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Showalter lets down when Orioles needed him most

Posted on 05 October 2016 by Luke Jones

You may not think so right now, but Buck Showalter is a very good manager.

To borrow a phrase he likes to use, I’ve got a long memory.

Without him, the Orioles wouldn’t be the winningest team in the American League over the last five years and wouldn’t have three trips to the playoffs under their belts, but that doesn’t change the truth about what happened in the AL wild-card game on Tuesday night.

He let his players down in the 5-2 loss to Toronto in 11 innings.

The story of the defeat that ended the season really should have been about an Orioles offense that continued its second-half swoon by managing only two runs and four hits in the biggest game of the year. Baltimore rarely made good contact and didn’t even register a hit over the final five innings against a mediocre Blue Jays bullpen. The offense falling off a cliff — not the pitching — was the biggest reason why the Orioles struggled to play .500 ball after the All-Star break.

It was frustrating to watch on Tuesday, but players don’t always perform the way you want them to. That’s just the way it goes sometimes in the athletic arena with the opponent trying to win, too.

But there’s no defending not using your best pitcher — the closer many believe could be the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner — with your season on the line.

The clamoring for All-Star selection Zach Britton began in the eighth inning when Brad Brach entered and continued when the right-hander got into trouble against the heart of the Toronto order in the ninth. Instead of turning to Britton to escape the jam, Showalter summoned veteran right-hander Darren O’Day, who missed much of the season due to injuries and had rarely even pitched since being activated from the disabled list in mid-September.

But the moves worked, whether you agreed with them or not. At the very least, you could concede that Showalter was showing trust in two individuals who had been All-Star relievers the last two years. Brach and O’Day have pitched in plenty of high-leverage spots and likely would have pitched if the game had stretched into one or two extra frames anyway.

That’s when any attempt to defend Showalter has to end, however.

Lefty Brian Duensing had pitched well in a handful of appearances down the stretch, but the journeyman with a career 4.13 ERA started the bottom of the 11th inning. Even so, he struck out Ezequiel Carrera to once again save face for the manager.

Now was finally the time for Britton with one out in the 11th and the top of the Blue Jays lineup coming up, right?


Instead entered the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, who had pitched admirably over the last six weeks but fared poorly as a reliever earlier in the season. In reference to his unorthodox mechanics alone, he’s a high-maintenance pitcher who undoubtedly benefits from the lengthier warm-up session in the bullpen and the normal routine before a scheduled start.

Simply put, he was out of his element in a high-leverage relief setting and looked like it, giving up two singles and the game-winning three-run home run to Edwin Encarnacion on three consecutive pitches. Jimenez clearly didn’t do his job, but he was being asked to fulfill a role he wasn’t used to and hadn’t done well out of the bullpen earlier in the year.

That wasn’t the spot for him with better options available, and that’s on the manager.

This all took place as Britton — with his historic 0.54 ERA — watched from the bullpen and was forced to wait for that save situation that never came.


Showalter said after the game that Britton was healthy and available, the last morsel of information observers needed before crushing the Baltimore skipper. He preferred saving Britton while going to other options in the bullpen – inferior ones – despite the fact that the lefty had warmed up a few different times.

It’s true that using Britton in a tie game on the road deviates from the tired by-the-book way managers have handled closers for the last 25 years, but we thought Showalter was better than that. In fact, he had used Britton in the ninth and 10th innings of a tie game at Rogers Centre back on July 31, a contest the Orioles eventually won in 12 innings as Logan Ondrusek pitched the final frame.

If a game was important enough in late July to use Britton in a non-save situation on the road, how can you not use him with your season hanging by a single thread?

Maybe pitching him wouldn’t have mattered with the Orioles failing to generate any offense beyond Mark Trumbo’s two-run homer in the fourth, but you could more easily stomach Jimenez or Duensing or Tommy Hunter or Dylan Bundy – or even Britton himself — giving up the game-winner if they’d at least exhausted their best options to that point.

Instead, Showalter was too worried about not having Britton around later in the game if that save chance ever materialized. He’ll spend all winter pondering what might have been if he’d simply been more concerned with extending the game.

