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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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Ten talking points for Orioles-Royals ALCS matchup

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Ten talking points for Orioles-Royals ALCS matchup

Posted on 08 October 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Orioles prepare to play the Kansas City Royals for the first time ever in the postseason and for the right to advance to their first World Series in 31 years, here are 10 talking points to break down their meeting in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday night:

1. It isn’t Eddie Murray vs. George Brett, but the tradition of yesteryear in each city makes this series a blast.

Yes, it’s been three decades since either the Orioles or Royals found themselves playing in the Fall Classic, but that’s what makes this series so much fun as younger baseball fan will be exposed to the history of each franchise. From 1973 through 1985, Baltimore and Kansas City combined to win two World Series titles, four AL pennants, and 10 division championships and were regarded as two of the model franchises in the major leagues. This history may not mean much to the current players or have any impact on the play on the field, but the fans’ thirst for a World Series will be palpable at both Kauffman Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

2. You won’t find more contrasting offensive styles with the stakes so high.

It’s thunder against lightning as the Orioles led the major leagues with 211 home runs while the Royals stole more bases (153) than any of the 29 other clubs. Meanwhile, Baltimore stole the fewest number of bases (44) in the big leagues and Kansas City ranked 30th with only 95 home runs. Five Royals players hit double digits in swiped bags while the Orioles’ leader in the category was David Lough with eight. Seven Orioles hit 12 or more homers — Manny Machado and Chris Davis will not play in this series — compared to just three for Kansas City. Despite their contrasting styles, the Orioles finished the regular season ranked sixth in the AL in runs with 705 compared to Kansas City coming in ninth with 651. Baltimore has the better offense over the long haul, but the Royals will try to turn a short series into a 100-meter dash while the Orioles emphasize their advantage in the shot put.

3. The Royals stack up more favorably to the Baltimore defense that Detroit did.

The Orioles still have the edge in the field, but Kansas City has a number of Gold Glove-caliber players including catcher Salvador Perez and outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. The Orioles rank third in the AL in BaseballReference.com’s defensive efficiency statistic while the Royals came in sixth in the regular season. Baltimore made the third-fewest number of errors (87) in the AL this season while Kansas City ranked 10th with 104. Both clubs made sparkling plays in the Division Series and rely on their defense to make a difference in close games.

4. Scoring early will be a high priority for both clubs.

Unlike the luxury the Orioles had against Detroit in the Division Series, they cannot expect to wait out starting pitchers for scoring opportunities in the late inning against the Royals, whose trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera might be even better than their own triumvirate of Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Darren O’Day. The Orioles’ 3.10 bullpen ERA ranked third in the AL while Kansas City’s 3.30 mark ranked fifth, which will cause both lineups to feel the urgency to break through prior to the sixth inning. Even with so many other great names in each bullpen, the wild cards could be right-hander Kevin Gausman and Kansas City lefty Brandon Finnegan, who made a major impact in the Wild Card Game after only being drafted in the first round out of Texas Christian a few months ago.

5. The spotlight will be much brighter on Adam Jones to produce in this series.

It’s cruel to judge any player on a sample size of only 37 at-bats, but the Orioles center fielder has amassed only four hits in his postseason career and will feel the heat if his bat doesn’t wake up in the ALCS. Being an aggressive hitter throughout his career, Jones must fight the urge to over-swing, especially when he has opportunities to drive in runs. The 29-year-old singled and walked in his final two plate appearances of the ALDS, which the Orioles hope are signs of better things to come this October for a player who’s meant so much to the club’s success over the last three years. Nelson Cruz carried the Orioles in the ALDS, but Jones waking up would make them even more difficult to beat in a best-of-seven series.

6. The Orioles are better equipped to handle Kansas City’s jackrabbits on the base paths.

The Royals are an incredible 12-for-13 attempting to steal in the postseason, which has certainly provided Buck Showalter with some restless nights this week. However, the Orioles will have more success in slowing Kansas City runners than either Oakland or the Angels because of their focus on slowing an opposing club’s running game. Baltimore ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal, but the fact that they faced the fourth-fewest number of stolen base attempts is a reflection of how well pitchers hold runners and how quick they are to the plate to help catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Of the two, Joseph is more adept at gunning down runners (a 40 percent success rate to Hundley’s 19 percent), so it will be interesting to see how much more Showalter might lean on the younger catcher in this series after Hundley started two of the three ALDS games.

7. Former Oriole starter Jeremy Guthrie pitching against his former club in the ALCS will be somewhat surreal.

With apologies to Baltimore reserve Jimmy Paredes, Guthrie is the most intriguing name to face his former team in this series and had the misfortune of being dealt away from the Orioles just before their resurgence in 2012. The classy right-hander has found a home with the Royals where he’s continued to be a solid member of the rotation and has been rewarded with a taste of the postseason after pitching respectably on some otherwise awful Orioles clubs from 2007 through 2011. Though Guthrie probably wouldn’t be slated to start before Game 4 unless the Royals elect to go with Danny Duffy in the rotation and put him in the bullpen, it will be interesting to see the Orioles face the 35-year-old, who acts as a symbol of the club’s past as they seek their first AL pennant in 31 years.

