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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the 2014 AFC wild-card race

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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the 2014 AFC wild-card race

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Even as the Ravens and their fans continue to seethe over a surprising 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 13, head coach John Harbaugh took a more pragmatic approach when addressing reporters on Monday afternoon.

The loss certainly didn’t help, but defeats suffered by several other AFC teams left six teams with a 7-5 record as we enter the final quarter of the regular season. It won’t be easy for Baltimore as it tries to survive with the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense, but a reasonable schedule down the stretch leaves the Ravens in good shape if — and that’s a big if — they handle their own business.

“We wake up this morning, we look at the standings and we are right in the thick of it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to go down to the wire. And we have a huge game down in Miami this week, and it’ll be a lot on the line. They’ll be ready, and they’re good. We’ll have a great opportunity to make a move.”

There’s no understating how important Sunday’s game against the Dolphins will be as it represents another head-to-head tiebreaker scenario after the Ravens dropped one to San Diego this past week. A win pushes Baltimore to 8-5 and knocks Miami down a peg in the standings while a defeat all but guarantees the need to win out and to hope for assistance from other teams in the playoff race.

The Ravens still hold out hope for a chance to win the AFC North, but Cincinnati currently leads by 1 1/2 games over the other three teams in the division. With the Bengals playing the Steelers twice and the Browns once in the final month, the division race is far from over, but Cincinnati has firm control of its path as we enter Week 14.

Below is a look at the current wild-card field — with numbers indicating each team’s current place in the conference — as we determine who the contenders and the pretenders are:

5. SAN DIEGO (8-4) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City
Skinny: How big was Sunday’s win in Baltimore for Mike McCoy’s team? All you have to do is take a look at the Chargers’ remaining schedule and realize you wouldn’t have liked their chances at all had they fallen to 7-5. Instead, they own a one-game lead over the 7-5 teams in the AFC and remain in excellent shape if they can go 2-2 in their final four. A year ago at this time, the Chargers were 5-7 and looked all but dead before running the table — including wins over Denver and Kansas City — and receiving lots of help to sneak into the postseason. They’ll need another good finish, but they have some margin for error this year.

6. MIAMI (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: Baltimore, at New England, Minnesota, New York Jets
Skinny: It wasn’t pretty, but the Dolphins’ Monday night win over the Jets kept them in prime position to secure a playoff spot with a strong finish in the final month. A Week 15 trip to Foxborough won’t be easy, but their final two home games are very winnable against two teams with a combined seven wins. Anything can happen considering the Ravens and the Dolphins both lost their final two games in 2013, but it certainly looks like Sunday’s game in Miami could go a long way in determining who secures a wild-card spot in the AFC playoff race.

7. KANSAS CITY (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-4
Remaining schedule: at Arizona, Oakland, at Pittsburgh, San Diego
Skinny: The Chiefs were feeling really good about themselves a few weeks ago, but consecutive losses to woeful Oakland and powerful Denver have brought them back to the rest of the pack. Kansas City can’t throw the ball and the run defense has been gashed in recent weeks, which doesn’t make for a good combination entering the season’s final month. With three games remaining on the schedule against teams with winning records — two of them on the road — it’s hard to envision the Chiefs playing well enough down the stretch to secure one of the two wild-card spots.

8. BUFFALO (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: at Denver, Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England
Skinny: The Bills continue to hang tough in the AFC playoff race after a nice win over the Browns on Sunday. However, remaining games against the Broncos, the Packers, and the Patriots should end any serious discussion about Buffalo qualifying for the postseason. With their other game being a cross-country trip to Oakland, the Bills might be fortunate just to win one more game in the final month of the regular season. It’d be interesting to see what the Bills could do with a real quarterback even if veteran Kyle Orton has done a respectable job since taking over for E.J. Manuel. Injuries at running back haven’t helped, either.

