Tag Archive | "jake arrieta"

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Orioles buy time with roster decisions by placing Tillman on DL

Posted on 28 March 2013 by Luke Jones

Still weighing final decisions for their 25-man roster to begin the 2013 season on Tuesday, the Orioles placed starting pitcher Chris Tillman on the 15-day disabled list on the same day he was named the club’s fifth starter.

The right-hander has dealt with abdominal soreness since being scratched from a Grapefruit League start on March 10 and has only pitched in unofficial spring games recently, making his DL stint retroactive to March 22 and allowing him to return to pitch in the fifth game of the season on April 6 against the Minnesota Twins in Baltimore. Manager Buck Showalter hasn’t named a fourth starter for his Opening Day rotation, but all signs continue to point to right-hander Jake Arrieta with southpaw Brian Matusz beginning the season in the bullpen.

If Arrieta gets the ball on April 5, it would mark the third straight year that the 27-year-old will have started the home opener.

The decision to place Tillman on the DL not only frees up a roster spot for the first four games of the season but more importantly buys time as the Orioles try to figure out what to do with Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland, a talented 23-year-old left-handed pitcher the club desperately would like to keep. For now, Showalter will stash McFarland in the bullpen as the organization tries to either move another reliever such as Luis Ayala or Tommy Hunter in a trade or work out a deal with the Cleveland Indians, McFarland’s former club, that would allow the Orioles to keep McFarland without him taking a spot on the 25-man roster.

The Orioles also announced Thursday that outfielder Trayvon Robinson has been reassigned to minor league camp, leaving the club with 35 active players in its major league camp, which includes five non-roster invitees.

Right-handed pitcher Jair Jurrjens also appears to be OK after leaving Wednesday’s start after being struck in the ribs with a line drive. X-rays taken Thursday morning came back negative and manager Buck Showalter told reporters that Jurrjens could be ready to throw over the weekend.

The former Atlanta starter is expected to begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk but rebounded well after a difficult start to the spring.

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Revisiting five questions for Orioles spring training

Posted on 25 March 2013 by Luke Jones

With only a week to go until the start of the 2013 season for the Orioles, it’s time to revisit the five questions that were posed at the start of spring training.

Some questions have been answered while others still hold cloudy solutions as manager Buck Showalter and his club finish up the Grapefruit League before traveling to St. Petersburg to open the season against the Tampa Bay Rays next Tuesday.

Here’s what I was pondering nearly six weeks ago as Baltimore was coming off its first playoff appearance in 15 years:

1. Can Nolan Reimold stay healthy and be the impact bat the Orioles failed to acquire in the offseason?

A sore throwing shoulder limited Reimold to the designated hitter spot for a large portion of the spring, but he returned to the outfield last week and does not appear to be feeling any lingering effects.

In 41 spring at-bats, the 29-year-old is hitting .244 with four home runs and eight runs batted in. Reimold appears to have regained all strength lost in the aftermath of the spinal fusion surgery he underwent last summer and should be in line to begin the season on the 25-man roster and in the starting lineup.

Considering the Orioles didn’t add an impact bat in the offseason and right fielder Nick Markakis is still recovering from a small herniation in his neck, Reimold must stay healthy to give the lineup a boost from a year ago.

This question ultimately won’t be answered until the Orioles head north and begin the season, but the good news is that Reimold has been healthy enough to play in 14 Grapefruit League games, which is only two fewer than the number he played in the entire 2012 season. And he’s shown to be the same power hitter he was prior to the neck injury.

2. What will the starting rotation look like when the Orioles come north to Baltimore?

Nothing has changed dramatically in the makeup of the starting rotation from what was projected at the start of spring training, but there are plenty of question marks based on what we’ve seen in Sarasota.

The good news is Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez are still projected to hold the top three spots in the rotation, but all come with questions. Hammel hasn’t shown any lingering effects from last year’s knee surgery and is in line to be the club’s Opening Day starter, but he’s also appeared in just three Grapefruit League games, allowing five earned runs in nine innings of work and not displaying the same command with the two-seam fastball that he did last year.

Chen was roughed up by the Phillies over the weekend and has allowed seven earned runs in 7 2/3 innings in three big-league outings. Meanwhile, Gonzalez has seen the least amount of action as he’s made just two spring appearances covering four innings (one earned run).

All have received regular work by pitching in minor-league camp and simulated games, but you do wonder if the top of the Baltimore rotation is adequately prepared to face big-league hitters beginning in a week. Then again, Showalter could simply be hiding his top starters to prevent American League foes from getting a good look at them in Florida.

The rotation becomes foggier after that as Chris Tillman would appear to be ready to take the No. 4 spot in the rotation, but abdominal soreness has limited him to 4 1/3 innings of Grapefruit League action. A four-inning stint at the Orioles’ Twin Lakes facility on Sunday indicates Tillman is ready to begin the season in the starting rotation and not on the disabled list.