8. Neither club received enough credit for its starting pitching during the regular season.

The Orioles and Royals are known for their stout bullpens, but their rotations have been very effective despite lacking big names. The projected Game 1 starters, Chris Tillman and James Shields, are two of the better pitchers in the AL — the latter for a longer period of time — but each has just one All-Star appearance to his name. Baltimore’s starter ERA of 3.61 ranked just a hair below the Royals’ fourth-ranked 3.60 mark in the AL. The strong bullpens for both sides decrease the chances of any starter pitching particularly deep into games, but there’s no reason to think either side will have problems in this department.

9. This series may feature the two best relievers in baseball right now — and neither are closers.

While Britton and Holland have been two of the best ninth-inning men in baseball in 2014, Miller and Davis are the scariest weapons in their respective bullpens as they combined to strike out 212 hitters in 134 1/3 innings during the regular season. Miller’s ERA was 1.35 in 23 regular-season appearances for the Orioles after being dealt by Boston while Davis posted a 1.00 ERA in 71 appearances for Kansas City this year. Showalter has already demonstrated he’s not afraid to use Miller for more than one inning in the postseason while Davis was a starter as recently as last season, making you think he can be stretched out as well. Regardless of who ends up winning this series, it would be shocking if Miller and Davis aren’t the busiest bullpen arms in the best-of-seven showdown.

10. Buck Showalter has a sizable advantage over Ned Yost on this stage.

The strong sentiment shared among many around baseball is that the Royals have won in spite of their manager, who prefers the small-ball tactics detested by sabermetricians. Meanwhile, Showalter often speaks of his preference to not waste his offense’s 27 outs per game and rarely calls for sacrifice bunts and other tactics such as the hit and run. You do wonder if the Orioles’ strong bullpen will press Yost to lean even more on manufacturing runs than he normally does, but Showalter is more likely to stay the course with his lineup — even against the Royals’ stingy relievers. As for bullpen management, the skipper who is more willing to break the standard thinking of when to use his relievers will give his team the edge. Showalter is the superior tactician and has already shown his willingness to stretch his best relievers during the Division Series.

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What’s next for Gausman in October?

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What’s next for Gausman in October?

Posted on 04 October 2014 by Luke Jones

Even though Kevin Gausman was the odd man out when Buck Showalter decided his starting rotation for the postseason, the Orioles manager knew the 23-year-old could be a crucial piece out of the bullpen.

That couldn’t have been any truer in Game 2 of the American League Division Series when the right-hander relieved a struggling Wei-Yin Chen in the fourth inning after the Detroit Tigers had suddenly built a 5-2 lead. Not only did Gausman’s work keep the Orioles within striking distance, but he preserved a bullpen that was likely without Andrew Miller and had also seen Darren O’Day, Zach Britton, and Tommy Hunter pitch in the series opener.

“Once I started warming up, I felt pretty good right away,” said Gausman, who made 15 relief appearances as a rookie in 2013. “Usually it takes me a good amount to get loose, but two throws and I was ready to go, ready to get in there. I felt good once I got in the game [and] just tried to establish the fastball in and go from there.”

Throwing fastballs in the high 90s and a nasty split-fingered changeup in the mid-80s, Gausman didn’t allow a run until his final batter of the game, the Victor Martinez double to deep center in the eighth that plated Torii Hunter before Miguel Cabrera was thrown out at the plate by second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In all, Gausman allowed just the one earned run while striking out five and walking one over 3 2/3 innings.

Gausman’s work put him in great company in Orioles postseason history as his five strikeouts were the most by a Baltimore reliever since Moe Drabowsky struck out 11 to earn the win in Game 1 of the 1966 World Series. The young pitcher also recorded 10 swinging strikes, matching Tigers starter Justin Verlander despite throwing 46 fewer pitches.

He didn’t earn the victory, but no pitcher was more important for the Orioles than Gausman on Friday afternoon, unless you count a Detroit bullpen that melted down for a second straight game.

“Kevin has high expectations,” said Showalter about the 2012 first-round pick from Louisiana State. “I mean, this [was] a Friday night pitcher in the SEC. Have you ever been to a Friday night game in Baton Rouge? Obviously [here], there is more people, bigger stage, basically the volume is turned up. You’ve just got to remember to breathe it in. Kevin presented himself really well.”

Needing only one more win to advance to the AL Championship Series, should the Orioles revisit Gausman’s status in the rotation based on how he performed against the Tigers Friday?

In fairness to Chen, who pitched three scoreless innings before melting down in the top of the fourth, nearly everyone acknowledged the difficult task of facing a Detroit lineup that hit .285 against left-handed pitching during the regular season. The Taiwanese lefty pitched to a career-best 3.54 ERA while winning a team-best 16 games this season and shouldn’t be nudged out after faring exactly how many thought he would on Friday.