9. BALTIMORE (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 3-5
Remaining schedule: at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: Sunday’s loss to San Diego was brutal as it gives the Ravens little wiggle room the rest of the way as they really need to beat the Dolphins on the road. The remaining schedule is reasonable, but how do you trust a secondary that continues to be toasted by any opposing passing games with a pulse? Even a road trip against the Texans is concerning with talented receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins waiting. A lousy 3-5 conference mark doesn’t help matters for the Ravens, but we’ll see what Harbaugh’s team is made of in the next three weeks. The running game and the offense will need to come up huge.

10. PITTSBURGH (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: The Steelers continue to be one of the most bipolar teams in the NFL as they stubbed their toe Sunday against New Orleans, who was coming off three straight losses. When at their best, the Steelers have one of the most balanced offenses in the league, but the defense doesn’t scare anyone and could easily be exploited down the stretch. The biggest factors working in the Steelers’ favor are a 6-3 conference record and two games with the Bengals, which could catapult them into the AFC North lead. Given how unpredictable they’ve been, the Steelers could win out or lose out and no one should be surprised with either outcome.

11. CLEVELAND (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: Quarterback Brian Hoyer has really struggled in recent weeks, but a change at quarterback isn’t exactly what you’re looking for while in the playoff hunt and that’s exactly where the Browns find themselves. Maybe rookie Johnny Manziel is the spark to light the fire for Cleveland down the stretch, but nothing else about the Browns’ final month of the schedule makes you think they’re going to do enough to sneak into the playoffs. They’ll need to beat either the Colts or the Bengals at home to give themselves any decent chance at all in the final two weeks.

12. HOUSTON (6-6) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-3
Remaining schedule: at Jacksonville, at Indianapolis, Baltimore, Jacksonville
Skinny: Why even include the Texans on the list considering they have the worst record of the bunch? Two of four remaining games coming against Jacksonville certainly helps, and a home game against the Ravens looks more and more reasonable given Baltimore’s pass defense woes. Of course, Houston isn’t a real contender, but no one thought the Chargers were at this time last year, either. If you’re looking for that deep sleeper to finish strong — three out of four wouldn’t be out of the question — and take advantage of a slew of other teams being mediocre down the stretch, Houston is your team. A good conference record also helps.

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Future’s uncertainty always most painful as Orioles bow out of postseason

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Future’s uncertainty always most painful as Orioles bow out of postseason

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A sweep was a bitter way for a season to end after the Orioles won 96 games to secure their first American League East title in 17 years.

Overcoming season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado as well as enduring the 25-game suspension and poor performance of slugger Chris Davis, the Orioles arguably had their most rewarding year since their last World Series title in 1983. But that magic and mojo finally expired against the Kansas City Royals, who didn’t embarrass Baltimore but was just a little bit better across the board as they won their first AL pennant since 1985.

Even if 2014 ultimately proves to be the Royals’ year — and an 8-0 postseason mark certainly suggests it is — the end still hurts.

“There’s a lot of positive things there. But it’s kind of shallow,” manager Buck Showalter said. “There’s so many things that during the year, it’s just an unspoken word, a look at each other, there’s a real respect for each other. And like I just told them, the game’s not always fair. Someone’s going to be extremely disappointed.”

The Orioles have quite a juxtaposition of half-full and half-empty outlooks as they conclude 2014, but the uncertainty of navigating another offseason and another 162-game marathon to try to get back to this same point next year — with a different outcome, of course — always makes you wonder if they’ll make it back. The AL East doesn’t figure to feature underwhelming versions of both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox for a second straight year, so that alone forces you to take pregnant pause.

Even as disappointment wanes and fans begin to reflect on the Orioles’ third straight winning season and first division title since 1997, expectations have only soared for executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, Showalter, and the current club. But as is the case with any offseason, some change will be inevitable.

“You know, [2012] was unexpected, in ’13 we had expectations, and here we were doing something that hasn’t been done in a long time,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “I think expectations have risen a little bit in Baltimore and that’s good. I don’t mind expectations being risen, because I’m going to come back to spring training ready to get back to this position. It’s a great position to be in the ALCS.”