As a man often praised for being two steps ahead of the opposition, Showalter needed to be more in the now and not thinking so much about the hypothetical inning or two later in an elimination game. It was overthinking, not terribly different from the decision to leave Wade Miley in too long during Saturday’s costly loss at Yankee Stadium.

That failure late in Tuesday’s game coupled with the invisible bats ultimately cost the Orioles their season.

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Orioles include rookie Mancini on roster for AL wild-card game

Posted on 04 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have included 10 pitches on their roster for Tuesday’s American League wild-card game against Toronto.

The roster construction for a single game is a unique exercise since the advancing club may reset its players for the Division Series, which explains why starting pitcher Kevin Gausman is not among the 25 players eligible to play against the Blue Jays. Gausman pitched 7 1/3 strong innings to earn the victory in the playoff-clinching finale against the New York Yankees on Sunday.

In addition to starter Chris Tillman, manager Buck Showalter has included right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Dylan Bundy on the roster, providing the Orioles ample long-relief options should Tillman run into early trouble or the game go into extra innings.

Starting pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley are not on the wild-card game roster after pitching in New York over the weekend. Right-hander Vance Worley was the most notable reliever left off the roster.

There were no real surprises among the position players, but rookie Trey Mancini was included just over two weeks after being promoted to the majors. Having received the call when Steve Pearce was lost for the season with a forearm injury, Mancini gave the Orioles a spark against left-handed pitching with three home runs and a double in 15 plate appearances.

Below is the full AL wild-card game roster:

RH Brad Brach
LH Zach Britton
RH Dylan Bundy
LH Brian Duensing
RH Mychal Givens
LH Donnie Hart
RH Tommy Hunter
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
RH Darren O’Day
RH Chris Tillman

Caleb Joseph
Matt Wieters

Pedro Alvarez
Chris Davis
Ryan Flaherty
J.J. Hardy
Manny Machado
Trey Mancini
Jonathan Schoop

Michael Bourn
Adam Jones
Hyun Soo Kim
Nolan Reimold
Drew Stubbs
Mark Trumbo

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Orioles choose body of work over hot hand for AL wild-card game

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The question would have been a terrible joke in mid-August.

Who should pitch for the Orioles in the American League wild-card game: No. 1 starter Chris Tillman or the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez?

Manager Buck Showalter has chosen experience over the hot hand with Tillman slated to take the ball against Toronto’s Marcus Stroman at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night. It’s not difficult to make an argument in favor of the 28-year-old who’s served as the club’s de facto ace over the last four seasons and started the opener of both playoffs series in 2014, but Jimenez was arguably the biggest reason the Orioles stayed afloat in September to qualify for the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.

Less than two months ago, Tillman was in the midst of a career year and had improved to a sparkling 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA after a win over Oakland on Aug. 11. Meanwhile, Jimenez sported an ERA just south of 7.00 and was lucky to be pitching out of the bullpen in mop-up duty once per week as questions persisted about his future with Baltimore.

Circumstances changed, however, with Tillman missing the better part of a month with a right shoulder issue that surfaced the morning after that outing against the Athletics. In his four starts since being activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sept. 11, he’s posted a 3.79 ERA with 14 strikeouts and eight walks in 19 innings.

Solid, but not great.

Meanwhile, Jimenez has experienced an improbable renaissance with his two-seam fastball and improved command of his other pitches over his last seven starts, producing a 2.45 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 13 walks over 47 2/3 innings. Over that stretch, he tossed the only complete game of the season for the Orioles and allowed three or fewer runs in all but one start.

Both performed well against the Blue Jays in Toronto last week, but Jimenez was better with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in which he allowed only one hit. Tillman gave up one earned run over 5 1/3 innings last Wednesday.

Tillman infamously pitched to an 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto last season, but his 3.63 mark in four starts against the Blue Jays this season has been more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the right-hander over the years. In 2016, Jimenez has a 6.43 ERA against the Blue Jays in six games — five of them starts — this season and retired only one batter against them in his worst start of the year on June 12.