Gausman’s electric stuff as a starter is even more dangerous in a relief role where he can crank up his fastball for a shorter outing. And it makes an already-terrific Orioles bullpen even better as they compete in October. And he provides a better long-relief option than Ubaldo Jimenez, who probably won’t see the mound unless there’s an injury or blowout situation.

The Orioles hope Gausman’s long-term home is near the top of their starting rotation, but the bullpen appears to be a great fit as they try to advance deep into October.

“We thought he could be a weapon for us in the bullpen in the playoffs,” Showalter said. “Because with their lineup, you’re going to have some challenges pitching to them. It worked out good.”

 

 

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Tillman ready for next step as Orioles’ postseason ace

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Tillman ready for next step as Orioles’ postseason ace

Posted on 01 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Just a few years ago, not many would have believed Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman would be the one taking the ball for the opening game of a playoff series.

Acquired with outfielder Adam Jones as the centerpieces of the Erik Bedard trade in February 2008, Tillman carried a career 5.58 ERA in 36 starts over his first three major league seasons in which he shuffled back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. The struggles left him as an afterthought in many minds as the Orioles embarked on what turned out to be a surprising 2012 season that resulted in their first postseason appearance in 15 years.

It wasn’t until that July that Tillman finally got another chance in the rotation and established himself as a major league starter by going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts. Even with Tillman having such an impressive second half, manager Buck Showalter elected to send him to the bullpen in the 2012 playoffs where he did not pitch.

Last year, he established himself as the staff ace and was named to his first All-Star Game. And after being named the Opening Day starter for the first time earlier this year, Tillman will take another step in his dramatic progression by making his postseason debut against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series Thursday night.

“It has been a journey, to say the least,” Tillman said. “I had a couple of rough years early on and kind of turned things around come 2012. I think that goes to show where the organization is at, not just personally, but all the way throughout. … For myself, like I’ve always said, it’s a big puzzle, and you’re trying to find the pieces to it and put the puzzle together.”

Completing his second consecutive 200-inning season and posting a 20-start streak of allowing three or fewer earned runs that wasn’t snapped until his final outing of the regular season, Tillman’s final 2014 numbers that included a 13-6 record with a 3.34 ERA weren’t such a sure thing as late as early June. Slow starts in the early innings and poor fastball command led to Tillman holding a 5.20 ERA through his first 13 starts.

His early-inning pains and a lingering groin issue led many to wonder if a market correction was finally taking place after his superb 1 1/2 years, but the 26-year-old instead made adjustments and went on the most successful run of his career, posting a 2.38 ERA over his final 21 starts to not only silence doubters but make it an elementary choice for Showalter to choose him as the Game 1 starter against the Tigers.

“He’s just a really hard worker. I know his talent is really immense,” catcher Nick Hundley said. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for how good he is. It’s a tough game. You don’t roll out here and put up Nintendo numbers like he has the last three or four months without being really good.”

Tillman will be opposed by 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, leading many to overlook the tall right-hander once again, but his numbers since early June suggest he is as dangerous as any starting pitcher remaining in the postseason. The only question will be how he responds to the limelight of his first playoff appearance, but Tillman is often praised by teammates and coaches alike for his even demeanor, which should allow him to handle what’s sure to be a raucous crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

For the California native, it’s just another step and just another start, even while anticipating some butterflies.

“The only difference is the stakes are higher. I take every game the same way,” Tillman said. “They’re all important. There is not one that’s less important than the other. Once the game starts and the bell rings, that’s where we’re comfortable as a team. Might have extra feelings before the game, be nervous, but if you’re not nervous, you need to find another job.”

Hot corner, hot topic

When asked about how he anticipated handling the third base position, Showalter wasn’t tipping his hand Wednesday as the Orioles have given starts to Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, Kelly Johnson, and Alexi Casilla at the hot corner since Chris Davis was suspended for amphetamine use on Sept. 12.

The growing pains have been clear as the Orioles had appeared to settle on Davis as their regular replacement for the injured Gold Glove winner Manny Machado before the slugger was banned for 25 games, a stretch that makes him ineligible until the ninth game of the postseason should the club advance. Baltimore made seven errors at third base over the final 10 games of the regular season.

“I feel confident in the people that will be playing and they’ve got a good track record,” Showalter said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to be as good as Manny. [He] had a historical year defensively, but we’ve been able to present ourselves well over there. I feel confident that we will continue to do that.”

Most believe Showalter will go with the strongest available defensive option in the postseason, which would be Flaherty despite the utility infielder committing three errors over his final four starts at third.

The 2012 Rule 5 pick said he is feeling more comfortable after getting extensive time at third base for the first time since the beginning of the year when he was filling in for the still-rehabbing Machado. Flaherty has made five errors in 27 starts and 255 1/3 total innings at third base this season.

“Part of my job here was to be able to be flexible and move around,” Flaherty said. “Getting over there the last couple weeks with Manny being gone, with Chris being gone [has helped]. You feel a little more comfortable the more you’re there.”

Rotation, roster remain secret

Showalter said Wednesday that he won’t announce the rest of his starting rotation until the conclusion of Game 1, but Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris will be the three starters behind Chris Tillman — in some order.