With those heightened expectations in mind, how do the Orioles improve for next season? As always, the quest will continue to improve their pitching depth while hoping 23-year-old Kevin Gausman takes another step forward, but do Duquette and Showalter tinker dramatically with an offense that relied too much on the home run?

The addition of some speed would benefit, but the Orioles also expect to have Wieters, Machado, and Davis back in the picture, which should provide significant overall improvement to the offense. But the lineup could look different without Nelson Cruz anchoring the cleanup spot.

After signing a one-year, $8 million deal during spring training to come to Baltimore, Cruz will be seeking a long-term deal for lucrative money, but he is 34 years old and coming off a career season in which he hit 40 homers. As we saw with Davis’ disastrous 2014 campaign a year after he hit a franchise-record 53 home runs, you don’t want to make a snap reaction based on a career season and set your price based on that.

Cruz acknowledged he may have played his last game with the Orioles after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss in Kansas City.

“It’s there, but I want to come back,” Cruz said. “We’ll just wait and see what happens. I love the clubhouse. I love all my teammates. The whole organization is great — even the guys you don’t see every day. I appreciate that.”

The Orioles also face difficult decisions with right fielder Nick Markakis and lefty reliever Andrew Miller, who will also become free agents. Miller was the club’s best pitcher in the postseason, but he is expected to receive an enormous amount of attention on the open market and could be paid lucratively to become a closer elsewhere.

Though they were able to re-sign shortstop J.J. Hardy to a contract extension last week, the Orioles know that Wieters and Davis will be free agents after 2015. Duquette was more aggressive this year than he was over his first two offseasons running the club as he signed Cruz and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, so will we see the Orioles once again be bold to set up for another run next season or take a more conservative approach even though they face the loss of two more key players next winter?

It’s tough to say as even the career-long Oriole Markakis doesn’t know for sure if he’ll be back or if the organization will elect to go in a different direction as his power has declined over the last few seasons.

“I don’t know; you never know,” Markakis said. “Baseball is a funny game and anything can happen. Take some time off and see where that ball goes.”

It’s that unknown that makes Wednesday’s loss and the abrupt end of a terrific season that much more frustrating.

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Former Oriole Guthrie apologizes for post-game shirt

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Former Oriole Guthrie apologizes for post-game shirt

Posted on 15 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On a day in which the Kansas City Royals were trying to officially advance to their first World Series in 29 years, Game 3 starter Jeremy Guthrie was apologizing to his former club.

The former Orioles pitcher issued an apology for wearing a post-game shirt stating, “These O’s Ain’t Royal,” adding that he made no connection with the play on words from the song “Loyal” by Chris Brown. Countless fans and members of the organization took exception to what was perceived as a sign of disrespect for a club that helped Guthrie revitalize his career when he arrived in Baltimore in 2007.

“Unfortunately for me, I used a lack of judgment in putting that shirt on after the game,” Guthrie said Wednesday afternoon. “Never changed, came in here, and wore it. What ensued was not what I intended. There was no intention to call the attention to the other team, friends, and former teammates, certainly not the organization and most definitely not their fans.”

Guthrie allowed one earned run and three hits over five innings in Game 3 as the Royals won 2-1 to take a 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series. Guthrie said a few former teammates in the Orioles clubhouse reached out to him following the game to express they thought the shirt “was pretty low, a low blow, or inappropriate.”

In five seasons in Baltimore, Guthrie went 47-65 with a 4.12 ERA. He was traded to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for pitchers Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom before the start of spring training in 2012. However, Guthrie had remained a fan favorite in Baltimore over the last couple years prior to Tuesday night.

“Anyone and everyone that was offended, you’ll never see the shirt again,” Guthrie said. “The shirt was sent to me, and it will be sent to the garbage, because that’s probably where it belongs at this point. And I am willing to accept that. And any reaction that’s come my way, I understand it. I’ve accepted it. And I’ll move on.”