Jake Arrieta appears to have the clear edge for the final spot in the rotation as he holds a sparkling 1.56 earned run average in 17 1/3 spring innings covering five appearances. Originally scheduled to start against the Twins on Tuesday, Arrieta was pulled to instead pitch at the Orioles’ minor-league facility, another indicator that he will be the fifth starter when you remember Minnesota visits Camden Yards for the first home series of the season late next week.

Brian Matusz appeared to fall behind Arrieta after struggling in his start on Sunday, but the Orioles must think carefully on what to do with the 26-year-old left-hander. There is clear incentive to shift him to the bullpen role in which he thrived late last season, but this also comes with the understanding that pushing him to a short-relief role means it may be difficult to move him back into the starting rotation from a conditioning and health standpoint later in the season. Moving a starter to the bullpen is one thing, but asking a relief pitcher to suddenly stretch himself out in the middle of the season is begging for an injury to occur.

Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland and Steve Johnson remain in the hunt, but it appears both pitchers would be more likely to earn a bullpen job as a long reliever if they’re to make the club. Because the Orioles don’t want to risk losing the 23-year-old McFarland, they will likely try to stash the lefty sinkerballer in the bullpen for as long as they can, meaning it’s a good possibility that Johnson begins the year at Triple-A Norfolk.

After a rough start to the spring, Jair Jurrjens has rebounded nicely — pitching five shutout innings in his latest outing — and appears he’ll be among the first pitchers on call at Norfolk early in the season. He and Zach Britton will be nice insurance policies at the Triple-A level for now.

3. Who will step up to play second base?

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Handling Matusz interesting case for young, contending Orioles

Posted on 18 February 2013 by Luke Jones

Last August, the career of Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz appeared to be at a crossroads after the left-hander had been relegated to the minor leagues for the second consecutive season.

His numbers weren’t as bad as a historically-poor 2011 season in which his earned run average ballooned to 10.69, a major league record for a pitcher making at least 10 starts in a season, but the 2008 first-round pick had clearly been left behind by a club fighting to make its first postseason appearance in 15 years. In 16 starts, Matusz went 5-10 with a 5.42 ERA before he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk shortly before the All-Star break.

That’s where it appeared he would remain for the final stretch of the season — with a token September call-up potentially being thrown in — before lefty relief pitcher Troy Patton suffered a sprained ankle in August. That prompted manager Buck Showalter to view the demoted Matusz in a new light as a left-handed setup man. Described by some as not having a receptive attitude toward coaching, Matusz embraced the new role, in part because he knew it was likely his only ticket back to Baltimore to pitch in a pennant race.

“For me, it was just being able to settle in and learn a lot from the guys and just go out and attack the zone and throw strikes,” Matusz said. “That was the big key for me — get ahead in the count and just have fun.”

Matusz thrived in the new role, pitching to a 1.35 ERA in 18 relief appearances. The southpaw appeared in all six of the Orioles’ playoff games last season, allowing the game-winning home run to Raul Ibanez in Game 3 of the American League Division Series but surrendering only one earned run in 4 2/3 innings.

With left-handed hitters holding a .219 career average against Matusz, Showalter used the former starter against key left-handed bats initially but expanded his role as he continued to thrive as a reliever. Matusz was throwing more strikes as a reliever (73 percent of his pitches compared to just 64 percent as a starter in 2012) and showed electric stuff as batters were swinging and missing on 16 percent of his pitches compared to just seven percent over his 16 starts.

The young pitcher admitted liking the need to prepare to be ready to pitch every day as opposed to the routine of a starter that left him on the bench for four straight days, allowing great spans of time to think about his struggles over the last two years. Last season’s turnaround has left many to wonder whether the Orioles would be wise to move Matusz to the bullpen permanently despite the fact that he enters the spring being stretched out as a starter once again.

“I have the opportunity to be a starter at the start of spring,” Matusz said. “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, and ultimately, that’s what I’d like to do. I have the opportunity, so I’m going to roll with it and just go out and pitch my game and have fun.”

You can understand the organization’s preference to keep Matusz in a starting role after investing the No. 4 overall pick and a $3.2 million signing bonus in the pitcher in 2008, and it’s not as though the Orioles’ starting rotation is set in stone with established big-league starters manning every spot. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman are the favorites to grab the first four jobs in the rotation, but the fifth starter spot is wide open as Matusz will compete with Jair Jurrjens, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland.

If 2013 is anything like last season, the Orioles are bound to see changes in their starting rotation, due to injury or ineffectiveness, so the confidence boost Matusz received after success in the final two months could go a long way in the lefty establishing himself as a viable starting pitcher. Even if Matusz were to start the year in Norfolk, the Orioles may need to turn to him as they did with Tillman and Gonzalez last season before the two right-handers became key contributors in the second half of the season.