The 23-year-old Kevin Gausman was told to be ready for Game 1, a surefire sign that he will pitch in relief during the Division Series. However, it remains to be seen how many will be joining him in the bullpen as the Orioles are debating whether to go with a six-man group of relievers and a six-man bench or seven relief pitchers and five on the bench. A six-man bullpen would include Gausman, closer Zach Britton, right-handers Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter, lefty Andrew Miller, and either righty-hander Brad Brach or left-hander Brian Matusz.

“The decision for us is going with 10 or 11 [pitchers], and we’ve kicked it around until we’re blue in the face like everybody does,” Showalter said. “If you knew exactly what was going to be needed for each game, it would be real easy to do.”

The deadline to finalize the Division Series roster is 10 a.m. Thursday.

“Cheerleader” Machado progressing well

Machado was back at Camden Yards to watch Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series before reporting to Sarasota to continue rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee.

The 22-year-old remains optimistic that he’ll be 100 percent for the start of spring training in February.

“I’m doing everything,” said Machado, who is embracing the role of cheering for teammates despite not being able to play. “Activating the muscles and trying to get my quads back. I’m basically full-go [in a] couple weeks, hopefully. I have full range of motion already, and hopefully in a couple weeks, I’ll start riding the bike and get that going.”

Mr. Oriole pays visit

Hall of Fame third baseman and Orioles legend Brooks Robinson was a special guest speaker before the 2014 Orioles completed their workout at Camden Yards on Wednesday.

“His message was that he’s excited to see how excited Baltimore is,” Tillman said. “To us, that’s special. He’s been there. He’s been there for the World Series, for the playoffs, and he said this is the most fans he’s ever seen walking around the streets wearing their Baltimore Orioles jerseys and are proud of it.”

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Five questions for Orioles in final 10 games of regular season

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Five questions for Orioles in final 10 games of regular season

Posted on 18 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Orioles may have already wrapped up their first American League East title in 17 years, but a number of questions are left to be answered as they play out the remainder of the regular season.

Here’s a look at what remains on manager Buck Showalter’s mind for his 92-60 Orioles as they enter the final 10 games before the postseason …

1. Is it more important to go for the No. 1 seed in the American League or to rest everyday players?

Even though a 43-31 road record suggests the Orioles shouldn’t be afraid of playing away games in October, it’s difficult to argue with wanting home-field advantage considering Showalter’s club is a remarkable 30-8 at Camden Yards since June 30 and hasn’t lost consecutive home games since June 28-29. Entering Friday, they trailed the Los Angeles Angels by 2 1/2 games for the best record in the major leagues, a deficit that is far from insurmountable with the Angels playing Seattle and Oakland three times each — all six games are on the road — in their final nine games.

But Showalter also knows players who are fresh — or are at least as fresh as possible in October — are even more important to the Orioles’ chances of playing deep into the postseason. The early indications are that we’ll see position players such as Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce sit on a rotational basis of one or two per game, but Showalter has also said resting pitchers will be the higher priority.

The club’s top relievers have already been rested periodically over the last couple weeks as we’ve seen the likes of Ryan Webb, Evan Meek, and Brian Matusz pitch in some high-leverage situations while Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller, and Zach Britton have gone unused in certain games when they’d usually be available. Showalter could also elect to give a spot start or two to Ubaldo Jimenez or Joe Saunders to align his rotation and give some extra rest to starters who have historically benefited from extra days like Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez.

Entering Friday, the Orioles owned an eight-game lead over current No. 3 seed Detroit, so there isn’t any real danger of losing their grasp on the second seed if the Angels hold a steady lead into next week.

2. “I Don’t Know’s on third?”

While many have focused on the lost power potential of Chris Davis when news broke of his 25-game suspension last week, his absence at third base — where he was doing a solid job filling in for the injured Manny Machado — created the bigger dilemma as we’ve seen the trio of Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, and veteran Kelly Johnson share time at the hot corner since last week.

Flaherty is the best defensive option, but his .645 on-base plus slugging percentage creates another weak spot in a lineup that’s already carrying the inconsistent rookie second baseman Jonathan Schoop and one of the catching duo of Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Paredes and Johnson have provided some heroics with the bat in recent days, but neither provides a great deal of confidence defensively and they don’t have a track record — Johnson’s numbers in recent seasons are far inferior to the hitter he was four or five years ago — suggesting their offense will make a great impact in October, anyway.

It’s unlikely that Showalter will make a definitive choice for October, but his strong affinity for defense might make Flaherty the best bet of the three to receive extensive time — at least against right-handed starters — unless Paredes or Johnson continue to rake over the final 10 games going into the playoffs. Of course, there’s no guarantee that both Paredes and Johnson make the postseason roster.

3. Who will make up the four-man rotation for the playoffs?

Not counting Ubaldo Jimenez who appears all but certain to be left off the postseason roster, the Orioles really can’t go wrong with all five of their starters currently sporting an ERA of 3.62 or lower.

