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Five biggest Orioles surprises of the first half

Posted on 16 July 2015 by Luke Jones

Though standing at just 44-44 and in third place in the American League East, the Orioles have benefited from their share of surprises as they now look toward the second half of the 2015 season.

A staple of the prosperity during the Showalter-Duquette era has been the emergence of at least a couple relative unknowns to make key contributions each season while counting on established players to either rebound from previous disappointments or to take their talents to a new level. Even if their season hasn’t gone exactly to plan through the All-Star break, the Orioles have experienced a little bit of everything in terms of pleasant surprises.

Below are my five biggest individual surprises of the first half of the season:

Honorable mention: Darren O’Day, Ryan Flaherty

5. Zach Britton

Why does an All-Star closer with an ERA just a shade higher than it was a year ago belong on the list of surprises? A deeper look at the numbers shows just how dominant Britton has been in his second year as the Orioles’ ninth-inning man.

Relying on a heavy sinker to induce grounder after grounder last season, Britton converted 37 of 41 save opportunities and pitched to a 1.65 ERA, slightly lower than his 1.72 mark this year. However, the lefty benefited greatly from opponents batting .219 on balls in play (BABIP) in 2014, much lower than the league average of .297.

Such numbers would have made it reasonable — if not very likely — to expect some regression similar to what fellow sinkerballer Jim Johnson endured in 2013, but Britton has been even more imposing despite not being nearly as fortunate. Opponents have a .304 BABIP against Britton, but he’s overcome that with an improved slider to help increase his strikeout rate per nine innings (7.3 in 2014 to 10.1) while decreasing his walk rate per nine (2.7 to 2.0).

Simply put, Britton hasn’t been nearly as “lucky” as he was a year ago, but he’s pitching to less contact and still inducing a boatload of grounders when opponents do hit the ball. Britton had a great season in 2014, but he’s established himself as one of the best closers in the game by converting 23 of 24 save chances so far in 2015, numbers that rightly earned him a trip to his first All-Star Game.

4. Manny Machado

It was difficult to know what to expect from the 23-year-old third baseman after he suffered a second serious knee injury in less than a year last August. Machado’s defense and gap power established him as an All-Star-caliber player in 2013, but he’s blossomed into one of the best players in the AL this season and the kind of performer the Orioles hoped he might become one day.

Serving in the leadoff role out of necessity — who else could even handle the role right now? — Machado is hitting .298 with a .361 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 35 walks, and 13 stolen bases, numbers which are all already career highs. And while the Orioles will continue to knock on wood and keep their fingers crossed for his health, Machado has started all 88 games at third base and you’d never know he has two surgically-repaired knees while watching him play.

Machado has been the club’s best player by a significant margin, continuing to play Gold Glove defense and providing the kind of offense that’s turned him into an MVP candidate in 2015. According to Baseball Reference, the 2010 first-round pick ranks second behind only Mike Trout in the American League with 4.8 wins above replacement.

Taking nothing away from Adam Jones who is having a fine year and has been the club’s best player for several years, we could be seeing the passing of the torch this season with Machado emerging as the kind of rare superstar who makes the game look easy. The Orioles and their fans just pray the injuries are finally behind him.

3. Chaz Roe

Though it’s also a reflection on a disappointing winter, I doubt anyone would have projected the minor-league signing of a 28-year-old reliever with a career 4.44 ERA last December to be their best offseason addition so far in 2015.

Beginning the season at Triple-A Norfolk, Roe quickly established himself as a viable option for manager Buck Showalter in the late innings with a two-seam fastball and a devastating slider that’s helped him strike out 30 hitters while posting a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings with the Orioles.

Roe has struggled of late by allowing six earned runs in his last five outings, but it’s clear the Orioles saw something in the right-hander as he’s throwing his two-seamer more than ever and the movement on his slider has baffled hitters since he was called up in May. His stuff should allow him to remain an effective member of the bullpen even as he’ll need to make adjustments in the second half.

2. Ubaldo Jimenez

Perhaps his track record suggests his rebound shouldn’t have been so surprising, but anyone who watched Jimenez pitch in 2014 couldn’t have easily imagined him being one of their two best starters in his second season in Baltimore.