And that’s where the decision likely comes down to trust for Showalter and the Orioles.

Jimenez deserves plenty of credit for turning his season around, but who do you trust more pitching in a game of this magnitude? Jimenez probably provides the greater upside right now, but Tillman still feels like the one who has the best chance to figure out a way to keep the Orioles in an elimination game if he doesn’t have his best stuff. The last thing you want is the “bad” Jimenez showing up in the biggest game of the season and not being able to even throw a strike in the bottom of the first inning.

If we’re being realistic with both teams having a specialized roster for a single game, this one is more likely to come down to the bullpens with neither Tillman nor Stroman being a great bet to hang around much longer than two times through the order. Under such a scenario, the Orioles have the edge with the better bullpen and the best closer in baseball looming at the end of the game.

Showalter told reporters that both Jimenez and rookie Dylan Bundy will be available out of the bullpen, giving the Orioles plenty of long-relief options should Tillman struggle early.

Major League Baseball announced the schedule for the first three games of the best-of-five AL Division Series (see below) as the winner of Tuesday’s game will face the top-seeded Texas Rangers with games being televised on TBS. Should the Orioles advance to the ALDS, they would host Texas for Game 3 at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, the same day the Ravens host Washington at M&T Bank Stadium at 1 p.m., which would likely create plenty of traffic headaches in the afternoon.

2016 ALDS vs. Texas
Game 1 (at Texas): Thursday, 4:38 p.m.
Game 2 (at Texas): Friday, 1:08 p.m.
Game 3 (at Baltimore or Toronto): Sunday, 7:38 p.m.

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Showalter’s mistake headlines costly loss for Orioles

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

With a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win and some help later in the night, the Orioles instead suffered their most frustrating loss of the season on Saturday.

Beyond the obvious effects on the wild-card-standings, the 7-3 defeat to the New York Yankees was even more difficult to stomach because of Buck Showalter’s role in the late-inning collapse. As deserving of the benefit of the doubt as any manager in baseball, Showalter leaving starter Wade Miley in the game to give up the game-tying home run to Tyler Austin to start the bottom of the seventh was baffling.

The Baltimore skipper told reporters in the Bronx after the game that he believed Miley was still strong at 99 pitches and that the many left-handed hitters available to come off the New York bench — presumably against right-handed reliever Mychal Givens — prompted him to stick with the lefty starter to begin the seventh. Of course, one could dispute just how strong Miley was at that point after he’d pitched into significant jams in both the fifth and sixth innings in which the Yankees shrunk the Orioles’ lead from 3-0 to 3-2.

Miley had given the Orioles a strong performance through six innings, but that should have been all for the starter, especially considering the bullpen hadn’t been particularly taxed in the series-opening 8-1 win on Friday. This was the penultimate game of the regular season, after all, and not a game in mid-June in which you’re thinking about the long-term health of your bullpen.

The leash was long enough for that sixth inning, let alone even thinking about having him start the seventh.

But Showalter’s overthinking wasn’t the only factor working against the Orioles on Saturday if we’re being fair.

Even if Miley had been lifted after six, All-Star setup man Brad Brach was always going to factor into the late-inning equation and the right-hander just didn’t have it on Saturday, giving up four runs, two hits, and two walks while retiring only one batter in the eighth inning. Brach had rebounded nicely in the month of September, but he hasn’t been the same dominant force in the second half of the season, pitching to an underwhelming 3.94 ERA since the All-Star break.

It’s no secret that Brach carried an enormous workload with Darren O’Day missing a large portion of the season, and he hasn’t been nearly as consistent in the second half as a result.

An offense that plated three runs over the first three innings against Yankees starter Luis Severino all but went to sleep in the final six innings of the game. J.J. Hardy grounded into a 5-4-3 double play with runners on first and second with one out in the sixth, and Manny Machado was inexplicably thrown out at third after Mark Trumbo singled with two outs in the seventh. Those were the only real scoring threats for Baltimore after Machado’s opposite-field solo homer in the third inning.

There’s been far too much of that in recent weeks.

