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2016 American League East preview

Posted on 04 April 2016 by Luke Jones

The Toronto Blue Jays became the first team with fewer than 95 victories to win the American League East since the 2000 season, a trend that will continue in another parity-driven season in 2016.

The AL East also held the best last-place team in the majors in 2015 as Boston finished just six games below .500

Below is a capsule of the five AL East clubs in their predicted order of finish:

1. TORONTO (2015 record: 93-69, first place)
Notable additions: SP J.A. Happ, RP Drew Storen
Notable losses: SP David Price, OF Ben Revere, LHP Mark Buehrle
Why to like them: This wasn’t just the best offense in baseball, but the Blue Jays scored 127 more runs than any other club in the AL while leading the way in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Why to dislike them: The free-agent departures of Price and the dependable Buehrle put a lot of pressure on a starting rotation that was solid but unspectacular in 2015.
Player to watch: The 24-year-old Marcus Stroman is being counted on as the ace despite having only made seven total starts (counting the postseason) after a serious knee injury last spring.
2016 outlook (91-71): Toronto’s pitching is a notable question mark, but that lineup is far and away the biggest strength that any of the five clubs in this division have.

2. TAMPA BAY (2015 record: 80-82, fourth place)
Notable additions: OF/DH Corey Dickerson, SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, OF Steve Pearce
Notable losses: SP Nate Karns, RP Jake McGee, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, 1B/DH John Jaso
Why to like them: The Rays sport the best starting rotation in the AL East and are on track to get the accomplished Alex Cobb back from Tommy John surgery later this season.
Why to dislike them: Tampa Bay’s bullpen was ninth in the AL in ERA before trading away the hard-throwing McGee and the lineup is improved but still doesn’t scare you.
Player to watch: Should Drew Smyly and Matt Moore show that their injuries are finally behind them, the Rays rotation that already led the AL in ERA a year ago will be scary.
2016 outlook (88-74): The Rays made just enough offensive improvement to propel themselves into contention and will snag one of the two wild cards in the AL.

3. BOSTON (2015 record: 78-84, fifth place)
Notable additions: SP David Price, RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Carson Smith, OF Chris Young
Notable losses: SP Wade Miley, SP Rich Hill
Why to like them: The Red Sox acquired the ace that they desperately needed and a dominant closer to go along with one of the best offenses in the AL.
Why to dislike them: There are still too many question marks in the rotation behind Price and there may not be enough bullpen depth to get to the dominant Kimbrel in the ninth inning.
Player to watch: The Hanley Ramirez outfield experience was a disaster in 2015, so the Red Sox are hoping a move to first base will help them collect on their hefty free-agent investment.
2016 outlook (85-77): There is clear upside with a club that played better late in 2015, but there are still too many questions about the pitching to make Boston the AL East favorite.

4. BALTIMORE (2015 record: 81-81, third place)
Notable additions: SP Yovani Gallardo, OF Mark Trumbo, DH Pedro Alvarez
Notable losses: SP Wei-Yin Chen, SP Miguel Gonzalez, OF Steve Pearce, OF Gerardo Parra
Why to like them: An offense that finished third in the AL in homers added two more bats with 30-homer power and the AL’s third-best bullpen could be better with Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy.
Why to dislike them: The Orioles finished next to last in the AL in starter ERA and lost their most dependable starter (Chen) while replacing him with Gallardo, a solid veteran with declining stuff.
Player to watch: Kevin Gausman will begin the year on the disabled list, but his development is key in determining whether the starting rotation can improve enough to make the Orioles a viable contender.
2016 outlook (80-82): An offense that will hit a ton of home runs and a terrific bullpen won’t be able to overcome a starting rotation that needed to be upgraded and wasn’t this winter.

5. NEW YORK (2015 record: 87-75, second place)
Notable additions: RP Aroldis Chapman, 2B Starlin Castro, OF Aaron Hicks
Notable losses: SP Adam Warren, RP Justin Wilson, OF Chris Young
Why to like them: Once Chapman returns from suspension, the Yankees will sport the scariest bullpen trio in the majors and will be able to shorten games even more than they did in 2015.
Why to dislike them: New York finished 10th in the AL in starter ERA and is depending on too many veteran position players in the heart of the lineup to fight off Father Time.
Player to watch: Much attention will fall on Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, but the key for the rotation will be whether Michael Pineda establishes himself as a legitimate No. 1-caliber starter.
2016 outlook (78-84): The lineup is littered with too many older players who won’t manage to stay as healthy and productive as they did last year when the Yankees secured a wild card.