Perhaps the most damning fallout from Guthrie wearing the shirt was the amount of attention it received prior to the start of Game 4 as the Orioles try to become only the second team in major league history to erase an 0-3 deficit in a playoff series.

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Orioles so close, yet so far away in now facing elimination

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Orioles so close, yet so far away in now facing elimination

Posted on 15 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The stigma of a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the Orioles’ performance against the Kansas City Royals in this year’s American League Championship Series.

The fact that Kansas City has scored in its final at-bat to win two games and prevailed by just one run in Game 3 supports the notion that the Orioles haven’t played poorly. In fact, their play has almost matched the Royals in a variety of ways as the clubs have played a competitive and highly-entertaining series to this point.

But none of that really matters now. There are no moral victories or bonus points for a narrow margin of defeat. And unlike a sport like boxing where a fighter has the chance of a late knockout after repeatedly being edged 10-9 in the early rounds, baseball affords no such structure.

If erasing an 0-2 deficit was a steep task, coming back from an 0-3 hole is conquering Everest, because there’s no way to do it other than to grind out four straight wins against the club that’s grinding better than anyone right now. Yes, the 2004 Boston Red Sox created a glimmer of hope for all teams in this scenario in becoming the first team to come back from an 0-3 deficit, but of the nine teams to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven LCS era, all but three completed a four-game sweep.

The Royals have been just a little bit better in each of the three games. And the Orioles have to feel so close, yet so far away from this series being very different.

“We’ve played three really good games, just fell short in each game,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Now, we have a good idea of what the uphill battle is now. Just got to win.”

In the days leading up to the series, so much time was spent discussing the different offensive styles, but it was also pointed out how similar the Orioles and Royals were in every other phase of the game. And it’s been in some of those areas where the difference in this series have come.

As terrific as the Baltimore bullpen has been, the Royals have been better with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and closer Greg Holland allowing only one earned run in 11 combined innings. Meanwhile, two of the Orioles’ big three — Darren O’Day and Zach Britton — didn’t get the job done in their opportunities in Games 1 and 2.

Defensively, both clubs were considered among the best in the majors, but it’s been the Royals who’ve made the spectacular plays. Call it luck in saying the Royals have had more opportunities to make those defensive gems, but they have certainly seized those moments when presented.

And the Royals’ offensive style — the ability to foul off tough pitches and the presence of speed on the bases — has put the pressure on Baltimore pitching while scratching across just enough runs to leave them one win shy of their first World Series appearance in 29 years. On Tuesday, it was an run-scoring grounder and a sacrifice fly that plated the Kansas City runs. In contrast, several deep drives from Orioles bats early in the game didn’t carry out of the ballpark on a windy night before the lineup slipped into a coma as Kansas City pitching retired the final 16 batters of the game.

The Royals have just had a little bit more in the tank than the Orioles, who haven’t played bad baseball but haven’t done enough to win, either.

“They’re a good team, they’re a scrappy team,” first baseman Steve Pearce said. “They don’t strike out, they manage to put the ball in play, and [they] get hits. That’s just the way the series has gone so far.”

The Orioles and their fans had held out hope that some of the breaks the Royals had received in terms of broken-bat hits, swinging bunts, and stellar defensive plays would eventually swing in their favor, but it now appears too late for that to make a difference. Players said the right things about focusing solely on winning Game 4, but there appears to be no slowing the momentum train that is the Kansas City Royals, who are the third team in major league history to win the first seven games of a postseason.

If the clubs had played two weeks ago or two weeks from now, the story could be much different as the Orioles were the superior team in the regular season. But that’s both the beauty and the cruelty of October as it isn’t about being the best team, but it’s about being the best team right now.