Even the defense was a question mark.

With two outs in the sixth, Machado made a nice stop of a grounder off the bat of Rob Refsnyder, but he took too much time getting up to make the throw to get him at first base to end the inning. Chase Headley then followed with a double to make it a one-run game.

There was plenty of blame to go around after Saturday’s loss as the Orioles could only watch what was transpiring in Boston and Atlanta to determine what they needed to do in the final game of the season.

It’s tough enough when players simply don’t come through, but seeing a tactician like Showalter blink in such a crucial game was disheartening. It was the kind of decision that disrupted the karma of a game in which the Orioles were winning, but we’ll never know how it might have turned out otherwise. Brach pitching in a similar fashion would have surely netted the same result of a loss.

Baltimore just wasn’t good enough on Saturday, whether talking about the players or their revered manager.

You can only hope it didn’t cost them dearly.

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Bats warming, but pitching has carried Orioles over final month

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles hope their highest run output in nearly three weeks on Friday night is the harbinger of an offensive awakening for October, but their pitching is what’s made that kind of talk still possible.

A six-run, three-homer fifth inning was the story in Friday’s 8-1 victory over the New York Yankees that put Baltimore in the lead for the top wild card with two games to play, but veteran starter Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed and continued a month-long trend that’s saved the season. Allowing only one run over six innings to earn the win, Gallardo lowered the starter ERA to a very respectable 3.83 for the month of September.

For a group that was the Achilles heel of a contending club for the better part of five months, the substantial improvement couldn’t have come at a better time as the Orioles’ bats entered Friday averaging just 4.0 runs per game in September, continuing the second-half frustration for a lineup increasingly dependent on home runs. The offensive struggles had been even worse over the last 12 games prior to Friday as the Orioles scored more than three runs only twice while still managing to post a 6-6 record over that stretch to stay afloat in the race.

The survival was because of the pitching, which leads the American League with a 2.90 ERA in September.

The surge has been led by Ubaldo Jimenez, who has rebounded from an appalling 7.38 ERA in the first half to pitch to a 2.31 mark over his last five starts. The recent performance may not forgive his many missteps that hurt the Orioles earlier in the season, but where would they have been without him over the last five weeks with Chris Tillman not himself for most of that time?

Jimenez hasn’t been alone as fellow maligned starters Gallardo and Wade Miley have also had their moments in recent weeks. It’s easy — and fair — to ask what took so long for this group to finally pitch better, but the Orioles are just grateful to see the necessary improvement after the rotation’s previous best ERA for a month was a mediocre 4.55 in April.

Assuming good health, Tillman and Kevin Gausman were always locks for a potential postseason rotation, but Jimenez has easily secured the No. 3 spot with Dylan Bundy, Gallardo, and Miley all vying for the fourth and final starting spot.

Though known for being the backbone of the Buck Showalter era in Baltimore, the bullpen has also rebounded from a nightmare August (6.43 ERA) to post a 1.38 mark over the final month, eclipsing the previous best month of a 2.24 ERA in April. The Orioles still don’t know if Darren O’Day — who pitched for the first time in a week on Friday night — can reclaim his status as one of the best setup men in baseball in time for the playoffs, but Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart have continued to do admirable work in bridging the gap to the impeccable Zach Britton in the ninth.

The best closer in baseball remains a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities with eight coming in September.

It’s no secret that the Orioles will need offensive performances similar to Friday’s if they’re to make any noise in October, but the improved pitching will need to accompany the bats into the postseason.

For now, however, the pitching staff deserves a tip of the cap for making any of this excitement possible.

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Unlikely sources providing late lift for Orioles

Posted on 25 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Teams hoping to play in October often need help from unexpected sources along the way.

The Orioles acquired Steve Pearce at the trade deadline to aid their lineup against left-handed pitching, but the veteran was lost for the season after undergoing right forearm surgery last week. Minor-league prospect Trey Mancini received the call to the majors to take his place on the roster just a week ago.

The 24-year-old has responded by becoming the third player in major league history to homer in each of his first three starts to begin his career. His solo blast off Arizona lefty Robbie Ray gave the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the fourth as they’d ultimately win 6-1 to retake the lead for the second wild card in the American League.