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Braden Holtby wins on Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada once again.

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Holtby Helps Caps Win Fifth Straight & Take Over 1st Place

Posted on 28 November 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby owns Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday, plain and simple.

The Holtbeast made 32 saves, 15 of which came in a Maple Leafs first period shooting gallery, and held the Caps in the game until they got their legs going over the last 40 minutes. Washington recieved even strength goals from bottom six forwards Jason Chimera (7th) and Tom Wilson (1st) before adding two power play tallies by Marcus Johansson (5th) and Justin Williams (7th) to defeat Toronto, 4-2. Johansson’s goal came without him using his stick for the second straight night and as I’ve often said, good things happen when you go to the front of the net.

This was a very strange game for the first 25+ minutes before Washington took over the contest. Pucks were bouncing everywhere on a bad sheet of Air Canada Centre ice and some terrible turnovers by both clubs led to a couple of tallies.

Once again, the Capitals dominated a third period with a lead. They were up two pucks going into the final frame and despite the fact that the Leafs had 14 shots on net to just eight for the Caps, the margin was never in jeopardy. Most of Toronto’s chances came from far out on the perimeter after tired rushes up the ice, while Washington put on a cycling clinic in the offensive zone holding the puck for long stretches at a time. Normally shot attempts are indicative of puck possession, but this third period was not the case, the Caps totally wore the Leafs out with their big forwards and stifling puck support from their defense. It was another really solid final frame to salt away a victory.

Playing on back to back nights, Coach Barry Trotz elected to go with his elite goalie for the first time this season in that situation. The decision, criticized by some on twitter, paid off royally. Holtby was outstanding and won for a personal best seventh straight time. The Caps have now won five in a row and with the Rangers going in the tank this week by losing three straight tilts, Washington has stormed past them and into first place in the Metropolitan Division at 17-5-1 (35 points). They are a point up on New York and they also have a game in hand.

The Caps power play continues to generate chances and the last two nights it has gone an astounding five for seven. Washington is 12-0 this season when they score a power play goal.

Overall, the Caps have to be extremely pleased with where they are at standings wise. Some will say they’ve played a weak schedule, but my counter is you can only beat the teams that you’re slated to face by the league. This Washington club is very strong and still improving. I’m sure they’d like to clean up many of the turnovers they’ve had recently that have led to odd man rushes against.

This team is supremely talented and when they play the system, as coached, they are awfully tough to beat.

The Caps will now have Sunday off before returning to practice on Monday. They just finished a seven games in eleven nights stretch by going 6-1. Based on that, Coach Trotz may give the boys Monday off too since their next game is not until Thursday in Montreal. The Habs are really good and they drummed the Rangers, 5-1, last Wednesday despite losing goalie Carey Price to a knee injury in that contest. It’s doubtful last season’s Hart Trophy winner will face the Capitals at the Bell Centre.

Notes: Shot attempts were 57-52 for Toronto. Most of the Leafs advantage came in the first period, plus their third period shots were almost predominantly from three point range…Alex Ovechkin had an assist and 10 shot attempts (only three on net) in 21:57 of ice time…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:29 and John Carlson (1 assist) logged 23:27…Toronto won the face off battle, 31-29. Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) went 12-13…Be sure to tune in to WNST 1570 AM in Baltimore on Monday morning as Nestor Aparacio and I do our weekly Caps segment. Listen Live at WNST.NET.

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The dynamic duo, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, find a way to get the Caps another victory.

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Ovechkin Ties Fedorov in Caps 3-2 Shootout Victory

Posted on 07 November 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin scored three times, yet only one counted as an official goal, but the third was the game winning shootout tally on a sweet move by the Gr8 to give Washington a 3-2 victory over the Leafs.

After an apparent late game tying and record breaking tally (Ovechkin had earlier tied Sergei Fedorov for most goals as a Russian NHLer at 483 in the second period), the zebras, who called good goal on the ice, took out the iPad the NHL bought from Target, watched several replays, and ruled no goal on a coach’s challenge because Justin Williams nicked Reimer when pushed into the crease by a Leafs defender. This happened a good second or two before the Leafs goalie was able to get set and the Gr8 roofed a backhander over his shoulder.