Critics doubting Matusz’s ability to finally figure it out as a starter need only look at the revitalization of Tillman last season as evidence that the light could come on for the University of San Diego product, but perhaps the most interesting question will be how the Orioles handle the left-hander should he not emerge as one of the best five starters during spring training. Matusz has an option remaining, meaning he could be sent to Norfolk to continue working as a starter, but would Showalter and the Orioles leave his arm in the minors when they know how deadly he can be as a reliever against left-handed bats?

The manager has never been one to obsess over playing matchups, preferring pitchers who are effective against hitters from either side of the plate, but it’s difficult to ignore Matusz’s overwhelming success against left-handed hitters in his career. Patton is also the only left-hander projected to be part of the Baltimore bullpen to begin the season, making it an appropriate fit for Matusz to land there once again.

If the Orioles elect to move Matusz back to the bullpen early on, it would likely mean he’d remain there for the rest of the season as it’s a dangerous line to walk with a pitcher’s health when moving back and forth between starting and relief roles — particularly when attempting to stretch out a reliever without the benefit of an offseason to prepare. At this stage of Matusz’s major league career, the Orioles would have to wonder whether it’s time to simply keep him in the bullpen if it means a third straight year of lukewarm results as a starter.

Regardless of the arguments some have made about Matusz having too much value in the Baltimore bullpen, there’s no disputing that it’s easier to find a left-handed setup man than it is to find an effective southpaw starter. A good starting pitcher is a far more valuable asset to a club than a bullpen arm, but Matusz needs to prove he can do the job over six or seven innings consistently and time is running out for that debate.

The Orioles are making the right move in at least stretching out Matusz in preparing him to start, but it will be interesting to see how quickly Showalter pulls the plug if he’s ineffective and moves the lefty to the bullpen with the memory of last year’s success in the manager’s mind. It’s the kind of problem the Orioles wouldn’t have had in the past when a pennant race was never on the radar and young pitchers could develop with little else on the line.

If it comes down to pitching in a pennant race again or riding buses in the International League, it’s likely Matusz won’t balk at a relief role again, even with his state — and understandable — preference to start.

“Obviously, at the end of last year, we were on a good roll with making the playoff push,” Matusz said. “Things were clicking at the right time and it was a lot of fun.”

A lot of fun, indeed, but you wonder if it was only a temporary detour in his career as a starter or a sign of what’s to come for a pitcher with plenty of unfulfilled promise entering his fifth season in the majors.

The D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction discussed Brian Matusz in Monday’s Spring Training Spotlight. You can listen to the segment HERE.

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Five questions to ponder for Orioles spring training

Posted on 13 February 2013 by Luke Jones

The Orioles held their first workouts for pitchers and catchers to officially kick off spring training in Sarasota on Wednesday.

Trying to build on a 93-win campaign that included their first trip to the playoffs in 15 years, the Orioles have several questions marks after a quiet offseason void of significant moves.

Here are five questions to ponder as Baltimore begins preparations for the 2013 season:

1. Can Nolan Reimold stay healthy and be the impact bat the Orioles failed to acquire in the offseason?

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette failed in his quest to acquire a middle-of-the-order bat, but a healthy Reimold would go a long way in providing the extra offense the Orioles are looking for after they finished ninth in runs scored and 11th in on-base percentage in the American League last season. Of course, expecting Reimold to stay injury-free has only resulted in frustration over the years as the left fielder missed most of last season after undergoing spinal fusion surgery.

The good news is Reimold is already taking live batting practice and appears to be 100 percent for spring training as he will compete with Nate McLouth for the starting job in left field. McLouth is the superior fielder and has more speed, but few would argue Reimold’s ability at the plate as he hit .313 with five home runs in 67 at-bats last season.

The club could elect to use Reimold as the designated hitter more frequently to keep him healthy, and he would be an ideal fit in the No. 2 spot because of his plate discipline (a career .338 on-base percentage in 916 plate appearances in the majors) or in the fifth or sixth spot because of his power. At 29, Reimold appears to be running out of time as a viable option on which the Orioles can depend moving forward, but the club signed him for $1 million in the offseason and maintains control of him through the 2015 season.

Duquette didn’t acquire an established veteran bat and also parted ways with slugger Mark Reynolds, so this spring will be critical for Reimold to prove he can provide extra punch to the lineup. If he’s again unhealthy, the Orioles will be forced to lean more heavily on McLouth, who carries his own baggage despite a 2012 renaissance in Baltimore.

2. What will the starting rotation look like when the Orioles come north to Baltimore?

The starting rotation would appear to have a more definitive outline than it did as this time last year as Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman all put forth career seasons in 2012, but none of those four come without questions this spring. Concerns over Hammel’s knee were eased with his ability to pitch effectively in the postseason, but the Orioles hope he can replicate his first half last season when he looked like an ace and was included in the fan vote for the final spot on the AL All-Star team.