Mancini has yet to collect a single in the majors as all four of his hits — three homers and a double — have gone for extra bases. Whether it’s short-lived success or the start of a good major league career, the spark has provided a lift at a time the Orioles have needed it with the memory of the four-game sweep to Boston still in their minds.

Of course, the rookie hasn’t been alone as Wade Miley turned in Baltimore’s second-longest start of the year on Saturday, allowing one run over 8 2/3 innings and nearly pitching the club’s first complete-game shutout in over two years. Miley matched a career high with 11 strikeouts and has now allowed one run over his last 12 2/3 innings dating back to his injury-abbreviated start last Sunday.

Who would have predicted that 10 days ago?

Facing two last-place teams has certainly helped, but Miley has commanded his fastball much better over his last two outings and is pitching with more confidence. With Kevin Gausman pushed back due to an intercostal strain and the Orioles wanting to give Dylan Bundy extra rest between starts, Miley’s improvement couldn’t have come at a better time.

After Saturday’s gem, the lefty cited a recent conversation with Scott McGregor in which the former Orioles pitcher advised him to try “easier” on the mound and to relax. Whatever he said has at least worked temporarily for the veteran starter whom many wanted to be banished to the bullpen for the remainder of the season after posting a hideous 8.41 ERA in his first eight starts for the Orioles.

He isn’t the first maligned Orioles pitcher to reverse his fortunes recently as Ubaldo Jimenez has served as one of their top starters over the last month. Recent performance doesn’t erase either pitcher’s giant missteps in 2016, but at least they’ve salvaged some good grace in helping down the stretch.

Jones sets career high

Often criticized for his aggressive approach at the plate, Adam Jones set a new career high when he drew a leadoff walk in Saturday’s first inning.

The 31-year-old now has 38 walks this season, surpassing the 36 he drew in his first All-Star campaign back in 2009. His 6.0 percent walk rate isn’t as high as his 6.9 percent mark from that season, but it’s substantially higher than where it’s been in recent years.

Jones owns a .366 average with a 1.012 on-base plus slugging percentage when swinging at the first pitch in his career and is hitting .316 with a .979 OPS on the first pitch this season. He surely goes through stretches when that approach hurts him, but I’ve always argued that the five-time All-Star center fielder would not be the same hitter if not for his aggressiveness early in the count.

Say what you want about how it might look at times, but Jones now has six straight seasons of at least 25 homers and 82 RBIs and has produced an OPS of no worse than .764 in any year over that time. He’s bounced back admirably from the rib injury that hurt his production over the first six weeks of 2016.

Drake quietly impressing

The Orioles bullpen recently welcomed back 2015 All-Star selection Darren O’Day, but right-hander Oliver Drake has quietly impressed since being recalled in late August.

In his last 11 innings, Drake has pitched to a 1.64 ERA with 14 strikeouts and only two walks and earned his first major league victory with a scoreless inning on Friday night. Manager Buck Showalter has cited improved fastball command and a tighter splitter as the reasons for his improvement at the major league level.

That splitter makes Drake particularly effective against left-handed hitting.

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For better or worse, Orioles keep swinging for the fences

Posted on 24 September 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After taking blow after blow from Boston in a four-game sweep this week, the Orioles were finally able to fight back against Arizona on Friday night.

A night filled with frustration and missed opportunities was finally salvaged when Mark Trumbo homered to lead off the bottom of the 12th inning, giving the Orioles a 3-2 win and keeping them a half-game behind Detroit for the second wild card spot. It was Baltimore’s third solo home run of the night after Buck Showalter’s lineup had left 14 runners on base and gone 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

Trumbo provided the Orioles with just their third win all season when trailing at the end of eight innings.

“It can be a real gut punch if it goes the other way,” said Trumbo, who hit his 44th homer of the year. “It would be a tough one to stomach. Fighting really hard in the thick of things and then to have a couple chances [wasted]. The effort’s there, but someone’s got to get that big hit eventually.”