Simplified mechanics, the heaviest reliance on his two-seam fastball since his 2010 All-Star season with Colorado, and a dramatically improved walk rate (just 2.9 per nine innings this year after an awful 5.5 in 2014) have made Jimenez the pitcher the Orioles envisioned when they signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract last year. His improvement is a major reason why the Orioles remain firmly in contention despite poor seasons from Chris Tillman and Bud Norris.

After throwing his two-seamer just 16.4 percent of the time a year ago, Jimenez has used the pitch more than a third of the time (37 percent) this year to induce more grounders while still striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings. It was a brilliant adjustment to make for the 31-year-old to better take advantage of one of the best defensive infields in baseball.

In the second half, consistency will be the key for Jimenez as it has been throughout his career, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for much better from him than a 7-4 record with a 2.81 ERA and a 3.21 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark that is easily the best of the rotation. Other than maybe only Wei-Yin Chen, there’s not another starter Showalter would want to take the ball more on a given night as Jimenez will make the first start of the second half in Detroit on Friday.

1. Jimmy Paredes

Who else could it really be?

After hitting .302 in 55 plate appearances late last year, the 26-year-old was a name of interest in spring training but hardly someone most predicted to make the 25-man roster. Paredes was out of minor-league options and lacked a position with the defensive-minded Orioles, but he stated his case by hitting .364 with a 1.005 OPS in 55 Grapefruit League at-bats before a back injury landed him on the disabled list to begin the year.

Once Jonathan Schoop went down with a knee injury in mid-April, Paredes got the call and hit an astounding .353 in his first 143 plate appearances this year. A 4-for-41 slump that dropped his average 59 points in two weeks appeared to signal the end of a nice story, but the switch hitter has bounced back to hit a very steady .310 in his last 91 plate appearances dating back to June 12.

Clearly better from the left side of the plate, Paredes hinders Showalter’s lineup flexibility with his defensive limitations — the Orioles want him to learn to play the corner outfield spots this winter — but it’s difficult to nitpick a man who was such an unknown. Paredes is hitting .299 with 10 homers, 39 RBIs, and an .809 OPS in 277 plate appearances this year and has been the club’s third-best offensive player behind Machado and Jones.

His 69 strikeouts are the highest on the club behind only Chris Davis, but Paredes has drawn six walks in his last 51 plate appearances, which the Orioles hope is a sign of improved discipline at the plate. Time will tell whether Paredes sticks, but it’s hard not to be impressed — and really surprised — with what he’s accomplished so far in 2015.

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Machado falls in first round of Home Run Derby

Posted on 13 July 2015 by Luke Jones

Manny Machado performed admirably, but it was another 23-year-old who got the best of him at the 2015 Home Run Derby in Cincinnati on Monday night.

The Orioles third baseman hit an impressive 12 home runs in the first round before Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson — who is more than two months older than Machado — clubbed 13 with a minute remaining in the new timed format to advance to the second round. Pederson went on to finish second in the competition, falling to hometown favorite Todd Frazier of the Cincinnati Reds in the championship round at the Great American Ballpark.

Making his second trip to the All-Star Game and first appearance in the derby, Machado’s long distance was a 469-foot blast and his average home run distance was 431 feet. His first-round total was the fourth highest of any competitior, but he did not advance in the new head-to-head tournament.

Upon using his timeout in the first round, Machado was greeted by teammate Adam Jones in the home plate area with a sports drink and a plate of tortilla chips with a container of the young infielder’s special salsa. Always a character, Jones later presented the winner Frazier with a WWE championship belt at the end of the evening.

Already with a career-high 19 homers at the All-Star break, Machado has a good chance to surpass his total of 33 bombs from his first three major league seasons combined.

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Jones starting in left field for All-Star Game

Posted on 13 July 2015 by Luke Jones

After learning late last week he would be in the American League starting lineup, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones will play left field in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

On Monday, Kansas City manager Ned Yost revealed his lineup, which included the 29-year-old Jones batting sixth in left field. After Royals outfielder Alex Gordon suffered a groin injury last week, Jones was given the privilege of starting his third consecutive All-Star Game as he makes his fifth appearance overall.

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout will lead off and play center while normal Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain will move to right field for the AL squad. Jones had started in center in each of the previous two All-Star Games with Trout playing left.