At that point, it looked like the Leafs were going to go home with a 2-1 victory. They had worked hard in this contest and killed off a minute long Caps five on three in the third period. They then scored on their own power play with 10:33 left, which was set up by a garbage sequence by the zebras where Tom Wilson received four minutes when he deserved only two for roughing and Nazem Kadri only got two minutes when he deserved four for hooking and holding.

But the Caps, who out shot attempted the Leafs, 61-44, despite having multiple sequences where they were outworked on the boards, finally won some puck battles with the goalie pulled and tied the game with one second left on Nicklas Backstrom’s side of the cage tally. All six Caps on the ice contributed. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great soccer play to keep the puck in the zone on the right wing boards, then Justin Williams and Backstrom worked hard on those boards to get the puck into the slot. John Carlson kept it in and fed T.J. Oshie on the left wing boards. Oshie fed Williams in the left wing corner and #14 fired it across the cage and it appeared to hit Ovechkin or the skate of the Toronto defender in front, before hitting #19 in the chest. Backstrom didn’t get all of the shot, but he was finally able to get the second biscuit of the game by James Reimer (29 saves), who was super for Toronto in net in this game.

In the shootout, both Oshie and Kuznetsov hit the post before Reimer stopped Backstrom. Braden Holtby, who gave up a soft first tally to Toronto on the short side, was spectacular stopping all four Leafs, including a stretched pad save on Kadri to seal the deal after Ovechkin’s forehand roof job.

It was a win that you could say the Caps may or may not have deserved, I think they did, and they now move to 10-3 and tie the best start in franchise history, once again, with the 1991-92 Capitals team.

As for the Leafs, well everyone, including me, thought the Caps would have an easy time with a squad that doesn’t have much talent and is bound for the Auston Matthews sweepstakes. It seemed the Capitals players thought that way too for much of the game. But shame on all of us, especially the players, because a Mike Babcock coached team is never going to just show up and roll over. He’s a super coach and he had his team ready to play on no rest and he made the adjustments necessary to nearly steal a victory.

But the Caps have to learn from this one too, they simply didn’t work hard enough in the trenches and allowed a game against a vastly inferior opponent nearly be decided by the referees. You just can’t do that because as the data shows, the calls will typically go against Washington when it comes to goalie interference.

Speaking of goalie interference and replay, the Caps are now one for and three against in this young season. Like the NFL and receptions, I have no Earthly idea what is and isn’t goalie interference. Add the delay the replay causes to the games and I’m ready to throw those cheap iPads from Target out in the street and just go with the original on ice judgement calls. Hey, everyone is human. I’m perfectly fine with having replay for something definitive like offsides, pucks across the goal line, and in the netting, but when it comes to goalie interference, it makes little sense, there’s just too much interpretation involved. The NHL is not helping their referees with this system and it slows the game to a crawl. Get rid of it!

As for the Caps, they can blame their power play for not being able to salt this one away earlier. Washington was one for six with the extra skater (or two) and their zone entries and ability to support the puck handler was atrocious. They also made terrible decisions. It was ugly and their only success was on a play where Ovechkin went to the net and scored on the door step via a sweet backhander. It was a goal scorer’s goal and a simple one. Washington went to the net and got pucks there on that play. They simply did not do enough of that on the power play in this contest, it was far too motionless and fancy. That needs to change going forward.

Despite all of the issues, good teams find ways to win games and this club did it once again. They are a good team. They have 69 more games remaining and they should continue to get better. Right now it’s about getting points and securing a playoff spot. A 10-3 start puts you in great position to do that.

Notes: Ovi had eight shots on goal and 13 overall shot attempts in 23:35 of ice time. He was the well deserved #1 star of the game…Backstrom had a goal and an assist in 23:12 and earned the second star…the Caps won the face off battle, 34-22. Jay Beagle was 11-6 and Kuznetsov was 9-5…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:12. He had another strong game with Brooks Orpik, who only played 17:53 due to all of the power plays and the fact that the Caps trailed for good portions of the game…next up for the Caps are the Detroit Red Wings in Motown on Tuesday at 7:30 pm. Former Caps defensemen Mike Green will not play due to injury [Sunday Update: Green is playing against the Stars and picked up a power play assist in the first period. He is now expected to face the Caps, assuming he doesn’t get re-injured.]