The big hits absent throughout the Red Sox series eventually came via the long ball against the last-place Diamondbacks, but the Orioles certainly didn’t make it easy on themselves, which has been a defining story for much of an underwhelming second half.

Pedro Alvarez hit a solo shot to give the Orioles their first run of the game in the eighth inning, but that came only after he had struck out with the bases loaded in the first and popped out with runners on second and third and one out in the sixth. Matt Wieters hit the game-tying homer to lead off the bottom of the ninth, but his teammates didn’t capitalize when he led off the 11th with a single to start a bases-loaded, one-out rally.

The Orioles even attempted to play small ball as Michael Bourn bunted twice, once unsuccessfully and the other leading to no runs in the 11th. In the ninth, J.J. Hardy was thrown out at the plate on a very aggressive send by third base coach Bobby Dickerson.

“This was a game where we kind of knew it didn’t matter what the situation was, what we were down by,” Wieters said. “We were going to have to find a way to win this game.”

To no surprise, that way was by the home run as has been the case all season.

This is what the Orioles do, for better or worse. Such a reliance on the long ball will be a blast when they’re hot, but the tough times will leave you wondering if they’re ever going to score runs again.

The club isn’t going to magically change fundamentally in the final week of the season. That’s more of a big-picture discussion for executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter to have after the season.

The hitter-by-hitter approach certainly needs to be better than it has been over the last week in particular, but the Orioles’ best — and perhaps only — hope of securing a playoff spot is getting hot with the long ball again.

You don’t have to like their chances, but the formula still has us talking about them in the thick of the playoff race in late September. Maybe it can take them a little bit further still.

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Orioles push back Gausman due to intercostal issue

Posted on 22 September 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Already reeling from a 2-5 start to their final homestand that has obliterated hope for a division title, the Orioles are pushing back one of their best starting pitchers due to a health concern.

Right-hander Kevin Gausman is dealing with an intercostal issue and will not start Sunday’s home finale against Arizona, according to manager Buck Showalter. Fellow right-hander Dylan Bundy will instead make the start on five days’ rest despite the original plan to give him another day of rest.

The hope is that the 25-year-old Gausman will be able to start on Tuesday or Wednesday in Toronto. The Orioles are off on Monday before beginning a six-game road trip to conclude the regular season.

“He felt it a little bit — the start of an intercostal [issue] — and we think we caught it in time,” said Showalter, who added that his back was not an issue before Tuesday’s start. “But we’ll see how it manages. We just don’t think it’s smart to have him pitch on Sunday.

“He wasn’t sick, but he had some things happening to his body that meant he might have been a little short on fluids that may have been some of it. We’re hoping it was more that than anything else, but we’ll see.”

The news couldn’t come at a worse time for the Orioles, who entered Thursday on a three-game losing streak and with only a one-game lead for the second wild-card spot. Despite being tagged for five earned runs in Tuesday’s loss, Gausman has been Baltimore’s best starter since late July and has pitched to a 2.57 ERA over his last 63 innings.

Showalter has already been using a six-man rotation and will start Yovani Gallardo, Wade Miley, and Bundy against the Diamondbacks.

Gausman threw a career-high 120 pitches over eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 win over Boston on Sept. 14, but he did not disclose any physical concerns after his 101-pitch outing on Tuesday night.

“I feel great,” said Gausman after Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the Red Sox. “I think having that extra day [of rest] definitely helped, especially this time of year. Physically, I feel great and mentally, too. I felt good.”

In 28 starts covering 166 1/3 innings this season, Gausman is 8-11 with a 3.57 ERA, 166 strikeouts, 44 walks, and 25 home runs allowed.

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Costly week all but squashes AL East title hopes for Orioles

Posted on 21 September 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — David Ortiz sent one deep into the night and with it went virtually all hope of a division title for the Orioles.

Much of the damage had already been done in the five days leading up to Tuesday’s seventh inning when Kevin Gausman gave up a three-run homer to the Boston designated hitter, turning a one-run deficit into a four-run chasm with the way the Orioles have swung the bats on the current homestand and for much of the second half.