However, it would appear that Kevin Gausman is the starter left out considering he’s the least experienced of the group. Showalter’s decision to leave Chris Tillman out of the rotation in the 2012 postseason is a good indication that he’ll lean on experience, but the Orioles would be foolish not to put Gausman’s power arm in the bullpen to spell any starter showing signs of early trouble.

For the sake of ranking the remaining four from top to bottom, Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez, and Norris would be a fair order based on how they’ve pitched in recent weeks.

4. Which 25 players will make up the Division Series roster?

The Orioles elected to keep 12 pitchers for the Division Series two years ago, which gave them an eight-man bullpen and plenty of flexibility to match up.

There shouldn’t be too much drama in the bullpen as Britton, Miller, O’Day, Gausman, Matusz, Brad Brach, and Tommy Hunter would fill the first seven spots with the final slot potentially going to long man T.J. McFarland or right-hander Ryan Webb. With three of the four rotation members right-handed, McFarland could be Showalter’s preference in the event of an early exit by a starter as he’d be a long reliever throwing from the opposite side to face a lineup designed for the right-handed starter.

Working under the assumption that Jones, Markakis, Cruz, Hardy, Pearce, Schoop, Joseph, Hundley, Flaherty, Delmon Young, and Alejandro De Aza are locks, Paredes, Johnson, and outfielders David Lough and Quintin Berry would be the realistic candidates fighting for two spots. It will be interesting to see if Showalter values having either Lough or Berry as a pinch-running option and late-inning defensive replacement, which would push either Paredes or Johnson off the roster with the other  guaranteed to make it as an option at third base.

The suspended Davis isn’t eligible to return until after the first eight games of the postseason, so his status isn’t a factor for the Division Series.

5. Will the Orioles be able to maintain their edge?

With so much discussion about Showalter needing to rest his everyday players, there’s a fine balance between providing a breather and accidentally turning off a competitive switch that isn’t guaranteed to come back on in October.

This could be a real concern for many clubs locking up a playoff spot in mid-September, but the mental toughness shown from the likes of Jones and Markakis all the way down to Paredes and De Aza makes you think the Orioles are incapable of losing their focus. Of course, the possibility of still being able to catch the Angels for the top seed provides extra incentive for players to remain engaged over the final 10 games.

Considering they’ve overcome season-ending losses to two All-Star players and haven’t even blinked since Davis’ suspension began last week, it would be difficult to fathom the Orioles finally having a mental letdown at this late stage. The Orioles may ultimately fall short in the playoffs, but it won’t be due to a lack of focus or going through the motions.

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Orioles’ ability to overcome adversity begins with starters

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Orioles’ ability to overcome adversity begins with starters

Posted on 14 September 2014 by Luke Jones

With Friday’s surprising news of Chris Davis being suspended 25 games for amphetamine use, the same question that’s been tossed the Orioles’ way all season was uttered once again.

How can they overcome this?

Despite an 88-60 record entering Sunday that had them days away from the American League East championship, the Orioles have faced anything but a problem-free campaign in 2014.

All-Star players Matt Wieters and Manny Machado have suffered season-ending injuries. Top free-agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez has not only failed to meet expectations, but has been banished to the last spot in the bullpen and is very likely to be left off the postseason roster. And even before Davis’ suspension that now bans him until at least the AL Championship Series — if the Orioles advance that far — the slugger was hitting only .196 a year after hitting a franchise-record and league-leading 53 home runs.

“The game usually gives you back kind of what you put into it,” said manager Buck Showalter after the Orioles’ doubleheader sweep of the New York Yankees on Friday. “Everybody’s putting something into it.”

The narratives of resiliency and a different hero every night have frequently rung true, but they don’t paint the entire picture of how the Orioles have managed to all but run away with their first division title since 1997. We knew the Orioles would hit home runs and play exceptional defense entering the season, and those skills have certainly been there all year.

But the biggest question would be the pitching, particularly in the rotation. Even with the struggles of their $50 million addition in Jimenez, the starting pitching has not only silenced the doubts, but has been a strength since the first two months of the season. Through the end of May, the starting rotation had posted an underwhelming 4.49 ERA as the Orioles were 27-27. Since June 1, starters have pitched to an impeccable 3.20 mark, which would be tops in the AL if extrapolated over the entire season. The Orioles have gone 61-33 over that period of time, a .649 winning percentage.

Even with the unevenness of April and May included, Baltimore ranks sixth in the AL in starter ERA, which nearly any fan would have gladly taken at the start of the season. The current team ERA of 3.50 would be the Orioles’ lowest in a full season since 1979 when the AL champions posted a 3.26 ERA.

When being compared to the other top clubs around baseball, the Orioles are often sold short for lacking a true ace, but that hasn’t stopped the starting rotation from becoming the strong heartbeat of a club nearly 30 games above .500 in mid-September. All five members of the current rotation sport an ERA of 3.74 or better, making Showalter’s job a difficult one when deciding which four will make the postseason rotation.