Former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz will bat cleanup and serve as the designated hitter for the AL after hitting 21 home runs in his first season with the Seattle Mariners.

Of course, the Orioles will have a strong presence in Cincinnati with third baseman Manny Machado and relief pitchers Zach Britton and Darren O’Day also chosen as All-Star reserves. The 23-year-old Machado was scheduled to participate in Monday night’s Home Run Derby despite heavy rain threatening the event.

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Predicting the Orioles’ All-Star selections

Posted on 30 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The latest American League All-Star voting update made it clear that no Orioles players will be elected as starters, but that doesn’t mean Buck Showalter’s club won’t be well-represented in Cincinnati.

Starters voted by the fans will be announced on Sunday night while the All-Star reserves and pitchers will be revealed on Monday evening.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s top candidates to be invited to baseball’s All-Star Game on July 14:

The most deserving: 3B Manny Machado
Skinny: The Orioles and their fans still pray that the 22-year-old’s knee problems are finally behind him, but there’s no disputing that Machado has blossomed into a superstar this year. Leading the club in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, stolen bases, and runs, Machado has already set a career high in home runs and will surpass his career mark in walks before the All-Star break. The 2010 first-round pick has played Gold Glove defense at third base from his first day in the majors, but Machado is rapidly developing the kind of bat that could make him an MVP candidate in the years to come. He ranks fourth among AL position players in wins above replacement — according to the rankings from Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and ESPN — making him a lock as an AL All-Star reserve.

The first-time selection: LHP Zach Britton
Skinny: Instead of again spelling out why Britton should become the 10th Orioles closer to make an All-Star Game since 1979, I ask you to check out the piece I wrote over the weekend explaining why.

The mainstay: CF Adam Jones
Skinny: Despite the fact that he’s already missed more than twice as many games in 2015 (11) than he had in his previous three seasons combined (five), Jones still makes a strong case for an invitation to Cincinnati as he entered Tuesday sporting a career-high batting average and on-base percentage. Already a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field, Jones might be having the best defensive season of his career, which is high praise for an outfielder already possessing that kind of a track record. Already a four-time All-Star selection in his career, Jones will likely be given a boost by his league-wide reputation and still ranks third among Orioles players in homers and RBIs despite missing close to two weeks of combined action.

The deep sleeper: RHP Darren O’Day
Skinny: Considering Kansas City manager Ned Yost is managing the AL and loves using a bullpen, I wouldn’t be completely shocked to see him give a nod to O’Day. The submarine hurler has struck out a career-high 12.1 batters per nine innings and sports a career-best 1.21 ERA, which ranks seventh in the majors among relief pitchers. Because the game determines home-field advantage for the World Series, Yost could see the National League’s unfamiliarity with O’Day as enough reason to add him to the roster.

My All-Star picks: In order of most confident to least, I’ll go with Machado, Britton, and Jones to make it, but a deep list of outfield candidates could squeeze the 29-year-old center fielder out, especially with injuries stunting his numbers a bit and because he wasn’t voted in this year for the first time since 2012.

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Orioles once again looking part of first-place club

Posted on 29 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles pitched two shutouts, their top six relievers threw a combined 18 pitches, and Adam Jones finally made his return to the lineup on Sunday.

The Buck Showalter garden gnome giveaway was a huge hit.

And, oh yeah, the Orioles found themselves back in first place in the American League East for the first time since April 19.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona might have been asking himself why he waited until the ninth inning of Game 2 to get ejected after his team’s abysmal day, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for a better doubleheader. In tossing shutouts in both games of the twin bill — a 4-0 win in the opener and an 8-0 final for the nightcap — the Orioles did something they hadn’t accomplished since Sept. 6, 1974 when they twice blanked the Indians in a doubleheader at old Cleveland Stadium.

“It was big. It was a good day,” said Game 2 winner Chris Tillman, who pitched a much-needed seven shutout innings to help his own psyche after Ubaldo Jimenez tossed eight scoreless frames in the opener. “Ubaldo went out and did an outstanding job. There was a lot of offense today in both games. It was really fun to watch.”

On the same day they won the 5,000th game in club history, the Orioles came out of the weekend only reinforcing what many have begun thinking more and more over the last four weeks. They’re looking like a first-place club and woke up Monday morning in that very position, percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in a division where four clubs are currently separated by one game.