A 21-game winner in Rick Porcello shutting them down on Monday was one thing, but former Baltimore farmhand Eduardo Rodriguez stifled them on Tuesday as Orioles batters expanded the zone and didn’t record a hit until rookie Trey Mancini hit a solo home run with two outs in the fifth inning of his major league debut.

You can question Buck Showalter for not turning to lefty specialist Donnie Hart in that fateful encounter with Ortiz and instead sticking with Gausman, who wasn’t nearly as sharp against the Red Sox on Tuesday as he was in a brilliant eight-inning performance in a 1-0 win at Fenway Park last week. Whether you agreed with the manager’s confidence in his starter or not, the 25-year-old has pitched like an ace over the last six weeks and Hart entered the night with all of 17 major league appearances under his belt, so he wasn’t leaving the second coming of Andrew Miller in the bullpen, either.

Gausman throwing a fourth consecutive fastball instead of trying to bury a split-changeup in a 1-2 count appeared unwise after Ortiz had nearly homered on a fastball in his previous at bat, but catcher Matt Wieters and the starting pitcher both noted that the 40-year-old slugger had laid off several splits earlier in the game. Of course, it didn’t help that Gausman’s fastball intended for the low-and-away corner rose up and over the outer half of the plate.

Still, these were just details in what’s been the harsh truth for the Orioles since coming off their best road trip of the season. With the chance for an American League East title still sitting right there in their return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards last Thursday, Showalter’s club hasn’t risen to the occasion.

Facing the last-place Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles settled for an underwhelming four-game split. Meanwhile, the Red Sox took four straight from the New York Yankees to increase their lead over Baltimore in the division from one game to three by the conclusion of the weekend.

And knowing they needed to take three out of four from Boston to keep themselves in good position to still win the AL East with nine more games remaining after that, the Orioles have scored a total of four runs over the first two games of the series — both 5-2 losses. An offense once among the best in baseball has scored two runs in each of its last four games, losing three of them.

Now a season-worst five games out of first place with 11 to play, the Orioles’ remote chance of winning the division would be to take the final two games of the Boston series and play lights out the rest of the way while hoping the Red Sox stub their toe substantially. At this point, securing a wild card isn’t a sure thing, either, with Toronto now a game ahead for the first spot and Detroit closing the gap to just 1 1/2 games for the second berth currently held by the Orioles.

Even with their division hopes all but gone, the Orioles can still rebound and have managed to do so  several times after rough stretches in the second half despite a disappointing 31-33 mark since the All-Star break. But the last week illustrates how the Orioles haven’t been able to extend the good times like they did in the first half when they strung together three different seven-game winning streaks.

You thought a 6-3 road trip including critical series wins over Detroit and Boston might have been the springboard for the Orioles to retake the division lead, but they have instead drifted in the wrong direction while the Red Sox have reeled off six straight victories since Gausman’s masterpiece last Wednesday night.

A 2-4 start to the final homestand of the season clearly isn’t what the Orioles had in mind, especially after thriving at Camden Yards for most of the season. There’s still time to recover to maintain their grip on a postseason spot, but their hopes for anything better than a wild card have been all but crushed in the matter of six days.

In a costly week, the Orioles just haven’t been good enough while the Red Sox have emerged as the class of the AL East.

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Time running out for Orioles bats to heat up again

Posted on 20 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles knew it would be difficult against Cy Young Award candidate Rick Porcello on Monday, but there’s nothing easy about playing in a pennant race, especially against a Boston lineup that’s the best in baseball.

That especially holds true when you’re waiting for a once-explosive offense of your own to finally heat up again. Baltimore has hung a crooked number on the board every now and then since the All-Star break, but the offensive consistency that propelled them to first place for the better part of four months in spite of shoddy starting pitching has disappeared.

Taking nothing away from Porcello’s impressive 89-pitch complete game, the Orioles scored fewer than four runs for the 33rd time in 63 games since the break on Monday. In contrast, they scored three or fewer runs only 31 times in 87 games in the first half.

