings rank 10th in the majors, but Showalter is better at handling a bullpen than any manager in baseball and will do whatever he can to preserve his best arms, even if that means living to fight another day during the occasional close games in which his best relievers need rest.

Kansas City won the World Series last year despite sporting a starting rotation that pitched fewer innings than any other AL club in the regular season. It’s not that great starting pitching is any less valuable these days, but teams are finding success using a collection of high-impact bullpen arms in lieu of pushing the envelope with non-elite starters going through a lineup a third or fourth time in a game. Of course, there’s a critical balance between game strategy on any given night and maintenance of your pitching health over a 162-game schedule that Showalter seems to understand better than anyone.

To be clear, the Royals’ reliance on their bullpen is not a blueprint to proudly follow as much as it’s proof that you can survive — even thrive — without having strong starting pitching.

You just have to be exceptional in other areas of the game.

And the Orioles are doing that.

Yes, they’d really like to improve their rotation and should try to over the next several weeks leading up to the trade deadline, but the Orioles have been so good in other ways that it’s becoming more difficult to doubt their ability to remain in contention, especially with their divisional rivals having their own flaws.

It may go against conventional wisdom, but the Orioles won’t apologize as they keep winning.

The starting pitching may not be a rose, but the rest is blooming like an orchid as we approach the halfway point of the season.

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Orioles hoping to welcome back injured players during road trip

Posted on 26 June 2016 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 8:45 p.m.)

BALTIMORE — Embarking on their second trip to the West Coast of the season, the Orioles hope to welcome back a few players from the disabled list in the coming days.

Standout reliever Darren O’Day completed his first full bullpen session on Saturday as he continues to recover from a right hamstring injury that sent him on the DL on June 3. Manager Buck Showalter said O’Day will complete another bullpen session and will pitch two simulated games, which could put him in line to be activated before the conclusion of the nine-game trip.

“He only had one little thing yesterday that he [felt],” Showalter said. “Other than that, it went really well. He’s moving around running, and we have it mapped out if everything went on scheduled when he would be activated. But there are three or four obstacles to cross. If everything went perfectly, he could be activated on this trip.”

O’Day’s absence has put more pressure on the back end of the bullpen as the Orioles have counted more heavily on right-hander Brad Brach in high-leverage situations. Brach and All-Star closer Zach Britton entered Sunday having pitched in three of the last four days.

Baltimore expects to welcome back another member of its bullpen early in the trip as right-hander Vance Worley pitched 1 2/3 innings at Double-A Bowie on Saturday night. The long reliever allowed five hits and one earned run, but his manager didn’t seem too concerned with the results.

“It went well. Physically, he feels good,” Showalter said Sunday morning. “He’s in the locker room. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet.”

Worley hasn’t pitched since June 12 while dealing with a groin strain and is eligible to be activated on Tuesday, but he will instead have one more rehab appearance at Single-A Frederick on that day.

On Monday at Frederick, backup catcher Caleb Joseph is scheduled to catch in a game for the first time since suffering a testicular injury that required surgery on May 30. Jospeh has already been serving as a designated hitter on a rehab assignment and has been catching bullpen sessions for a while now, meaning he could rejoin the club after catching Worley on Tuesday.

Other changes could be coming to the roster with two relievers — Ashur Tolliver and Mychal Givens — potentially going on paternity leave in the near future. Showalter said Tolliver’s wife is due on July 7 and Givens’ wife is due on July 11, but Tolliver told his manager that the baby could come “any day now.”

(Update: Baltimore optioned Tolliver to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday evening.)

The Orioles would be able replace either pitcher using the paternity leave list, but that can always be a tricky proposition when playing so far from home.

NOTES: Chris Davis was serving as the DH on Sunday as Showalter wanted to give him two straight days off from playing in the field. Mark Trumbo was making his second start of the season at first base. … Ubaldo Jimenez is listed as the starter for Tuesday’s game against the Padres. The struggling right-hander allowed two earned runs in six innings against the Padres to earn the victory last Wednesday. … Baltimore entered Sunday leading the majors with 43 home games played and owning the second-best home record (30-13) in baseball. Of course, the Orioles will play 16 of their next 19 games on the road beginning Tuesday.

 

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Back from suspension, Machado thinking about big picture

Posted on 24 June 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Back from his four-game suspension, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado acknowledged that some time off may not have been the worst thing for him in the big picture.

Despite no longer being the active major-league leader in consecutive games played when his 229-game streak ended on Sunday, Machado hopes to be able to make up for the missed games in October as Baltimore entered the weekend atop the American League East.

“I feel real good. Obviously, the days off really helped — I’m not going to lie,” said Machado, who was batting third in Friday’s series opener against Tampa Bay. “It takes a little pounding on your body, and I haven’t had some days off since the offseason. It was pretty good to just stay off my legs for a little but, but, at the same time, I was working. I was in the weight room and in the batting cages. I want to stay fresh.”

The Orioles went 2-2 in Machado’s absence and return to having a 25-man roster after grinding out several days with a short bench and less roster flexibility. However, Buck Showalter was sure not to overstate the importance of the 23-year-old’s return.

Though Machado has become the Orioles’ best player over the last couple seasons, the manager wasn’t about to express any sense of great relief to have the All-Star infielder back in the lineup. That would be a slight to the role his many teammates have played in getting off to a 41-30 start in 2016.

“If we’re depending on one player, we’re not going to get this done,” Showalter said. “Nobody liked it, and you just don’t dwell on it. I think that happens a lot during the course of a season. I’d like to know how many times we’re going to have the nine guys we thought we’d have actually on the field the whole season. It doesn’t happy very often.”