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Welcome to Toronto – the dome that time forgot.

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MLB #GiveASpit Ballpark Ranking: No. 25 Toronto Blue Jays

Posted on 16 August 2015 by Nestor Aparicio

Toronto – I remember when this joint jumped. I was about fifty feet away from where Joe Carter’s home run landed on that fateful night in October 1993 when baseball was celebrated and ultimately died in downtown Toronto on Yonge Street. Now, it’s almost like they’re closer to joining the Montreal Expos than to galvanizing the baseball gods of the Great White North. Sure, Geddy Lee wasn’t at Rogers Centre on my night in Canada but the baseball “experience” of Toronto has been left to the ghosts of “Ok Blue Jays” in the seventh inning stretch and the pink suits of my pal Gregg Zaun. I can’t really pick on this dome any more than it’s been decimated over the past two decades. Oh, every time the ball hits the turf a giant blast of black plastic shrapnel leaps into the air. It’s like fake baseball. Only, it’s real. Honestly, if you go, you might want to consider watching the game from the bar/restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel attached to the dome. It’s a nice seat. And it’s free with a tab or dinner. Buy dinner, get the game free. And, honestly, you wouldn’t be missing much here.

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On Sept. 8-9-10, I will be releasing an extensive essay documenting my 30-30 MLB #GiveASpit journey of 2015. You can read it and all of my work here: http://wnst.net/author/nestoraparicio/

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tillman

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Even after huge win, Orioles facing tough dilemma with Tillman

Posted on 21 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles had much to be happy about following their 13-9 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday to earn their biggest series victory of the season.

Despite blowing an early 7-0 lead, the Orioles secured their fifth consecutive series win and moved back to three games above .500. Not only did they snap the Blue Jays’ eight-game winning streak at Rogers Centre on Saturday, but the Orioles have now won two straight series against their American League East foe after a 1-5 start against the highest run-producing lineup in the majors.

You could argue their wins on Saturday and Sunday were the biggest of the season so far as the Orioles outscored the Blue Jays by an 8-1 margin in the final three innings of both games.

But the impressive resiliency reminiscent of last year doesn’t erase a major problem staring manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles squarely in the face.

Once again, Chris Tillman was bad on Sunday.

Really bad.

After the Orioles scored seven runs off Scott Copeland in the top of the second, their best starter over the previous three seasons could only record one out in the bottom half of the inning before giving way to the bullpen. Everything he threw was up in the strike zone and over the heart of the plate, once again making you wonder if his lower back issues continue to linger and are impacting his ability to fully extend with his delivery.

You don’t go from being so good for three seasons to this poor without wondering if there’s something wrong physically. Tillman threw first-pitch strikes to only two of the 10 Blue Jays hitters he faced and allowed six runs, six hits, and two home runs in just 1 1/3 innings on Sunday.

“Chris has just got to get back into attack mode,” Showalter told MASN after Sunday’s win. “You trust the pedigree and the background, but he’s capable of better than that. We need to get that from him.”

How poorly has Tillman fared in four starts against Toronto this year? The right-hander has a 15.00 ERA in 15 innings against the Blue Jays. Against everyone else, Tillman has a respectable 3.92 mark.

Of course, the Blue Jays have hung a slew of crooked numbers on the scoreboard this season, but Sunday’s outing elevated Tillman’s season ERA to 6.22, which dwarfs Ubaldo Jimenez’s 4.63 mark at this point last season that led to the latter being sent to the disabled list and, eventually, the bullpen. Even with numbers skewed by Toronto, you just can’t forgive Tillman’s poor 2015 performance because he’s frequently faced the Blue Jays as they’re a major league opponent just like every other lineup he’s faced.

At least the Orioles don’t face Toronto again until early September.