Chen and Gonzalez will need to prove their rookie campaigns weren’t flukes as the rest of the league will be more familiar with each and the latter’s 170-pound frame will always cause some to question his durability over a full season. Adjustments made to Tillman’s mechanics by director of pitching development Rick Peterson paid major dividends last year, but the 24-year-old will need to replicate that success over an entire season in the big leagues.

Even if those four pick up right where they left off, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair must sift through a number of other candidates to replace the fifth spot in the rotation left behind by veteran left Joe Saunders, who signed with Seattle last week. Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, and Tommy Hunter will all be in the mix, but each comes with their limitations and concerns.

The Orioles continue to point to strength in numbers as it pertains to the starting rotation as 12 pitchers made starts for Baltimore last season. And to offer some perspective on how quickly things can change due to injury or ineffectiveness, three-fifths of the rotation that began the 2012 season landed in the minor leagues by the All-Star break.

The top four will have the inside track for rotation spots entering the spring, but Showalter won’t hesitate to make changes quickly if anyone isn’t up to the task.

3. Who will step up to play second base?

Yes, Brian Roberts is still with the Orioles as he enters the final season of a four-year contract that’s seen him play 115 games combined in the last three years. The 35-year-old infielder appears to be recovered from hip surgery and an offseason surgery to correct a sports hernia, but viewing Roberts as a viable option feels more like you’re being polite than at all realistic.

The Orioles acquired the slick-fielding Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Minnesota Twins after the switch-hitting second baseman played in a career-high 106 games last season. The 28-year-old is a career .250 hitter and provides good speed (21 stolen bases in 2012), but it remains to be seen whether he can handle full-time duties at the plate or he’ll be exposed over a bigger sample of at-bats.

The most intriguing option from an offensive perspective would be Ryan Flaherty, who split duties at second base with the departed Robert Andino at the end of last season. Thought limited defensively, Flaherty hit six home runs in 153 at-bats as a Rule 5 player who stuck on the 25-man roster all season.

Because of Showalter’s preference for strong defense up the middle, Casilla would appear to be the favorite to handle the bulk of the duties at second base due to Roberts’ frailty and Flaherty’s limitations in the field. However, this will remain a very fluid position to watch as the spring progresses.

4. How will Showalter handle the designated hitter spot in the order?

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If the season ended today, how much better off would the Orioles be for the future?

Posted on 22 July 2012 by Luke Jones

With Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Indians, the Orioles ended the weekend tied for the American League wild-card lead on the heels of a five-game winning streak in Minnesota and Cleveland.

As I’ve written many times over the last few months, the 2012 season has been a fun and romantic ride for Orioles fans stricken with suffering through listless summers toward losing season after losing season. The late-inning comebacks and unlikely heroes have left nearly everyone scratching their heads in disbelief as the numbers suggest they shouldn’t be nearly as prosperous as they’ve been.

Left for dead less than a week ago after falling to only two games above .500 for the first time since April, the resilient Orioles suddenly have a pulse again with an impressive turn through the current starting rotation that started with Tommy Hunter on Wednesday and ended Sunday with Zach Britton, who tossed six shutout innings to earn his first victory of the season.

The winning streak will inevitably turn up the volume on trade deadline discussion and the Orioles’ wild-card chances, but a much louder question has sounded in my head over the last month as we’ve watched the offense struggle and Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Hunter be demoted to Triple-A Norfolk.

If the season were to end today, how much better off would the Orioles be for the future than they were at the start of the 2012 campaign?

My answer — at least entering the final week of July — sounds like the ultimate wet blanket, especially when you remember where the Orioles currently sit in the standings after 95 games.

But truthfully, I’m not sure the club is markedly improved in terms of being able to compete long-term.

Yes, we can discuss the potential psychological breakthrough of ending a spell of 14 straight losing seasons and the effect it might have on potential free agents viewing Baltimore as a more viable destination, but that only matters if majority owner Peter Angelos and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette make the financial commitment to capitalize in the offseason.

The bullpen has been outstanding with Jim Johnson leading the way to eliminate any doubts that may have lingered last offseason about his ability to close out victories. However, the collective performance of a bullpen from season to season is as dependable as the stock market, meaning the likelihood of getting the same outstanding performances from each Orioles reliever next year and beyond is highly unlikely.

Offensively speaking, center fielder Adam Jones is enjoying a career year and received a six-year contract to keep him in Baltimore, but his production since early June has leveled off, suggesting 2012 is a year of steady improvement for the 26-year-old rather than a quantum leap to MVP candidacy on an annual basis. Catcher Matt Wieters is having another good season in becoming one of the best catchers in baseball, but his offense hasn’t taken a step forward from his first All-Star campaign a year ago. Of course, that’s not a knock on either player as they’re the Orioles’ two most dependable run producers, but we already knew that entering the season.