Not only has the quintet of Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Kevin Gausman pitched effectively, but the group has been durable with only Gonzalez and Norris spending brief time on the disabled list this season. After using a total of 12 or more starters in each of the previous three seasons under Showalter, the Orioles have sent just seven starters to the hill in 2014 with long reliever T.J. McFarland only receiving one spot start.

Four Oriole starters — Tillman, Chen, Norris, and Gonzalez — have made 24 or more starts. For perspective, only three made 24 or more starts in 2013 and just one did it in 2012 when the Orioles earned their first postseason trip in 15 years.

Upon learning of Davis’ suspension on Friday, the Orioles responded by promptly sweeping a twin bill over the Yankees in which they allowed one run in 20 total innings. The nightcap was particularly indicative of what the Orioles have become as they fielded what looked like a spring training lineup that included only four players from the Opening Day order and three who weren’t even on the 40-man roster at the start of the year. It was no problem for Bud Norris, who pitched seven shutout innings against the fading Yankees in a 5-0 victory.

“Good pitching solves a lot of problems, issues, whatever you might want to call it,” said Showalter as he reflected on the work his club did following the Davis announcement on Friday. “That’s usually where it starts.”

And it’s why the Orioles shouldn’t be counted out, even after this latest blow to the lineup.

 

 

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Veteran pitchers Saunders, Meek become first September call-ups for Orioles

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Veteran pitchers Saunders, Meek become first September call-ups for Orioles

Posted on 01 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — With the calendar turning to September, the Orioles wasted no time making their first call-ups for the expanded roster by summoning relief pitchers Joe Saunders and Evan Meek on Monday.

Baltimore selected Saunders’s contract while recalling Meek and right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman, who started Monday’s series finale against the Minnesota Twins. Infielder Kelly Johnson also reported to the Orioles and was officially added to the roster after being acquired from the Boston Red Sox late Saturday night.

Beginning the season in the Texas Rangers’ rotation, Saunders was released twice in the month of July and went 0-5 with a 6.13 ERA in eight starts for Texas. Upon being released by the Ranger on July 4, Saunders signed a minor-league deal with the Kansas City Royals and was let go later in the month after posting a 6.75 ERA in four starts for Triple-A Omaha.

The 33-year-old Saunders posted a 1.50 ERA in 10 relief appearances for Triple-A Norfolk, holding left-handed hitters to a .211 average. Of course, Saunders was previously acquired by the Orioles late in the 2012 campaign and went 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in seven starts spanning 44 2/3 innings. He was the winning pitcher in the inaugural American League Wild Card Game against Texas that sent the Orioles to their first AL Division Series appearance since 1997.

Manager Buck Showalter envisions Saunders serving a role similar in nature to the one held by T.J. McFarland for most of the season. After being temporarily optioned to the minors on Sunday, McFarland is expected to be recalled on Tuesday.

The 31-year-old Meek went 2-0 with 16 saves and a 1.94 ERA (in 39 games for the Tides this season, striking out 37 and walking only four. He appeared in 15 games for the Orioles earlier this season, posting a 7.47 ERA.

The Orioles are also expected to recall right-handed relief pitcher Ryan Webb and backup catcher Steve Clevenger on Tuesday. Webb has recently been dealing with shoulder fatigue and was given a few days to rest. He is expected to test the shoulder for the Tides on Monday before being recalled for the three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds.

Showalter said first baseman and outfielder Steve Pearce is feeling much better from the abdominal strain that sidelined him Friday night. The manager hopes he can give it “a test run” at some point during the Cincinnati series.

The organization also announced which minor-leaguer players would be attending the instructional camp in Sarasota that begins on Sept. 6. Outfielders Dariel Alvarez and Henry Urrutia, infielders Christian Walker and Buck Britton, catchers Michael Ohlman and Brian Ward, and pitchers Oliver Drake, Eddie Gamboa, Preston Guilmet, Brock Huntzinger, Chris Jones, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright will participate in workouts and remain ready in case there’s a need at the major-league level during the month of September.

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Orioles recall infielder Paredes to take Gausman’s spot before Sept. 1

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Orioles recall infielder Paredes to take Gausman’s spot before Sept. 1

Posted on 28 August 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles took advantage of another procedural move Thursday by recalling utility infielder Jimmy Paredes from Triple-A Norfolk to take right-hander pitcher Kevin Gausman’s spot on the 25-man roster.

Just like lefty starter Wei-Yin Chen was optioned to the minors on Wednesday, Gausman was optioned to the Gulf Coast League Orioles but will be eligible to return as early as Friday since the rookie-level league is concluding its season on Thursday. Instead of making a 25-man roster move like they’ll need to do to recall Chen for his Sunday start, the Orioles will simply wait to recall Gausman to make his next scheduled start on Monday when rosters expand for the month of September.

The 25-year-old Paredes can play all four infield positions — though his strongest spots are at third base and second base — and the corner outfield spots while offering a speedy switch-hitting option off the bench. After playing with a three-man bench for several games, the Orioles will now benefit from having five positional reserves with backup catcher Steve Clevenger and Paredes being added in the last two days.