That’s simply not good enough for a club that’s designed to score plenty of runs.

After averaging just under 5.1 runs per game in the first half, the offense is roughly a run worse since the break at just over 4.1 per contest. The starting pitching will likely be remembered as the Achilles heel of the 2016 Orioles, but the rotation ERA has improved from a hideous 5.15 before the break to a more acceptable 4.51 in the second half.

Yes, the home runs have still been there, but everything else from the first half — the doubles, the high on-base percentage, a few more walks — has dried up to anemic levels. Since the All-Star break, the Orioles rank first in home runs, but they’re 10th in runs, last in doubles, last in batting average, and last in on-base percentage in the American League.

Allowing five runs to the Red Sox on Monday wasn’t ideal, but you better be ready to score when playing a lineup that’s plated a whopping 5.6 per game this season. The Orioles’ AL East title hopes are circling the drain barring three straight wins to conclude the current series, but the offense needs to get on a roll to not only secure a wild card but to try to make some noise in October.

To be fair, the Boston offense hasn’t had an equal all year — the Red Sox have outscored every other AL club by at least 100 runs in 2016 — but the Orioles were at least worthy of being mentioned in the same breath in the first half.

Unfortunately, that feels like a long time ago for Buck Showalter’s club as Boston has begun pulling away.

Bundy dilemma

Monday marked the fourth time in Dylan Bundy’s last seven starts that the right-hander has allowed five earned runs as he took the loss in the 5-2 final.

His 6.62 ERA over his last 34 innings has led many to wonder if he’s tired after eclipsing the 100-inning mark for the first time since his first full professional season in 2012. You can certainly argue that the Orioles are overdoing it with Bundy, but what passes as conventional wisdom in the baseball industry is hardly exact science when it comes to taking care of pitchers’ arms.

The stress of pitching in a pennant race in the major leagues definitely changes the dynamics, but the Orioles originally intended to have Bundy throw around 100 innings in the minor leagues last year before a shoulder injury derailed his season. Does that setback automatically lead to a plan for him to throw even fewer frames a year later, or do you just need to let him go and see what you have at some point?

Bundy again said after Monday’s game that he feels good physically, and it’s worth noting that his average fastball velocity has been up over his last three starts compared to the lull he went through over five starts starting in mid-August. However, his command has suffered in recent outings as he’s walked 19 batters over his last 29 2/3 innings.

On Monday, he struggled with the feel for his curveball, causing him to shy away from using it and making him too predictable with only the fastball-changeup combination. That was evident when David Ortiz appeared to sit on a changeup and hit a decently-located one for a home run in the fifth.

Yes, Bundy might be tired as the Orioles continue to push him further than anyone would have predicted, but he could just be experiencing the typical struggles of a 23-year-old pitcher with limited experience in the majors.

Other side of attendance question

No matter who’s at fault, the Orioles drawing an announced crowd of just 18,456 for the opener of the biggest series of the year is a shame and not a good look.

It’s easy to blame the fan base — plenty of people are already doing that — but many reasons for the decline in attendance have already been discussed, ranging from the tardiness in sending out season-ticket invoices and a substantial price increase to the elimination of cheaper deals such as Tuesday bargain nights for upper-reserve seats. Anyone who expected a different story for this week’s games hasn’t paid attention to the weeknight attendance woes for even the most intriguing opponents throughout the season.

But what has the organization — not the club on the field, but the business and marketing side — done to try to pack Camden Yards for weeknight games when it was apparent over the summer that this problem wasn’t going away? Where are the weeknight promotions such as discounted tickets, concession specials, or a few more giveaways that have become all but exclusive to weekend games?

If a restaurant with good food is struggling to attract patrons during the week, does management simply stomp their feet and continue to ask why no one is coming there to eat or do they try to do something about it in the form of specials and attractive deals?

Yes, winning should be enough — no one is arguing that this is the best fan base in baseball — but you have to be prepared to try to find other ways to compel people to come to the ballpark on weeknights, especially when they can watch the games on high-definition TV at home every night. If not, maybe you just don’t care all that much to have more people in the ballpark for such important games.

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