A few weeks ago, we pointed to Tillman’s difficult first two months a year ago as good reason for remaining confident as he rebounded from a 5.20 ERA in his first 13 starts of 2014 to allow three or fewer earned runs in his next 20 outings to ultimately finish the regular season with a 3.34 ERA. But we’re less than two weeks away from the Fourth of July and last year’s early struggles pale in comparison to what we’ve seen so far in 2015 as he’s registered just five quality starts in 14 outings and is averaging 4.5 walks per nine innings.

Forget about the longtime debate over whether Tillman is really an ace as the 27-year-old isn’t currently performing like someone worthy of remaining in a major league rotation, but herein lies the problem. The right-hander is out of minor-league options and the Orioles obviously aren’t releasing him — he’s under club control through the 2017 season — but you wonder how many more chances Showalter can give his Opening Day starter of the last two seasons before he has little choice but to send him to the bullpen.

To be fair, fellow starter Bud Norris sports an ERA (7.57) more than a run higher than Tillman’s, but his 3.78 ERA in three starts since returning from the DL at least provides some optimism that he’s made some adjustments after a month-long absence.

Both need to be on notice at this point as it relates to their spots in the rotation.

With Kevin Gausman healthy and back in a starting routine after being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday, the Orioles have a starter waiting in the wings who posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts for a division-winning club last year. Time is running out for Tillman to reverse a nightmarish start to the 2015 campaign.

As Showalter pointed out, the 6-foot-5 hurler is a major reason why the Orioles completed three straight winning seasons and twice made the postseason over that time, but the starting pitcher would be the first to tell you he’s been a weak link in 2015.

You just wonder how much longer the Orioles can wait as they find themselves in the midst of another tight division race while their de facto ace entering the season continues going nowhere fast.

 

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jones

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Jones sits again with shoulder ailment, Gausman optioned

Posted on 21 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Nursing a right shoulder injury for almost a week, center fielder Adam Jones was out of the lineup for the fourth time in six games on Sunday as the Orioles wrapped up a three-game set with Toronto.

The 29-year-old hurt his shoulder diving for a ball in Monday’s 4-0 win over Philadelphia before sitting out the final three games against the Phillies. Returning to the lineup to serve as the designated hitter on Friday and Saturday, Jones went 1-for-6 with three RBIs and two walks, but he’s shown discomfort on a few occasions while swinging the bat.

Manager Buck Showalter hopes a day off on Sunday followed by an off-day before the start of a three-game set with Boston on Tuesday will do the trick for his four-time All-Star outfielder. The Orioles continue to express confidence that Jones will avoid the 15-day disabled list, but concern has to be growing with the issue still lingering nearly a week later.

David Lough started in center on Sunday after Nolan Reimold played there on Saturday.

As many predicted, the Orioles optioned right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman to Triple-A Norfolk after he made his first start of the year on Saturday. With Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen expected to return to the starting rotation this week, the Orioles want Gausman to remain on a starter schedule pitching every fifth day for the Tides.

The 24-year-old allowed two runs and four hits over five innings on Saturday after spending more than a month on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis.

Gonzalez is expected to return from the DL to start on Thursday after two runs in five solid innings for Double-A Bowie in a rehab start on Saturday. He was sent to the 15-day DL after injuring his groin earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Chen is eligible to return from the minors on Friday after temporarily being optioned to Single-A Frederick last week to make room on the 25-man roster for outfielder Chris Parmelee. The Taiwanese lefty pitched three scoreless innings for the Keys on Saturday and is line to start the opener of the Cleveland series at Camden Yards.

The Orioles recalled right-handed pitcher Oliver Drake from Norfolk to take Gausman’s spot on the 25-man roster. In five appearances with Baltimore earlier this season, Drake pitched to a 3.52 ERA in 7 2/3 innings. The Naval Academy product has a microscopic 0.76 ERA in 23 2/3 innings for the Tides this season.

The roster move currently gives the Orioles an eight-man bullpen with Drake and right-hander Mychal Givens both promoted over the weekend.

 

 

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Orioles call up hard-throwing Givens from Double-A Bowie

Posted on 20 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles made a series of roster moves prior to the second game of a three-game set with the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday afternoon.

As expected, right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman was activated from the 15-day disabled list to make his first start of the season, but the Orioles also added a fresh arm to their bullpen by selecting the contract of right-handed pitcher Mychal Givens from Double-A Bowie. Right-handed pitchers Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk to make room on the 25-man roster.