It’s a different season and a different club, but you couldn’t help but notice that the Orioles seized first place for good on July 3 last season. The similarities are there with an excellent defense, a stellar bullpen, and a revitalized offense hitting home runs, but even the starting pitching got into the act after struggling in recent weeks by allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings of work against the Indians.

Right now, the AL East is far from the poor division it looked to be six weeks ago as three clubs — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and New York — would have qualified for the playoffs if the season had ended on Sunday. Whether the Orioles will follow the same script of 2014 remains to be seen, but 18 wins in 23 games to move to the top of the division would have any club feeling good about itself.

“It’s a return for that, but it can be very fleeting,” Showalter said. “The only thing I look at is the loss column now and then. I don’t pay much attention to the other part of it.

“See if you can stay engaged and have a chance to roll the dice in September. That’s what it’s about. Position yourself to be in it in September and play meaningful games when the leaves start turning. It’s not that complicated.”

Continuing to win at a .783 clip as they have for more than three weeks isn’t sustainable, but the Orioles learned last year that it doesn’t take prolonged winning streaks to pull away from the pack if you consistently win series. If you combine the four games — two home and two away — against Philadelphia, Baltimore has now secured seven consecutive series wins.

Unlike the Orioles clubs from a few years ago, this group of players has the experience of bouncing back — like when they were six games below .500 earlier this month — that brings confidence the rest of the way. They know it won’t be this easy over the final three months of the season, and Showalter makes sure his players are prepared for that reality, never wanting them to be too high or too low after any result.

“We have the ups and downs,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who hit his career-high 15th homer on Sunday and continues sprinting toward superstar status a week shy of his 23rd birthday. “We started off a little slow. We had players injured, and we’re just getting back into it. Everybody’s starting to get healthy. This is just the midway point.

“There’s a lot more baseball ahead, a lot more slumps, a lot more games lost coming ahead, but we’ve got to stay focused and stay with the mindset that we have.”

The Orioles know they aren’t perfect.

Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are still sifting through a crowded corner outfield situation that will likely require parting ways with one or two options. As a whole, the group has been more productive in June, but the Orioles have to hope they’ll make the right decisions and the remaining pieces will continue getting the job done.

Tillman’s strong performance on Sunday was a step in the right direction as he and Bud Norris still have a long way to go to quell concerns over their immense struggles in the first half of 2015.

But these issues don’t feel insurmountable and certainly aren’t any worse than the weaknesses the other AL East contenders are facing. Even in winning 96 games and the club’s first division title in 17 years last year, the Orioles had their flaws.

It’s tough to ignore the similarities with 2014, even down to the contributions from unexpected sources such as Jimmy Paredes, Chaz Roe, and Chris Parmelee a year after Steve Pearce, Brad Brach, and Caleb Joseph emerged from the shadows.

“This team tries as much as we can not to think about last year,” said Chris Davis, who hit his club-leading 16th homer on Sunday night. “It was obviously a great year, but it’s over with. You have to turn the page and focus on what’s at hand. I think we’re proud of the way we’re playing right now and battling these last few days and playing with somewhat of a short roster.

“Guys have stepped up and have done a great job.”

And the Orioles have stepped to the top of the AL East as a result.

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Jones falls, Machado climbs in latest All-Star voting update

Posted on 22 June 2015 by Luke Jones

While the Kansas City Royals continue to dominate the All-Star voting in the American League, the Orioles’ chances of securing a starter appear bleaker.

In the latest AL voting update released on Monday, four-time All-Star selection Adam Jones fell to seventh among outfielders and trails the third-place Alex Gordon by nearly 3 million votes. The 29-year-old center fielder ranked fifth among outfielders in last week’s update.

In the midst of his best season, the 22-year-old Manny Machado climbed to fourth among AL third baseman but trails the first-place Mike Moustakas by nearly 8 million votes.

While seven Kansas City players are currently slated to be starters — Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout are the only non-Royals — the Orioles had no other players appear among the leaders. Voting concludes on July 2 with the 2015 All-Star Game set for July 14 in Cincinnati.

Let’s just take a moment to remember we’re living in a world in which 6,521,733 votes have been cast for a second baseman rocking a .549 OPS. As Buck Showalter put it, Royals second baseman Omar Infante must be having a heck of a defensive year.