Aside from the surprisingly versatile Chris Davis looking like a solid — but unspectacular — everyday player, some combination of injury, ineffectiveness, and poor defense has hamstrung every other regular in the Baltimore lineup. The club needs to address multiple positions in the offseason, with the corner infield positions, second base, and left field all included.

And that brings us to the starting pitching, the area in which the Orioles have been most disappointing beyond the surprising performances of newcomer Jason Hammel and Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen. The regression of Matusz and Arrieta has been discouraging at best and devastating at worst when considering the high expectations for each pitcher.

As encouraging as this last turn through the rotation as been, I’m not ready to sign off on Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, or Britton as mainstays of the rotation a month from now let alone a year from now.

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Five biggest Orioles disappointments of first half

Posted on 11 July 2012 by Luke Jones

After recognizing the biggest individual surprises of the Orioles’ first half, it’s strange finding a large number of individual disappointments despite the club’s 45-40 start.

Amazingly, the Orioles have managed to find so much success despite their obvious flaws as a number of individuals have failed to meet expectations and others have been injured, leaving major holes and question marks as the club begins the second half on Friday. Even though they currently hold the second wild card position in the American League, the club’s minus-36 run differential (12th in the AL) is indicative of a group due for a substantial market correction in terms of wins and losses.

Many wonder how much longer the Orioles will remain afloat — in terms of staying in the wild card race, at least — after losing 13 of their last 19 game and scoring only 61 runs in their last 22 contests. In addition to their recent offensive struggles, three-fifths of the starting rotation entering the season was recently demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, putting an even greater strain on the Orioles’ dominating bullpen to keep them in games.

Regardless of how optimistic or pessimistic you might be about the Orioles’ chances, the next two weeks of baseball will go a long way in determining how active the club will be at the trade deadline.

Here are my five biggest individual disappointments of the Orioles’ first half:

Not-so-honorable mention: Tommy Hunter, Kevin Gregg, Nolan Reimold’s neck injury, Tsuyoshi Wada’s elbow injury, Brian Roberts’ hip injury

5. Endy Chavez

The 34-year-old wasn’t signed to be a full-time starter, but the Orioles figured they were getting a decent insurance policy for Opening Day left fielder Nolan Reimold when Chavez inked a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. Instead, the 170-pound outfielder hasn’t even hit his weight in an injury-plagued, miserable first half.

While Chavez has made two different trips to the disabled list with intercostal and hamstring injuries, his abysmal .162 average in 105 at-bats makes him fortunate to even have a job at this point. Chavez figured to become the default left fielder when Reimold went down with a herniated disc in his neck, but his poor play has created a colossal hole in left field that manager Buck Showalter has attempted to fill with converted infielders (Steve Tolleson and Ryan Flaherty), journeymen veterans (Steve Pearce and Bill Hall), and a raw rookie (Xavier Avery).

Having completed his minor league rehab assignment over the All-Star break, Chavez is expected to rejoin the club on Friday, but his .402 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) must climb immediately for the organization to justify keeping him around much longer. The left-hander has a career .269 average over 11 major league seasons and hit .301 over 256 at-bats in a part-time role with Texas last year, making his horrendous first half even more shocking.

4. J.J. Hardy

Coming off a tremendous year in his first season in Baltimore, the shortstop has dealt with a tender shoulder since spring training and his production at the plate has dropped dramatically in 2012.

Hardy has never been a great hitter for average (.259 in eight seasons), but his .224 mark at the break reflects the horrendous slump he’s endured since late May. In his last 37 games, the 29-year-old is hitting .172 with two home runs and nine runs batted in.

The club’s widespread struggles at the plate and injuries to Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis have limited questions about Hardy remaining in the No. 2 spot in the order, but Showalter will have no choice but to drop Hardy in the order if his .262 on-base percentage doesn’t improve soon. Even if Hardy’s production reflected his career numbers, he’s more suited to hit in the No. 6 or 7 spot to drive in more runs with his above-average power at the shortstop position.

Hardy’s defense is still a major asset for a defensively-challenged club, but the Orioles desperately need him to look more like the hitter he was in 2011 if they’re going to remain in the playoff hunt in the second half.

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Struggling Orioles venturing down slippery slope with road-heavy July ahead

Posted on 29 June 2012 by Luke Jones

Sunday’s dramatic win over the Washington Nationals looked like the perfect tonic to snap the Orioles out of the offensive funk that plagued them over a nine-game stretch following a sweep of Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Four days later, it appears more like a temporary diversion as the Orioles have now lost seven of their last nine games and have looked even worse in dropping three straight this week.

The offensive struggles have become all too familiar as the Orioles have scored three or fewer runs in 11 of their last 12 games. They’ve gone 6-for-63 (.095) with runners in scoring position in their last 11 games.