Originally drafted as a shortstop in 2009, the 25-year-old Givens has impressed manager Buck Showalter and other members of the organization this year with a mid-90s fastball from a three-quarters arm slot that has led to a 1.60 ERA, 12 saves, and 54 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings. With Wilson having thrown 78 pitches in relief after Wright lasted just 1 1/3 innings on Friday night, Baltimore wanted more length in its bullpen against the highest-scoring offense in the major leagues.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Givens, the Orioles placed right-handed pitcher Jason Garcia (shoulder) on the 60-day disabled list.

With Wright turning in his worst performance of the season on Friday, it’s unclear when he will receive another opportunity in the Baltimore starting rotation. After pitching 14 1/3 scoreless innings in his first two major league starts last month, the 25-year-old right-hander has allowed 17 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings over his last four starts.

Meanwhile, Wilson continues to impress as he’s pitched to a 2.12 ERA in 17 innings for the Orioles this season.

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No excuse for Orioles’ sloppy play to begin season

Posted on 23 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A 7-8 record for the Orioles is nothing over which to panic.

Every team in baseball will undergo a three-game losing streak this season and will go through stretches when the pitching or the hitting — or both — will fail to do the job.

But the sloppiness with which the Orioles have played at times through the first 2 1/2 weeks of the season is concerning. And you know that isn’t sitting well with manager Buck Showalter.

Yes, they’re missing All-Star players in J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters and lost young second baseman Jonathan Schoop to a knee injury last weekend, but that can’t excuse the fielding miscues and the baserunning gaffes uncharacteristic of Showalter clubs that we’ve seen. The Orioles may not play small ball, but they’ve still done the little things well for the most part.

Over the last few years, they’ve hit the cutoff man, minimized mistakes on the bases, and made the plays they’re supposed to make.

That hasn’t been the case in the season’s first 15 games.

Their current three-game losing streak has included six official errors, but the defensive struggles came to a head Tuesday night with right fielder Travis Snider making a few gaffes that had fans pining for Nick Markakis’ steady defensive work. Aside from the last few games, the defense hasn’t been awful, but it’s certainly fallen short of the high standard the Orioles set over the last few years.

Baltimore has done a poor job controlling the running game as catcher Caleb Joseph had failed to throw out the first eight runners attempting to steal against him this season before finally gunning down Toronto catcher Russell Martin at second base on Wednesday night. Opponents are 10-for-12 in stolen base attempts this year after Joseph threw out 40 percent of runners last season. Of course, the pitching must also take blame in failing to hold runners as several stolen bases have come after huge jumps.

Perhaps the signature play of the sloppy start to the season was Alejandro De Aza’s inexplicable attempt to steal third base in the top of the seventh of Wednesday’s game. Chris Davis was at the plate as the potential tying run before De Aza was gunned down to end the inning and protect the Blue Jays’ 4-2 lead.

Any baseball fan knows you never make the third out of an inning at third, but it’s an even worse play with one of your best power hitters at the plate and you’re facing a two-run deficit in the seventh.

Brutal.

To be clear, the Orioles need to play better overall as the pitching has been poor — starters have completed six innings just four times this season — and the offense squandered a slew of opportunities to score more than two runs on Wednesday night.

But you can minimize the damage when you’re not pitching or hitting at your best by doing the little things well — the parts of the game that don’t always show up in the box score.

And that’s where, as Adam Jones would say, the Orioles need to clean it up.

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machado

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Orioles musings on the opening week of the season

Posted on 13 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Based on how they performed over the first week of the season, the Orioles are right where they belong sitting at the .500 mark while allowing one more run (32) than they’ve scored (31) through the season’s first six games.

The fact that a number of fans are concerned about a 3-3 record shows just how far the Orioles have come over the last three years under manager Buck Showalter in that they’re now expected to win. For anyone concerned about the first week of the season, keep in mind that the Orioles began last season with a 1-4 mark and were still sitting at .500 at the beginning of June before playing .639 baseball the rest of the way.

For context, the Orioles are roughly at the same point in their season now as the Ravens were when Joe Flacco tossed an interception in the third quarter of the 2014 season opener against Cincinnati last September.