Is it too late to start the Ryan Flaherty All-Star campaign?

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Five questions pondering Machado, Steve Smith, Harbaugh, Showalter

Posted on 19 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Ravens or Orioles (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or is Manny Machado rapidly closing the gap with Adam Jones for the title of best Oriole? Because he’s been around since 2012, we often forget that the third baseman only turns 23 next month, making his start to the 2015 season that much more encouraging. Machado has already matched his career high with 14 home runs and is just five walks shy of his personal best set in 2013, a major reason why he’s performed well in the leadoff spot as the Orioles have few options at the top of the order. Two years ago, Machado’s 51 doubles led the league as he made his first All-Star team and many projected some of those two-baggers to eventually turn into homers, something now coming to fruition. His early-season defensive struggles have vanished and the 2010 first-round pick entered Friday leading the club with an .856 on-base plus slugging percentage. Take nothing away from Jones as he’s in the midst of another fine season and remains the heart and soul of the Orioles, you wonder how long he’ll be able to hold off Machado’s youthful talent to remain the best player on the team.

2. Is it just me or has Steve Smith been better than advertised as he approaches his second season with the Ravens? The 36-year-old will finish his NFL career with numbers that will garner Hall of Fame discussion, but I can’t help but be impressed with his commitment to the organization after spending his first 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers. Still making his home in Charlotte, Smith could have understandably skipped voluntary organized team activities and simply showed up for this week’s mandatory minicamp, but he was present in Owings Mills throughout the last month to work with first-round rookie Breshad Perriman and a number of other talented but inexperienced wide receivers. The five-time Pro Bowl selection not only practiced, but he continued to look like the best player on the field, which is one heck of an example for his younger teammates to emulate. Even if Smith is unable to match his numbers from a year ago when he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, the Ravens still got an absolute steal when they signed Smith to a three-year, $10.5 million contract last year.

3. Is it just me or are the Ravens and Orioles both reaping the benefits of continuity with their head men? It’s difficult to believe that John Harbaugh will only be one year shy of Brian Billick’s run with the Ravens after the 2015 season, but it speaks to the stability the franchise has had on the sideline for nearly two decades. As if this weren’t enough, I was shocked to learn that Buck Showalter became the fifth-longest tenured manager in the majors after San Diego fired Bud Black earlier this week. When you consider the Orioles had eight different managers in a 16-year period before Showalter was hired in 2010, it’s strange to think of them as one of the more stable organizations in baseball when it comes to their man in the dugout. Only six current NFL head coaches have been in their positions longer than Harbaugh, an impressive feat when you recall how little fanfare the hiring of the longtime Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator received in 2008. Baltimore is very lucky to have these two leading its professional sports teams on the field.

4. Is it just me or does ex-Raven Michael Oher sound ridiculous blaming “The Blind Side” for an underwhelming NFL career? I can understand Oher’s desire to not be defined by a motion picture, but to suggest that he’s been evaluated unfairly because of the movie borders on the absurd. Despite what some fans try to say, Oher was far from a “bust” as a first-round pick — such a label speaks to how spoiled this fan base has been with Ozzie Newsome’s draft success — and probably didn’t benefit from being shifted so frequently between left and right tackle early in his career, but two teams in two years — Baltimore and Tennessee — deemed Oher not to be worth keeping around. His propensity for penalties alone make him a liability unless his blocking grades are through the charts, which hasn’t been the case for most of his career. Oher’s story is a wonderful example of courage and overcoming adversity as he’s etched out a solid career in the NFL. He never became a dominating left tackle, but it has nothing to do with the movie and how people perceive his play as a result.

5. Is it just me or would it make too much sense for the MLB All-Star Game to adopt the Pro Bowl’s system for voting? The mere notion that MLB says it’s canceled 60 million online votes casts even more doubt on the All-Star voting that currently features eight Kansas City Royals in the American League lineup. It makes you long for the days of paper ballots distributed at ballparks and how we’d punch out the little paper holes with a car key or a pencil, doesn’t it? Of course, this isn’t the first time voting changes have been suggested as you don’t have to go back too far to see AL starting lineups littered with Yankees and Red Sox players. While I’d never trade the quality of play in the All-Star Game for what is passed off as football in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s voting system in which fans, coaches, and players split the vote makes too much sense for baseball not to adopt something similar next year. Especially if you’re going to have home-field advantage in the World Series determined by the outcome, we need to make sure the voting is as legitimate as possible and protected from overzealous fans.