The pitching has followed suit in a two-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels and Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. In those three games, Baltimore pitching has given up 42 hits, 25 earned runs, and nine home runs.

Even more deflating is the fact that Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen — the club’s most dependable starters — pitched poorly on consecutive nights, with their turns in the rotation typically circled as great opportunities to win.

And the defense? Well, it’s been as brutal as it’s been throughout the 2012 season.

It’s far too reactionary to say the annual swoon has begun or that the Orioles are finished — they’re still seven games above .500 — but a three-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored 27-6 is enough to take the wind out of even the most optimistic fan’s sail.

Lately, the Orioles have looked like, well, the Orioles, meaning the club we’ve come to know for a very long time.

“We’ve had good stretches offensively, we’ve had some real good stretches pitching,” manager Buck Showalter said. “We’ve just got to get back to putting it together again.”

The Baltimore skipper is right. While their flaws are apparent in what’s been an unexpected run of good baseball over the season’s first three months, the Orioles have strung together multiple stretches in which they’ve pitched well and scored more than enough to win.

In fairness to the lineup, the Orioles have faced a daunting run of starting pitching, ranging from R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana to the Nationals’ outstanding rotation to C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver. Their break was supposed to begin on Thursday night with the recently-recalled Zach McAllister on the mound for Cleveland, but the Orioles weren’t able to capitalize aside from a J.J. Hardy home run in the fifth inning.

“We definitely haven’t been hitting with runners in scoring position lately, but we’ve got to keep grinding,” Hardy said. “It’s one of those things where, the more you think about it, the more you try harder and harder. That’s not what you need to do. It will turn around eventually.”

The Orioles will have three more cracks at Cleveland’s mediocre pitching that features a bullpen ranked last in the American League in earned run average. The problem is they will counter with the unpredictable trio of Jake Arrieta, Dana Eveland, and Brian Matusz after Hammel and Chen faltered the last two nights.

They need to quickly find that combination of solid pitching and timely hitting to take advantage of the next six games against Cleveland and Seattle, because the road gets more difficult after that.

Good teams take three out of four games from the Indians when playing at home and then follow it up with a series win in Seattle against one of the worst teams in baseball. The Orioles need to stack some wins before traveling to Anaheim for a four-game set with the Angels, who just finished beating their brains in for two nights at Camden Yards.

It doesn’t get easier after the All-Star break as the club will welcome Detroit to town for three games before leaving on another eight-game road trip taking them into late July.

By that point, we’ll have a good picture of whether or not the Orioles should be serious buyers at the trade deadline.

Every time you think the Orioles have been on the verge of collapsing this year, they suddenly snap out of it in a way that’s been both improbable and entertaining to watch.

Their win against the Nationals on Sunday looked like it was going to be the latest catalyst in propelling them to another winning stretch.

Instead, it now looks like a temporary regaining of their footing as they navigate down a slippery slope.

And if they’re not able to turn things around quickly, the slide could get much uglier in a hurry.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear more from Buck Showalter, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds following Thursday’s 7-2 loss right here.

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Imperfections and all, Orioles continue doing what they’re not supposed to

Posted on 24 June 2012 by Luke Jones

For much of the afternoon on Sunday, it looked to be a lost weekend for the Orioles.

Scoring only one run in Saturday’s narrow loss and being shut out through the first seven innings in the series finale against the Washington Nationals despite a strong out from Jake Arrieta, Baltimore appeared on the verge of dropping a series in which it held Washington to five runs while continuing an anemic offensive stretch over the last nine games.

But just like we’ve seen on numerous occasions this season, the Orioles snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after Matt Wieters crushed a Sean Burnett fastball into the bullpen in the bottom of the eighth. Jim Johnson’s 22nd save gave the Orioles their seventh victory when trailing after seven innings and another improbable win.

Admitting he nearly decided to rest Wieters but deciding against it with Monday’s day off, manager Buck Showalter said it all in describing what was another dramatic finish at Camden Yards. Only he didn’t sound nearly as surprised as anyone else who watched the Orioles go 1-for-33 with runners in scoring position over the last seven games.

“That was fun at the end,” he said unassumingly and with little outward emotion.

The more we watch the Orioles through the first 72 games of the season, the less it seems to make sense. The flaws are apparent in the numbers and with the names Showalter is running out there on a daily basis.

Counting on their offense to help make up for their deficiencies in the starting rotation, the Orioles managed just 17 runs over the last nine games while actually receiving good starting pitching for the most part. Yet, they still found a way to go 4-5 over the stretch.

The lineup struggles to manufacture runs and relies too heavily on the home run — four of their five runs over the three games were scored via the long ball — but how do you really expect the offense to thrive when you see names such as Steve Pearce and Ronny Paulino and Steve Tolleson filling spots in Showalter’s order while Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold have been sidelined by injuries?

