BALTIMORE — The Orioles lineup started off with a bang against the Texas Rangers over the weekend, plating five runs in the first three innings of rookie Zach Britton’s masterful performance in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday, but quickly dissolved after that.
Adam Jones’ solo home run in the second inning of Saturday’s nightcap was the only run scored in the final 23 innings in the series loss to Texas as the Orioles fell 3-0 on Sunday afternoon.
The Orioles entered Sunday afternoon’s game tied for 10th in the American League in batting average (.220), 11th in on-base percentage (.281), and 10th in extra-base hits.
“I can speak for myself and Brian [Roberts] at the top of the order, I think we need to do a little better job getting on base,” right fielder Nick Markakis said. “We’ve been facing some tough pitching. Other than that, I think we’re pretty pleased with our record right now considering the way we’ve been swinging the bats, which says a lot about our pitching. We’ll get the bats going.”
Considering the offense was considered the team’s strength entering the season, it makes the Orioles’ 6-3 start that much more remarkable. However, the Baltimore bats will need to heat up this week as the Orioles head to the Bronx to take on the powerful Yankees for a three-game set.
Texas starters Matt Harrison and Derek Holland combined to hold the Orioles to one run over 13 innings of work in the final two games while the Rangers bullpen pitched seven scoreless innings over the three-game series.
“You face good pitching, that’s usually what tends to happen,” said left fielder Luke Scott, who flied out to center as a pinch-hitter representing the tying run in the eighth. “When that happens, you just tip your cap. You look at your at-bats as, ‘Did we give at-bats away against tough pitching?’ And no, we didn’t. We battled, and when guys needed to make a good pitch for the other team, they made good pitches.”
It’s been an unbelievable nine-day stretch for Jeremy Guthrie. The veteran pitcher started with a masterful eight-inning performance on Opening Day, spent two nights in the hospital earlier in the week, and finally returned to the mound at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for his first home start of the year on Sunday.
Despite feeling deprived of his normal energy while still recovering from a bout of pneumonia, Guthrie gave the Orioles six innings against the Rangers, allowing one run on four hits. His fastball sat in the 91-92 mph range for most of the afternoon, but the 32-year-old was unable to reach back for something extra on several different occasions.
“It was a battle the entire time,” Guthrie said. “Was fighting, trying to make better pitches and didn’t always do that. I was fortunate a lot on some of the outs that they didn’t hit it a lot further than they did.”
Despite several screaming outs in his six innings of work, the lone scoring blemish came in the fourth inning when Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre homered into left-center to give Texas a 1-0 lead. Guthrie gave way after 84 pitches after feeling fatigued for much of the afternoon.
“I thought he gave us everything he had,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He was running out of gas there at the end. I was watching him when he backed up third on a fly ball for the last out. Gutty effort. [He] gave us a chance to win and you’ve got to have that with the pitching they run out there.”
The effort, however, was wasted as the Orioles couldn’t generate a single run of support as Guthrie fell to 1-1 on the season. He will next pitch on Saturday in Cleveland, with Monday’s off day providing an extra day of rest for the recovering pitcher.
“He threw great,” Markakis said. “You can’t ask for anything more from him. We couldn’t put up any runs for him, which as hitters is tough.”
Fox-hole at catcher
Spring training star Jake Fox made his second straight start on Sunday, but it came with the unconventional transition from catcher one night to left field the next. Showalter wants to get Fox’s bat in the lineup, but it poses a difficult problem when Matt Wieters is starting at catcher.
With no other backup catcher on the roster, the Orioles are left with a dangerous proposition when Fox is playing elsewhere in the field. In the unlikely scenario in which one of the two would be substituted and the other would have to leave the game, the Orioles would find themselves looking at another player on the roster as an emergency catcher.
Who it might be is anyone’s guess, including Showalter’s.
“[The emergency catcher] may not know it yet,” the manager quipped. “At one point, it was going to be [current Triple-A pitcher Rick] VandenHurk. That’d have been really tough. Take him out of the game pitching, put him behind the plate. Vandy was a catcher for three years, two years.”
Showalter pointed to the Detroit Tigers’ handling of Victor Martinez and Alex Avila as a similar situation. Ironically, the Orioles expressed interest in Martinez before the free-agent catcher signed with Detroit.
The Orioles found themselves without a backup to Wieters on Sunday when Scott hit for Fox in the bottom of the eighth when Texas closer Neftali Feliz entered the game with two men on base and a 3-0 lead.
“No, we’ve talked about that [emergency situation],” Showalter said. “It’s something we’ve got to be careful with.”
Fox’s struggles behind the plate continued Saturday night after allowing two stolen bases and catching a disastrous outing for Jake Arrieta, after which Showalter questioned the sequencing of pitches. Showalter made no secret this spring about Fox’s need to improve defensively if he is going to be a long-term solution as Wieters’ backup.
Last year’s backup Craig Tatum is currently catching at Triple-A Norfolk.
With J.J. Hardy scheduled for an MRI and expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left oblique injury on Monday, the Orioles will rely on the combination of Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino while Hardy rehabs the injury at extended spring training in Sarasota.
“Izzy and Robert, both, present us with a good option,” Showalter said prior to Sunday’s game.
Defensively, yes, but the offensive implications are exactly why president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail pried away Hardy from the Minnesota Twins in the offseason. Baltimore shortstops hit just .236 with a .549 OPS in 2010, with Izturis receiving 142 starts at the position.
With Andino or Izturis manning the ninth spot in the order, it will likely create fewer RBI opportunities for Roberts, who is currently tied with third baseman Mark Reynolds for the team lead in runs batted in (eight).
Good starts not so rare
The final two losses to drop the Texas series take some of the air out of the Orioles’ sail, but a 6-3 record has Baltimore talking baseball with much excitement. Hyperbole and overreaction are synonymous with the first week of the baseball season, but it’s hard to blame fans for feeling enthused about a club with a reasonable chance to end the current streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons.
“We come out prepared everyday, play the game smart, play the game hard,” Scott said. “We’ve had some success up and down the lineup, and our pitching staff has done a great job for us. I think that’s where everything started. We’ve been getting good outings from our starters. The bullpen’s been coming in and giving us quality innings. It’s a good formula for success and hopefully we can continue that.”
However, with the Orioles heading to Yankee Stadium and following that with a three-game series in Cleveland against the red-hot Indians, optimism could come back down to earth in a hurry.
And it wouldn’t be that terribly different than a number of occasions over the last 13 years. For all the talk of this year being different, the Orioles are no strangers to strong starts.
Strong starts since 1997
1998 – 10-2 (finished 79-83)
2000 – 15-10 (finished 74-88)
2003 – 15-12 (finished 71-91)
2004 – 20-16 (finished 78-84)
2005 – 42-28 (finished 74-88)
2006 – 11-7 (finished 70-92)
2007 – 11-7 (finished 69-93)
2008 – 6-1 (finished 68-93)
2009 – 6-2 (finished 64-98)
Of course, most would correctly argue this year’s team has far more talent than those clubs of the past, but things can fall apart very quickly. In reality, many of the superlatives tossed around over the last nine days aren’t that terribly different than ones uttered in past seasons after strong starts.
The true test for gauging how much progress the Orioles have made will be watching them succeed in the middle portion of the season and, most importantly, seeing them play well in August and September when pitchers — especially young ones — tend to wear down.
Last season’s 34-23 finish under Showalter bodes well for this team’s chances, but it’s important for fans to brace themselves for struggles, especially in the starting rotation while the Orioles await Brian Matusz’s return in a few weeks.