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Orioles preparing to call up Parmelee from Triple-A Norfolk

Posted on 15 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Mulling ways to improve their corner outfield situation, the Orioles are preparing to select the contract of Chris Parmelee from Triple-A Norfolk as early as Tuesday.

The 2006 first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins joined the Orioles in Baltimore prior to the series opener against the Philadelphia Phillies, but manager Buck Showalter confirmed he would not be activated for Monday’s game. Parmelee had a June 15 opt-out clause in the minor-league contract he signed with the club in the offseason and had already extended it once earlier this season.

Seeing time at both corner outfield spots as well as at first base with the Tides, the 27-year-old was hitting .316 with six home runs, 32 RBIs, 13 doubles, and an .826 on-base plus slugging percentage in 265 plate appearances this season. Parmelee was a career .249 hitter with 24 homers, 85 RBIs, and a .709 OPS in 901 plate appearances for the Twins over four major league seasons.

“We like him. He’s having as good of a year as anybody in Triple A for our team and for the other teams,” Showalter said. “He’s played the outfield well and first base. He can do a lot of things.”

Parmelee was in the clubhouse and took batting practice, but he was not permitted to be in the dugout during Monday’s game.

The Orioles hope he can offer some offensive production from the left side of the plate that they haven’t received from lefty outfielders Travis Snider and David Lough so far this season. It will be interesting to see how the club makes room for him on the 25-man roster since Snider, Lough, and Steve Pearce are all out of minor-league options.

Parmelee hopes the success he had in the International League will translate to helping the Orioles continue their recent winning ways.

“I’m just trying to stay as consistent as possible,” Parmelee said. “It goes from the routine in the cage and coming out and running every day and having a routine and staying with it. Staying positive is one of the most important things. The decision was made, and I’m happy to be here.”

Schoop back in Baltimore

Returning from a lengthy stint at extended spring training in Sarasota, second baseman Jonathan Schoop was back on the field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Monday afternoon, fielding grounders and taking batting practice.

Schoop has been sidelined with a right knee injury for the last two months, but he is currently scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment at Double-A Bowie on Friday.

“That was encouraging. That was fun to watch,” said Showalter of Schoop’s on-field workout. “He looks good. He should. He was pretty excited to get out of [Florida].”

Schoop has received plenty of at-bats in extended spring games, but the last hurdle to clear for the 23-year-old was decelerating when running, according to Showalter. The infielder hadn’t been playing the field in those extended spring games, but vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson traveled to Sarasota last week to work out Schoop to gauge where he was from a physical standpoint.

Simply rejoining his teammates in Baltimore and knowing he’ll be traveling with them to Philadelphia later this week has Schoop excited about his pending return. Showalter has stressed that the Orioles will be cautious in making sure the young infielder is completely ready before activating him from the disabled list.

“I want to play. I feel strong and I’m not thinking about [the knee],” Schoop said. “I feel stronger than before.”

Machado named AL Player of the Week

Third baseman Manny Machado was named American League Player of the Week from June 8-14 while helping the Orioles to a season-high six-game winning streak.

The 22-year-old collected four multi-hit games and batted .458 (11-for-24) with two homers, five RBIs, and a 1.269 OPS. Machado entered Monday’s game sporting an eight-game hitting streak.

“It feels good. It was a good week for the team and it was mostly a team thing,” said Machado of the award. “The team was playing well and we were all hitting well. If it wasn’t for my teammates and my guys being on base, I wouldn’t have been here.”

W. Wright to begin rehab assignment

Left-handed relief pitcher Wesley Wright will begin a minor-league rehab assignment on Tuesday and is scheduled to pitch one inning for Triple-A Norfolk.

The 30-year-old has been on the disabled list with a left trapezius strain since the first week of the regular season.

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Promising signs beginning to surface for Orioles

Posted on 12 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Nearly 60 games into the 2015 season, we know the Orioles have their flaws.