Defensively, the Orioles leave plenty to be desired, with players out of position and certain spots such as third base seemingly without an answer. Center fielder Adam Jones knows it better than anyone as he looks to his left and right and sees converted infielders manning those spots on most nights.

The starting rotation has struggled once you get past Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, desperately needing more consistency from Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter. But Sunday was an encouraging sign as Arrieta continued his resurgence after looking like he was on the fast track to Triple-A Norfolk just two weeks ago. He’s now given up just six earned runs in his last three starts covering 20 innings (2.70 earned run average), looking more like the pitcher who dominated in an Opening Day victory than the one looking completely lost earlier this month.

The bullpen has remained the foundation of the Orioles’ success, and it pitched three more scoreless innings on Sunday to keep the club in the game after Arrieta failed to receive any support during his six strong innings of work. Johnson receives the notoriety at the back end, but Showalter trusts his entire bullpen — even Kevin Gregg hasn’t been as bad as fans want to admit — to pitch meaningful innings when the situation calls for any given name.

While certainly better than what we’ve seen in recent years, those parts don’t sound like they add up to a team that’s 10 games above .500 entering the final week of June.

The common phrase used in recent weeks has been the Orioles are “running on fumes” with everyone simply waiting for a swoon to begin, whether it was losing seven of eight right around Memorial Day or a humbling sweep against the New York Mets last week.

But the Orioles are never too high or too low, a dramatic difference from past seasons. Players downplayed the offensive struggles throughout the weekend — almost to the point of sounding cavalier about it — but were businesslike in reacting to Sunday’s dramatic win. Most credit goes to the players’ performance on the field, but Showalter has truly changed the culture after years of everyone in town talking about it needing to change.

“There was a good vibe in our dugout today,” Showalter said. “You could tell how much this game meant to them, and it was frustrating for them because we were so close a few times. It’s setting the table, like in pool, and you just can’t make the shot sometimes.”

Wieters did in the eighth, sending the Orioles to their 41st win of the season. It doesn’t mean the organization is there yet by any means, but it’s easy to forget the club didn’t collect its 41st win of the 2010 season until Aug. 13 — 10 days into the Showalter era. Yes, the standard has been incredibly low for 14 years, but that doesn’t make what the current club is doing any less encouraging.

The Orioles manager is the first to tell you he isn’t a magician. The change and success haven’t come overnight as last year showed us, but it’s time to stop dismissing what they’ve been able to accomplish over the first three months of the season.

Have they been lucky? Maybe, but does it really matter?

It’s a club with obvious flaws that may ultimately prevent it from playing October baseball, but every improbable win and unexplained success now makes it easier to hang around in August and September.

More than anything, it’s exactly how Showalter described Sunday’s game.

It’s been fun.

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Morning Reaction Orioles 10-Game Scorecard (Games 51-60)

Posted on 12 June 2012 by Luke Jones

During the 2012 season, Drew Forrester and Luke Jones of The Morning Reaction will provide the “10-Game Scorecard” for the Orioles, rating the club in 10-game increments in a number of categories and looking ahead to how Baltimore will fare over the next 10 games on the schedule.

To hear the full explanation from Monday morning, click HERE.

1. Should the Orioles have been better or worse than their 5-5 mark?
Drew: Worse
Luke: Worse

2. Most Valuable Player/Least Valuable Player
Drew: MVP – Wei-Yin Chen; LVP – Robert Andino
Luke: MVP – Jim Johnson; LVP – Jake Arrieta

3. Biggest surprise
Drew: How badly Jake Arrieta has struggled
Luke: Winning two out of three at Fenway Park

4. Best thing about the 10-game stretch
Drew: The Orioles went 5-5 and are still above .500 despite injuries and the pitching woes.
Luke: Wei-Yin Chen rebounded from recent struggles to pitch a gem in Boston.

5. Ten games from now…
Drew: Brian Roberts will be hitting .300.
Luke: Brian Roberts will be firmly established once again as the Orioles’ leadoff hitter.

6. Record in the next 10 games (three with Pittsburgh, three at Atlanta, three at New York Mets, one with Washington)
Drew: 4-6
Luke: 6-4

7. Stock rising/falling over the next 10 games
Drew: Rising – Wei-Yin Chen; Falling – Mark Reynolds
Luke: Rising – Mark Reynolds; Falling – Steve Pearce

8. Grading Buck Showalter in games 51-60
Drew: A
Luke: A-

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With Roberts’ potential return looming, Orioles still seek leadoff solution

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Luke Jones

After being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk prior to Tuesday’s game in Toronto, 22-year-old outfielder Xavier Avery became the latest in a long list of candidates to fall short in stabilizing the Orioles’ leadoff spot over the last two seasons.