To expect the Orioles to just roll over in Game 4 would be to overlook everything they’ve accomplished over the last three years, but the resiliency they’ve shown over the last three years just doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough to stop the Royals. Whatever magic that fans have long proclaimed the Orioles to have just doesn’t appear to be as potent as what’s going on in Kansas City right now.

“If we can get one [win] under our belt and get a few things to work our way, we feel like we can get it spinning the other way,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Otherwise, we shouldn’t show up tomorrow. I know what our guys in our locker room feel like. They know they’re up against some good competition. But [there’s] always one more opportunity, which is tomorrow.”

And tomorrow could also bring the end of the Orioles’ season, even if it doesn’t feel like it should be over yet.

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Cruz on Royals: “They’re coming back” to Camden Yards

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Cruz on Royals: “They’re coming back” to Camden Yards

Posted on 13 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After two days of hearing questions about the inflammatory comments made by Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz finally bit just a little after downplaying any significance of the bulletin board material.

Dyson said after Game 2 of the American League Championship Series that he didn’t expect to return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards later in the series and that Orioles players didn’t believe they would, either. A day later during the teams’ workout at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, the reserve outfielder — who’s 0-for-2 attempting to steal bases over the first two games of the series — questioned how much fight the Orioles might have left.

Cruz was asked Monday whether he expected the series to return to Baltimore later this week, and the 34-year-old took the opportunity to finally take a veiled shot at Dyson.

“Oh yeah, ” said Cruz as he cracked a smile. “They’re coming back, too.”

To this point, the designated hitter has allowed his bat to do the talking in the playoffs as he’s hit .476 with two home runs and seven runs batted in over 22 plate appearances this October.

In 39 career postseason games, Cruz has hit an incredible 16 home runs and batted .306 with a 1.059 on-base plus slugging percentage. The veteran said the Orioles aren’t concerned with how anyone outside their clubhouse feels about their chances with a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-seven series, and they’re eager to prove it upon getting back on the field after Monday’s Game 3 postponement.

“There’s going to be talk. You can’t help it,” Cruz said. “There’s going to be talk, but you stay in the present and focus on whatever you need to focus on and whatever you can control.”

Most players have taken the high road in responding to Dyson’s confidence, but manager Buck Showalter and a couple others have taken a different approach in agreeing that the Royals have a right to feel good about themselves after winning two games at Camden Yards.

But that doesn’t mean the Orioles haven’t made a mental note as the series is now scheduled to resume on Tuesday night. And you do wonder why a player who’s had such a small role in his club’s success in Game 1 and 2 would find the need to act as the Royals’ spokesman.

“He’s trying to get his team jacked up. It is what it is,” closer Zach Britton said. “They should be confident. They played some good games, but we’re not going to let what he says dictate the way we go out and play, and we understand that.”

Gausman embracing relief role with eye on future

With Monday’s rainout, the Orioles hope to potentially find themselves planning for who might start a deciding Game 7 with the teams now set to potentially play five straight days.

That responsibility could ultimately fall on normal No. 5 starter Kevin Gausman, who’s worked exclusively out of the bullpen to this point in October. In two appearances spanning 5 1/3 innings — one outing each against Detroit and Kansas City — Gausman has allowed only one earned run and four hits while striking out six and walking two.

“I hope that we’re back here next year and the near future, and hopefully, I’m starting one of these games,” Gausman said. “That’s what I would like, obviously, in the future. But anytime you have success in the postseason, it definitely helps not only yourself but your confidence level and it says a lot about your career.”

Gausman has proven to be a valuable piece out of the bullpen after he got his feet wet in that capacity as a rookie last year. In his 15 relief appearances a year ago, the 2012 first-round pick pitched to a 3.52 ERA and struck out 11.3 batters per nine innings.

Showalter hasn’t shied away from using Gausman as more than just a long man out of the bullpen as he was trusted to keep the Orioles close in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, allowing his offense to eventually stage the comeback win. The 23-year-old was then used in Game 1 of the ALCS to keep the Orioles within one run as they tied the score while he was still in the game.