They don’t have a great offense, a truth that became painfully obvious in May when they finished last in the American League in average and on-base percentage. The newfound presence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and the anticipated return of Jonathan Schoop before the All-Star break will help, but it’s a lineup that can’t be counted on to consistently win high-scoring games despite showing signs of life over the last week.

The early-season struggles of starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Bud Norris are now compounded by Miguel Gonzalez being placed on the 15-day disabled list with a groin injury, leaving plenty of uncertainty in what’s been a solid but unspectacular rotation.

Despite those shortcomings, it’s been the emergence of two phases of the game in which the Orioles thrived over the previous three seasons that has been the catalyst for a season-high four-game winning streak and six victories in seven tries. Manager Buck Showalter relied on superb defense and an exceptional bullpen to guide the Orioles to a three-game sweep over the scuffling Boston Red Sox and back to just one game below .500.

To be fair, the bullpen has performed at a high level since a rocky April in which it posted a 4.35 ERA. Since the start of May, Orioles relievers have pitched to a 2.38 ERA in 113 1/3 innings. And though being a man down for the first two games of the Boston series due to the Brian Matusz suspension, the bullpen allowed just one earned run in 12 innings against the Red Sox in the series.

“You can withstand it if the guys who come in to pitch out of the bullpen finish the job that they have to do,” said Showalter about using a six-man bullpen before rookie Mike Wright was recalled on Thursday. “If you have to bring another guy in to finish that, that’s where the problem comes. These guys have done a good job of finishing.”

To see strong contributions from closer Zach Britton and setup men Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is one thing, but the Orioles have received a major lift from the likes of Brad Brach and Chaz Roe in recent weeks. Despite allowing a solo home run to David Ortiz on Thursday, Roe pitching the eighth inning of a tight game against Boston is a bet few would have taken back in spring training. The right-hander currently sports a 1.38 ERA since being promoted from Triple-A Norfolk last month.

The balanced performance was particularly impressive in pushing the Red Sox further into the basement of the AL East. Showalter loves to see his relievers “pass the baton” when necessary, and that’s exactly what the group did as the Orioles earned their first three-game sweep of the season.

“I was kind of having that feeling this series and I hope we can continue,” said Brach, who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings on Thursday. “It just kind of seems that the excitement is starting to get there and everybody is starting to find their little niche. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”

Considering the bullpen has pitched so well for over a month, what has been the biggest difference over the last week when the Orioles have played their best baseball of the year?

If you watched the last few games, it wasn’t difficult to tell.

“Our defense,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who made several exceptional plays in the series and has seemingly put his early-season defensive woes behind him. “We’re playing the defense we’re supposed to be playing on the Orioles and this organization.”

Even the likes of Travis Snider and the returning Nolan Reimold got into the defensive act against the Red Sox as the Orioles played the type of defense we’ve come to expect over the last few years. On Wednesday alone, Adam Jones put together a convincing body of work for another Gold Glove as he made three sensational defensive plays.

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Orioles homered three times in Thursday’s finale — the long ball has been another key to their success since 2012 — but the vibe accompanying their overall play makes you wonder if things are slowly beginning to fall into place. Improved pitching and exceptional defense were the bread and butter that allowed the Orioles to take off in the second half of 2014 on the way to 96 wins and their first division title since 1997.

That doesn’t mean it will happen in the same way, but few anticipate it taking that kind of a winning clip to prevail in an ordinary division.

The offense will continue to be a concern and there’s uneasiness with the current rotation, but the Orioles hope their current winning streak is a harbinger of what’s to come over the coming days, weeks, and months. They’ll receive an ample test this weekend with the New York Yankees visiting Camden Yards on the heels of winning seven of their last eight.

Baltimore enters the weekend only four games behind New York and with an opportunity to climb back to the .500 mark for the first time since May 5.

“We have momentum until we leave the locker room and get back here tomorrow,” Showalter said after Thursday’s win. “The best team in our division so far this year is coming in. It’s tough because there are a lot of people having trouble beating them. Now, we have to try to see if we can.”

And you have to feel better about their chances than you did a week ago.