Since second baseman Brian Roberts exited a game with concussion-related symptoms on May 16, 2011, the Orioles have been without a bona fide hitter at the top of the order despite trying a number of candidates in the role.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy had a higher degree of success than others last season, but his .295 on-base percentage while batting in the leadoff spot — to go along with a career .320 on-base percentage — didn’t exactly scream top-of-the-order hitter. In fact, Hardy’s power numbers (40 home runs in 176 games with the Orioles) suggest a player better suited to hit in the middle of the order than at the top.

This season, left fielder Nolan Reimold appeared to be an intriguing — but unconventional — choice with his career .338 on-base percentage, but a herniated disc in his neck has sidelined him after a fast start. In his absence, the combination of Endy Chavez, Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, and Avery has not been able to produce and set the table for the middle of the order.

Avery shows promise for the future, but his extended audition exposed the need for him to improve against off-speed pitches and develop further at Norfolk before he’s ready to assume the leadoff role on a permanent basis.

In 2011, the No. 1 spot in the order accounted for a .240 batting average and a .290 on-base percentage, the worst figures of any spot in the batting order. The numbers have been even worse this season as the top spot in the order has produced an anemic .213 average to go along with a .258 on-base percentage.

While many place too much emphasis on the batting order, the leadoff spot is expected to be occupied by a player with a strong ability to get on base and speed — a combination that has eluded the Orioles.

So, who might manager Buck Showalter turn to?

Ironically, it might be the man the Orioles have been trying to replace for over a year.

Five games into his minor league rehabilitation assignment, Roberts has yet to experience any setbacks while collecting two hits and two walks in 12 plate appearances at Double-A Bowie. Even if his rehab stint goes off without a hitch, it would be ambitious to expect Roberts to return to the form of a career .353 on-base hitter, but the 34-year-old infielder would easily become the most viable option in the top spot if he’s even remotely close to the player he was prior to the injury.

The debate will continue over how Showalter should handle Roberts’ workload and what it means for current second baseman Robert Andino, but the Orioles desperately need more production from the leadoff spot.

And with Roberts’ return looking more realistic every day, he would be as close to the ideal candidate as the Orioles have had since his exit over a year ago.

Starting pitching woes

The news of veteran pitcher Roy Oswalt signing a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers stole some of the thunder of this topic, but it’s become clear the Orioles need better starting pitching if they hope to maintain anything close to the 29-20 pace that’s put them in first place for much of the first two months of the season.

The current 4.31 earned run average from the starting rotation is just above the league average of 4.30, but that number becomes more concerning when you consider starters pitched to a 3.63 ERA in April but have posted a 4.94 mark so far in May.

Left-hander Zach Britton is expected to take the place of the struggling Tommy Hunter, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday with his ERA ballooning to 5.59 after another poor start in Toronto on Monday. However, the in-house options are few and far between after that, making the idea of Oswalt so appealing before he decided to sign with the defending American League champions.

The Orioles have few pieces in their system to warrant anything better than what they already have in making a trade, meaning they will likely have no choice but to depend on the continued success of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen and hope for more consistency from Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz to prevent too much wear and tear on the bullpen.

While the health of Britton’s left shoulder remains the priority over any short-term results, the Orioles can only hope the 24-year-old more closely resembles the pitcher who was 5-2 with a 2.35 ERA in his first 10 starts last season than the one posting a 6.25 mark over his final 18 starts, which included a demotion and a trip to the disabled list with that sore shoulder.

With two days off during the current nine-game road trip, the Orioles will not need a fifth starter again until June 9. Barring any setbacks, Britton should be ready to join the starting rotation by that point in time.

Given Oswalt’s preference to play for a winner, Baltimore was an extreme long-shot, but his veteran presence for one season — without a long-term financial commitment — would have brought some much-needed stability and a veteran presence to the rotation.

Carrying Flaherty becoming burdensome?

Showalter has said how impressed he is with Rule 5 selection Ryan Flaherty on several occasions this season, but you have to wonder if the 25-year-old is becoming too great a burden on the 25-man roster for a first-place team.

Injuries provided the utility player more playing time in the early stages of May, but his .143 batting average (7-for-49) has led to less playing time over the last two weeks. Since going 0-for-4 in Kansas City on May 17, Flaherty has received only one start and four plate appearances while being relegated to the bench.

The idea of a Rule 5 player on a team projected to be in last place sounds like an acceptable situation, but carrying a player like Flaherty when you’re trying to win is a dicey proposition, especially when the Orioles have elected to go with a three-man bench and 13 pitchers at times when the bullpen has been overworked.

In addition to Flaherty, infielder Steve Tolleson doesn’t have a strong hold on his roster spot, so it will be interesting to see what executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette decides to do if and when Roberts is ready to be activated on June 12. Regardless of whether Roberts takes Andino’s starting job or not, his addition will take away another roster spot and make you wonder if the Orioles can keep Flaherty around much longer if he isn’t going to produce.

 

 

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