“He was probably coming up Sept. 1, anyway, and it was a way to get him here,” said manager Buck Showalter about Paredes. “It creates more depth. You never know what the game’s going to bring. You just want to be prepared.”

Paredes has been on the Orioles’ radar for a while as the organization initially claimed him off waivers in February. However, they unsuccessfully tried to sneak him through waivers to outright him to the minors, and he was claimed by Kansas City Royals a couple days later. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette acquired Paredes for cash considerations on July 24 and optioned him to Triple-A Norfolk.

After spending parts of three seasons with the Houston Astros, Paredes went 2-for-10 in nine games with Kansas City earlier this season. In 140 plate appearances with Norfolk, Paredes was hitting .258 with three home runs and 23 runs batted in.

In four major league season, Paredes has appeared in 54 games in left field, 50 at third base, 10 at second base, and one in right field. He is a career .233 hitter with three homers, 31 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, and a .272 on-base percentage in 406 career plate appearances in the majors.

Showalter confirmed he still plans to start Chen and Gausman on Sunday and Monday, respectively. The two starting pitchers are supposed to take work days with GCL pitching coach and former major league hurler Wilson Alvarez, according to the Baltimore skipper.

The Orioles announced Thursday that their Sept. 14 game against the New York Yankees has been moved from 1:35 p.m. to 8:05 p.m. after it was selected by ESPN to be the nationally-televised Sunday night game for the week.

Single-A Aberdeen catcher and Calvert Hall graduate Alex Murphy will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery and miss the organization’s instructional league. However, the 2013 sixth-round pick is expected to be ready to go for the start of spring training, according to Showalter.

Murphy was hitting .277 with three home runs and 25 RBIs for the IronBirds.

Former Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks after being designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays earlier in the week. The 30-year-old hit .212 with two home runs and nine RBIs for Toronto.

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Orioles can prove to be beasts of East by surviving West Coast

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Orioles can prove to be beasts of East by surviving West Coast

Posted on 18 July 2014 by Luke Jones

Sitting in first place at the All-Star break for the first time since 1997 didn’t exactly earn the Orioles any favors as they started the second half of the season in Oakland on Friday night.

A 10-game West Coast trip against the two teams with the best records in the majors and the second wild card leader in the American League probably gave manager Buck Showalter a restless night or two over this week’s respite. Knowing the Orioles play their next 23 games against clubs with winning records — not to mention the six following that against teams with .500 marks at the break — likely made him lose even more sleep.

Of course, Showalter and the Orioles have every right to feel good about themselves after winning 25 of their last 40 to move to 10 games above .500 and turn a 4 1/2-game deficit into a four-game lead over that stretch. They’ve built themselves a small cushion in a division in which no one is without sizable warts and imperfections with Toronto and New York seemingly moving in the wrong direction and Boston and Tampa Bay being mostly bad all season.

No, the trip to the West Coast will neither break nor make the Orioles’ chances of winning their first American League East title since 1997, but those 10 games allow them an opportunity to flex their muscles as a man amongst boys in an underwhelming division. Holding their own in Oakland, Anaheim, and Seattle — even going 5-5 — would not only keep the Orioles in first place but allow them to return home in late July in prime position to continue their quest to a second postseason appearance in the last three years.

A strong showing against the imposing AL West over the next couple weeks could be the difference between a relatively comfortable journey to October and needing to scratch and claw over the final two months of the regular season. In the same way that the Orioles took advantage of the recent struggles of the Blue Jays, the rest of the AL East will be rooting for Baltimore to wilt before finally returning to Camden Yards on July 29.

A starting rotation that’s pitched to a 3.18 ERA over its last 33 games will now face the two highest-scoring offenses in baseball over the next six contests. It was a 1-6 run against the Athletics and the Angels earlier this month that saw the Blue Jays’ one-game lead in the division turn into a 2 1/2-game deficit by the time they left the West Coast.

Even with the daunting stretch staring them in the face, the Orioles couldn’t ask for better timing as they’ll feel more rested now than they will at any point over the rest of the season. Aside from the current ankle injury to starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez — which many critics would deem a blessing anyway — the Orioles are as healthy as they’ve been at any point during the first half of the season.

Showalter has set up his rotation to include the 23-year-old Kevin Gausman — who could finally be with the Orioles for good — and will be looking for his starting pitchers to pick up where they left off to close the first half. And he’ll hope the inconsistent offense — currently ranked seventh in the AL in runs scored — will finally hit its stride and struggling first baseman Chris Davis starts looking more like the force he was a year ago and less like the .199 hitter who was lost at the plate for the first 3 1/2 months of the season.

By no means was it a perfect first half for the first-place Orioles as they lost catcher Matt Wieters for the season and saw their $50 million investment in Jimenez lead the majors in walks, but Baltimore was the least flawed of anyone in the division and still appears that way beginning the most difficult road trip of the season.

The Orioles can use these next 10 games to flex their muscles as the clear favorite in the division and solidify their first-place standing or could see themselves fall back with the rest of the imperfect pack in the AL East.