With Machado returning to the lineup and shortstop J.J. Hardy back after a seven-week absence due to a broken foot, the Orioles are moving closer to being at full strength for the first time since early May. They’ll need health and good fortune in their quest to qualify for the postseason for the third time in five years.

Machado spoke about wanting even more than that on Friday afternoon.

“My mindset is to take this team somewhere we’ve never been in a long time,” Machado said. “I’ve got to come back hot. This team is playing well.”

Joseph nearing return

Having already played in six minor-league games as a designated hitter, Caleb Joseph will catch in a game for the first time since May 30 in Frederick on Monday, the final step in his return from a serious testicular injury sustained from taking a foul ball to the crotch.

The 30-year-old said he has already cleared most mental hurdles by catching bullpen sessions and dealing with pitches in the dirt while wearing a new cup model he describes as “virtually indestructible.” One would think the fear of being hit with a foul tip might be another challenge to overcome, but Joseph said it’s impossible to react to such a play to even worry about flinching or not doing what he needs to do behind the plate.

“You cannot defend those; they are freak accidents,” said Joseph, who was not allowed to catch in a game for four weeks after undergoing emergency surgery. “If there was one thing I did or didn’t do that caused the incident, we might be looking at a different situation in terms of getting over it mentally. But it’s part of the game and you know that going into it. When you go back there, there is always a chance, so you need to go back there and be as protected as you can do to your job.”

Odds & ends

Standout reliever Darren O’Day felt good after throwing off a half-mound at Camden Yards on Thursday and will throw off the regular mound on Saturday as he continues to work his way back from a hamstring injury. … Long reliever Vance Worley (groin strain) will pitch in a rehab assignment at Double-A Bowie on Saturday. … Left-hander Brian Duensing underwent successful surgery to have two cartilage chips removed from his left elbow on Friday and will report to Sarasota to begin a rehab that could have him ready to return by early August. … Lefty T.J. McFarland was in the Baltimore clubhouse on Friday and is expected to be activated as the club’s 26th player for Saturday’s doubleheader. … Pitching coach Dave Wallace will be away for the next few days while bullpen coach Dom Chiti takes his place and minor-league infield coordinator Dave Anderson coaches in the bullpen. … The Orioles will travel to San Diego after Sunday’s game in order to benefit from a full day off without travel on Monday.

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Orioles stats to ponder in late June

Posted on 23 June 2016 by Luke Jones

As we rapidly approach the halfway point in the 2016 season, below are some statistics to ponder as the first-place Orioles prepare for a four-game weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

1. Baltimore is thriving at Camden Yards and against sub-.500 opponents.

“Protect your home field and beat the teams you’re supposed to beat” is the oft-quoted formula for winning teams in any sport, and the Orioles have fit that description beautifully with a 27-13 home record and a 17-7 mark against clubs under .500 entering Thursday. Their .675 winning percentage at home ranks third in the AL behind only Kansas City and Texas and fourth in the majors. Twenty of the Orioles’ next 23 games come against teams who were .500 or worse entering Thursday, but only seven games during that stretch will be played at Camden Yards, making it critical for Baltimore to improve upon its underwhelming 14-17 road record.

2. Despite their reputation, the Orioles lineup is walking at a respectable rate.

We’ve heard plenty about their free-swinging ways and lack of plate discipline over the last several years, but the Orioles quietly entered Thursday sporting the third-best on-base percentage (.328) in the AL and ranked a respectable seventh in walks. This represents dramatic improvement from 2015 when they finished 12th in OBP (.307) and 13th in walks in the AL. Baltimore’s 8.1 percent walk rate is slightly above the league average (8.0) and is substantially higher than last year (7.0 percent) or even 2014 (6.5 percent). Patient approaches from the likes of Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Pedro Alvarez aren’t surprising, but even free-swinging hitters such as Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop have shown some modest improvement in the walk department.

3. The bullpen workload is as concerning as it looks.

We know the starting pitching has been ugly with a 4.93 ERA ranking 13th in the AL, but the bullpen has held up remarkably well with a 3.07 ERA that ranks behind only Kansas City in the AL and fourth in the majors. The problem is the heavier workload as relievers have pitched 38.2 percent of the Orioles’ innings compared to 36.1 percent last year and 34.7 percent in 2014. June has been particularly taxing with the bullpen handling 41 percent of the innings after handling 40 percent in April and a more-reasonable 34.4 percent in May. With limited trade chips in their organization, the Orioles might want to consider adding another impact bullpen arm to go with Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens. That would likely be easier to acquire and might provide similar value to the kind of starting pitcher the Orioles can realistically afford with few attractive assets to offer in a trade.

4. Hyun Soo Kim and Jones are at opposite ends of the spectrum for batting average on balls put in play.

Both have had their best months of the season in June, but Kim is sporting a .389 BABIP — fifth highest in the majors among those with 120 or more plate appearances — compared to Jones’ .261 mark this season. The 2016 league average mark has been .298 and BABIP typically normalizes for players over time. The South Korean left fielder has been an important contributor, but his 59.4 percent ground-ball rate leads the team and will unsurprisingly make it difficult for him to sustain his .339 average over time, especially if more teams begin successfully shifting on him. The good news is that Kim has the fourth-lowest soft-contact rate on the club, which should help more of those grounders find the outfield for hits. Meanwhile, Jones owns a career .309 BABIP and is sporting his best hard-contact rate since 2013, indications that he should expect a much better second half after dealing with an early-season rib issue and some tough luck at the plate.

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