“It’s not so weird for me,” said Gausman about once again having a relief role after starting all season. “I feel like if we put any other starter down in the bullpen, it might take him a little while to get used to it. When I was told I was going out there, I wasn’t mad or upset. I just kind of took it as a challenge, and I think it’s really fun coming out of the bullpen. That’s when you have your best stuff, and you get to kind of showcase [it].”

Duquette wheeling and meal-ing

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette expressed confidence Monday that his club would be ready to play whenever the weather would allow the series to resume.

But he may have offered the line of the day when a reporter asked if he planned on signing anyone else to a contract extension to provide some material for media on a slow news day after Monday’s postponement.

“I’m going to sign the room service [bill] at the hotel,” he said.

Duquette signed shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year, $40 million extension with a vested option last Thursday.

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Game 3 of ALCS postponed due to heavy rain in Kansas City

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Game 3 of ALCS postponed due to heavy rain in Kansas City

Posted on 13 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Trying to climb out of a 2-0 hole in the American League Championship Series, the Orioles will need to wait another day to narrow the gap with the Kansas City Royals after Game 3 at Kauffman Stadium was postponed Monday.

With heavy rain and high winds pelting Kansas City since Monday morning, Major League Baseball made its announcement 3 1/3 hours before the scheduled start time of 8:07 p.m. Game 3 will now be played at the same time on Tuesday night while Games 4 and 5 are scheduled to begin at 4:07 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.

Managers Buck Showalter and Ned Yost confirmed that left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Jeremy Guthrie would still make the start for their respective clubs in Game 3, but Game 4 now becomes more of a mystery. Game 1 starters Chris Tillman and James Shields would both be pitching on regular rest on Wednesday, and neither skipper ruled out his series-opening pitcher as a possibility.

Miguel Gonzalez and Jason Vargas were scheduled to square off in Game 4 before Monday’s postponement. Tillman completed a bullpen session on Monday and told reporters he would be prepared to start the fourth game of the series if called upon.

“Chen will pitch [Tuesday], and after that we’ll probably have a better idea,” Showalter said. “The weather report’s good [Tuesday], right? That’s about all I can tell you today until [pitching coach Dave Wallace] and I sit down and look at it a little bit.”

While the Orioles will need to do some significant work in Kansas City, the clubs now face the possibility of playing the final five games of the series over five straight days, which could make for some interesting decisions as to who would start games late in the series. The consensus among most players in the clubhouse following the announcement of the postponement was that a second day off in a row on Monday helped from a physical standpoint, but they downplayed any other psychological impact — positive or negative — for either side.

Showalter once again showed that he’s not allowing the pressure of the ALCS to affect his sense of humor when asked if having another night off would be a disadvantage for the Royals after their blazing start to the postseason.

“No, but I appreciate you throwing it out there,” said Showalter as he chuckled. “When you get good things going this time of year, it’s about who pitches better and plays better. I don’t think so. If anything, it’s great for the restaurant business in Kansas City. That’s about it. Room service is expensive in that hotel.”

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Orioles can only look forward in trying to erase ALCS deficit

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Orioles can only look forward in trying to erase ALCS deficit

Posted on 12 October 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chen, Guthrie scheduled to start Game 3 of ALCS

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Chen, Guthrie scheduled to start Game 3 of ALCS

Posted on 11 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Trying to bounce back from their disappointing extra-inning loss in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, the Orioles named tentative starters for Games 3 and 4 of the series to be played in Kansas City.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters that lefty Wei-Yin Chen is scheduled to make the first start of the series at Kaufman Stadium where he’ll be opposed by former Orioles starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie. Chen was roughed up in his only start of the postseason when he allowed five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings in his Game 2 start against the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series, a game the Orioles eventually won.

The Taiwanese lefty is 1-1 with a 4.17 ERA in six career starts covering 36 2/3 innings against Kansas City.