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Five questions pondering Machado, Harbaugh, Lough, others

Posted on 29 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or does Manny Machado need to be careful not to develop a reputation as a hothead with umpires? The talented 22-year-old was ejected in the eighth inning of Thursday’s doubleheader after throwing his bat down in disgust upon being called out on a check-swing attempt. Machado said he wasn’t concerned about already having three career ejections, stating that “there’s going to be more where that came from.” Of course, this comes a year after the infamous bat-throwing incident that fetched him a five-game suspension and drew the ire of teammates and fans. The sky’s the limit for Machado, but there has to be some concern about his tendency to lose his temper, which includes him often throwing his helmet or bat after unsuccessful trips at the plate. With situations like this, I’m often reminded of Cal Ripken telling the story of how veteran teammate Ken Singleton once scolded him as a rookie for throwing his helmet, simply saying, “We don’t do that here.” Perhaps someone needs to have that conversation with Machado if it hasn’t happened already.

2. Is it just me or did John Harbaugh react too harshly to questions on Thursday about another offensive coordinator impacting Joe Flacco? The Ravens coach was in no mood to address queries about having his fourth coordinator in four years, going on the defensive and saying it was “irrelevant” and a non-story the media was trying to create. Anyone paying attention over the last few years understands the circumstances that led to coordinator changes and wouldn’t criticize the Ravens for any of them, but it clearly is a challenge for a franchise quarterback and an offense to experience that much change in a short period of time. It’s a testament to Flacco that he’s worked so well with so many different coaches and it’s a credit to the organization for finding individuals who have made enough of an impact in Baltimore to earn head coaching gigs elsewhere. The Ravens feel confident that success will continue under a talented offensive mind in Marc Trestman, so I’m not sure why the head coach took such exception to being asked about another change.

3. Is it just me or is now the time to give David Lough an extended look in the outfield? With Alejandro De Aza designated for assignment on Wednesday, it creates more opportunities for other Orioles outfielders, but Lough has received far fewer chances than Delmon Young, Travis Snider, and Steve Pearce this season. He hasn’t started consecutive games all year, but Lough does provide strong defense and speed, two assets the other outfielders who currently aren’t thriving at the plate lack. Truthfully, I don’t think Lough is an everyday player, but it can’t be easy to produce when you receive roughly one start per week and feel like you have to get three hits are you’ll be right back on the bench the next night. It might not be a bad idea for manager Buck Showalter to start Lough every day — at least against right-handed starters — for two or three weeks for a final assessment to determine whether he can be a starting player. If he doesn’t take advantage, the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to move on from Lough if they want to explore other options in the outfield.

4. Is it just me or is criticism for established NFL veterans skipping voluntary organized team activities absurd? Yes, rookies and veterans on shaky footing are only hurting themselves by skipping OTAs, but entrenched veterans should not feel obligated to attend voluntary workouts. Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady was the latest to suffer a season-ending knee injury in a voluntary workout this week. I realize injuries can happen at any point, but why put yourself in harm’s way if you don’t feel the need to? This notion would be much different if NFL players had guaranteed contracts, but do you think the Broncos will hesitate cutting Clady next year when he’s coming off a major knee injury and is scheduled to make $9.5 million if they feel it will help their salary cap situation? Loyalty is a two-way street, but NFL teams typically take up the entire road in these matters. Of course, players can’t do anything about the lack of guaranteed contracts until it’s time for the next collective bargaining agreement, but that doesn’t mean they need to show up for voluntary workouts.

5. Is it just me or are the Orioles benefiting from their best pitching depth in a long time? Not that they were all great in Thursday’s doubleheader, but rookies Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Oliver Drake combined to pitch 12 of the 18 innings as the Orioles split with the Chicago White Sox. With all attention paid to the Orioles’ top six starting candidates and a crowded veteran bullpen this spring, it’s been refreshing to see pitchers come up from Triple-A Norfolk while Bud Norris and Kevin Gausman are currently on the 15-day disabled list. With Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O’Day, and Tommy Hunter all scheduled to become free agents this offseason, the Orioles will likely have some opportunities available in both the rotation and bullpen for 2016, and that doesn’t seem like a bad thing with the contributions they’ve received from young pitchers so far. Of course, it’s also worth noting that pitching prospect Dylan Bundy will be out of options next year and will need to be on the 25-man roster, giving the Orioles more incentive to want to see him in Baltimore at some point later this season. Bundy is currently dealing with right shoulder tendinitis.

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