They’ve grown accustomed to being the hunter over the last three seasons; it will be interesting to see how they start the second half as the hunted after four days off to think about it.

By no means is it do or die, but the West Coast trip will be an opportunity for the Orioles to stake their claim as the overwhelming favorite in the division while sampling what they could see again in October.

 

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Gausman’s rotation spot must be solidified after All-Star break

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Gausman’s rotation spot must be solidified after All-Star break

Posted on 07 July 2014 by Luke Jones

If the Orioles really wanted to have a sense of humor, they’d offer a Kevin Gausman yo-yo giveaway night at Camden Yards in the second half of the season.

Monday brought the expected news of the 23-year-old right-hander being optioned yet again to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for former York Revolution relief pitcher Julio DePaula, who provided manager Buck Showalter with an extra arm in the bullpen after Sunday’s 12-inning win in Boston. The 31-year-old DePaula figures to only be with the Orioles for one game with Bud Norris set to be activated from the disabled list for Tuesday’s start against the Washington Nationals.

Yes, Gausman has options and the Orioles needed an extra arm in the bullpen, making him a logical choice to be sent to the minors to create an open spot on the 25-man roster. With next week’s All-Star break looming, the argument could be made that the 2012 first-round pick could only miss one start before returning in the second half of the season.

But is the constant yo-yoing of the young pitcher between Baltimore and the minors what’s best for him and the Orioles? Shuffling the deck with the likes of T.J. McFarland, Brad Brach, and Evan Meek is one thing — executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has manipulated his roster as much as anyone over the last three years — but continuing to mess with the rhythm of your top pitching prospect wouldn’t appear to be the best way to maximize your investment.

Showalter often quips that you can’t mess up the good ones no matter how much you try, but starting pitchers are also creatures of habit. Gausman has only gotten used to a routine of unpredictability and travel over the last month as he’s been optioned twice, was called up to serve as the 26th man for a doubleheader on June 27, and has pitched for the Orioles, Triple-A Norfolk, and short-season Single-A Aberdeen over that stretch.

The Orioles say there is another reason why they’ve handled the young pitcher in the manner they have this season, but even that excuse will no longer be valid after the All-Star break.

“I think every time he goes out [to pitch], it’s good for him,” Showalter said after Sunday’s 7-6 win over the Red Sox. “We’re managing his innings so — at some point — he’s good enough and we’re good enough to pitch the rest of the season. There’s a method to what we’re doing here. We’re trying to make sure a guy like him is available the whole year.”

In 2013, Gausman pitched 129 2/3 innings split between the Orioles and the minor leagues, putting him in line to throw somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 150 to 160 innings this season. He’s pitched 78 2/3 innings so far in 2014, leaving him on track to easily be able to handle a full workload as a starter in the second half.

But the excuses appear to be running out as even Hall of Fame pitcher and MASN analyst Jim Palmer recently took the organization to task over how Gausman has been handled despite pitching to a 2.45 ERA in his five starts since June 7. Showalter made a point during the club’s last homestand that he didn’t want to send Gausman to the hill on abbreviated rest, but the right-hander has twice been recalled to make starts on three days’ rest this season, albeit following what were abbreviated outings each time.

The Orioles gave Gausman infrequent work out of the bullpen for a large stretch of his rookie season instead of allowing him to work every fifth day on his secondary pitches at Norfolk.

Showalter may quip that you can’t prevent the best prospects from reaching their full potential, but the Orioles have put on a clinic in trying to do just that with Gausman over the last calendar year.

The young pitcher’s upside — and performance over the last month — has made his inclusion in the rotation a no-brainer despite the lingering headache of what to do to make room for him. Yes, the Orioles have the ability to move him on and off the roster as needed, but that doesn’t mean they should continue doing it if they want to see him thrive in the majors — and help them advance to the playoffs for the second time in three years.

The Orioles can’t keep Gausman out of the rotation because of a $50 million investment in Ubaldo Jimenez or loyalty to Miguel Gonzalez or Wei-Yin Chen. They need to make it work in allowing their best arm to pitch in the major leagues, regardless of what that means for the rest of the rotation.

Gausman has taken the high road whenever asked about being bounced back and forth between the big club and the minor leagues, but he’s also a human being with emotions who has to be wondering what more he needs to do to stay in the majors. The right-hander could have the impact of a trade-deadline acquisition if the Orioles simply give him a chance to flourish on a regular schedule.

“That’s really not up to me,” Gausman told reporters after Sunday’s outing. “I just try to pitch well when I can and when I get the opportunity to, but I have options and they’re going to use them if they feel like they need it. If we need a bullpen guy, that’s what it’s going to be.”

Next week’s All-Star break provides a final excuse for the Orioles to send Gausman back to Norfolk for one last start or two, but it will be time to solidify his place in the rotation after that — assuming he continues to perform at a level deserving of one.

And it will no longer be good enough to simply say they needed his roster spot if the Orioles truly want Gausman to be a critical part of a second-half run to the postseason.

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