Guthrie will be making his postseason debut on Monday and hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26 when he tossed seven shutout innings against the Chicago White Sox. The 35-year-old went 13-111 with a 4.13 ERA in 32 starats this season and is 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA in four career starts spanning 27 innings against Baltimore.

In Game 4, Miguel Gonzalez is currently slated to take the ball for the Orioles against Kansas City lefty Jason Vargas as Royals lefty Danny Duffy will continue to work out of the bullpen after concerns with his mechanics during the month of September. Showalter confirmed Chen and Gonzalez would both be available in the bullpen for Game 2 as Bud Norris was making his second start of the playoffs.

Gonzalez threw a simulated game earlier this week, but the right-hander hasn’t pitched in a game since the regular-season finale on Sept. 28.

The Orioles entered Game 2 having not lost consecutive home games since June 28-29. They were 31-10 in their final 41 regular-season games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards this year. Of course, they fell to 2-1 in postseason home games after the 8-6 loss to the Royals on Friday night.

Here are the Game 2 lineups:

KANSAS CITY
SS Alcides Escobar
RF Nori Aoki
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Billy Butler
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Mike Moustakas

SP Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20 ERA)

BALTIMORE
RF Nick Markakis
LF Alejandro De Aza
CF Adam Jones
DH Nelson Cruz
1B Steve Pearce
SS J.J. Hardy
3B Ryan Flaherty
C Caleb Joseph
2B Jonathan Schoop

SP Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65 ERA)

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Late innings suddenly not so comfortable for Orioles

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Late innings suddenly not so comfortable for Orioles

Posted on 11 October 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orioles add Matusz, subtract Jimenez as only change for ALCS roster

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Orioles add Matusz, subtract Jimenez as only change for ALCS roster

Posted on 10 October 2014 by Luke Jones

On the morning of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, the Orioles announced their series roster with only one change made from the 25-man group they fielded against the Detroit Tigers in the first round.

Lefty reliever Brian Matusz was added to the bullpen while right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was subtracted as the Orioles will meet the Kansas City Royals for the first time ever in the postseason. With Kansas City sporting a regular lineup that includes four left-handed hitters, Matusz could potentially see some situational opportunities after being left off the AL Division Series roster due to the Tigers’ ability to feast on left-handed pitching.

The Orioles had been considering adding left-handed long reliever T.J. McFarland to their ALCS roster before once again electing to keep 14 position players, including both Kelly Johnson and Jimmy Paredes. The decision does leave the Orioles without a great deal of length in their bullpen should they want to use right-hander Kevin Gausman in high-leverage situations.

Jimenez did not appear in the ALDS after his inclusion on the roster surprised many observers.

As manager Buck Showalter confirmed on Thursday, infielder Chris Davis was left off the ALCS roster since he has five games remaining on his 25-game ban for amphetamine use. Davis rejoined the club for the ALCS workout day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Thursday and is now allowed to be with the Orioles while waiting for his suspension to expire.

If there’s a postponement Friday night, the Orioles and Royals may resubmit rosters as the prospects of playing five straight days would certainly change starting pitching plans. However, if they start Friday’s game and it’s suspended due to rain, teams may not alter their rosters.

Below is the ALCS roster, which can be altered should the Orioles advance to their first World Series in 31 years.

CATCHERS
Nick Hundley (R)
Caleb Joseph (R)

INFIELDERS
Ryan Flaherty (L)
J.J. Hardy (R)
Kelly Johnson (L)
Jimmy Paredes (S)
Steve Pearce (R)
Jonathan Schoop (R)

OUTFIELDERS
Nelson Cruz (R)
Alejandro De Aza (L)
Adam Jones (R)
David Lough (L)
Nick Markakis (L)
Delmon Young (R)

STARTING PITCHERS
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Chris Tillman

RELIEF PITCHERS
RHP Brad Brach
LHP Zach Britton
RHP Kevin Gausman
RHP Tommy Hunter
LHP Brian Matusz
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Darren O’Day

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