Beyond Bud Norris being a “person of interest” with a poor start in the home opener that followed his concerning spring and Ubaldo Jimenez reinforcing his strong finish in the Grapefruit League with a brilliant performance Saturday night, I haven’t seen much of anything that changes my overall attitude or outlook on the 2015 campaign. The Orioles obviously need to pitch better than they did in the first week, and I think they will based on the track record of many of these hurlers over the last few seasons.

* The Orioles have given up 10 or more runs in a game twice already after doing it just five times all last season, which brings two thoughts to mind.

One, it shows how consistent the staff was in 2014 despite not having the kind of starting rotation that inflicts fear like Detroit’s last year or the current Washington group. In 2013, the Orioles allowed 10 or more runs nine times and surrendered at least that many in a game 10 times in 2012.

It also speaks to how impressive the Toronto lineup was in scoring 23 runs in a three-game series in which the Blue Jays were nearly shut out in the second contest. The Blue Jays weren’t exactly struggling to score runs anyway before the offseason arrivals of an MVP-caliber player like third baseman Josh Donaldson and veteran catcher Russell Martin, who posted a .402 on-base percentage with Pittsburgh last year.

I still have my doubts about how quickly their young pitching will come together in both the rotation and the bullpen, but the Blue Jays will hit the ball as well as anyone in the majors.

* Third baseman Manny Machado’s 0-for-15 streak to begin the 2015 season ended Sunday, but his .053 average isn’t anything to be concerned about just yet as he’s hit several balls hard and has shown improved patience at the plate in drawing three walks in 23 plate appearances. He’s only struck out three times over that span, which suggests making contact isn’t a concern.

What has been an encouraging sign that his surgically-repaired knees are not an issue is the number of “Machadian” plays — yes, I’ve coined a new adjective to describe his impeccable defense — he’s already made in the field.

Considering he won’t be 23 until July, it’s amazing to think how many highlight plays he’s already offered up in his major league career. You just hope the problems with his knees are finally behind him, so we can enjoy watching this kid play a full season.

* Right-hander Kevin Gausman is off to a rocky start in the bullpen, allowing three earned runs and four walks in 3 2/3 innings.

While I’ve made no secret about my disagreement with his handling, it’s worth noting that he’s begun throwing a curveball — seemingly abandoning his slider that was still a work in progress — for the first time since college. In talking to Gausman late last week, you got the sense that he’s trying to emulate Chris Tillman a little more by adopting the curve to change hitters’ eye levels and throwing more high fastballs, which will certainly get him in trouble if he doesn’t locate and pick his spots carefully.

You wonder if these fundamental adjustments along with some natural disappointment over not being in the rotation have led to his early-season struggles, but there’s too much talent there for him not to right himself sooner rather than later.

* I’m guessing not many would have predicted knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa as the first minor-league pitcher to be recalled by the Orioles this season, but it further illustrates how timing and flexibility have more to do with promotions than anything.

More heralded arms such as Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson had already pitched in the previous two days and the Orioles preferred to give T.J. McFarland his scheduled start with Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday, paving the way for the 30-year-old Gamboa to receive his first promotion to the majors. Of course, he was only going to pitch in an extreme situation such as an injury or two taking place or the score being totally out of hand, but it once again shows how manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette will utilize resources at Norfolk and even Double-A Bowie however they see fit.

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Jimenez offers reminder why Orioles wanted him

Posted on 12 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — In the same way that it would be premature for the Orioles to bury Bud Norris after his poor start in the home opener, Ubaldo Jimenez can’t erase the memory of an awful 2014 season with one terrific outing.

But catcher Caleb Joseph said it best in describing the right-hander’s seven shutout innings in which he allowed only one hit while striking out eight and walking one in a 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.

“He was like a video game out there,” Joseph said. “I haven’t caught very many major league games, but that may have been one of the [most fun]. What he’s been through over the last year or so and then working really hard and getting better each and every spring training start, and then when the lights really come on — playing for real — he did such a great job.”

Despite the frustration of a fan base that expected big things from the 31-year-old when he signed a four-year, $50 million contract 14 months ago, it’s easy to see how well liked Jimenez is by teammates and coaches. Working hard to simplify and repeat his delivery this offseason, Jimenez has been praised for his commitment to improve from the time he arrived in Sarasota for spring training two months ago.

Asked what impressed him most about Jimenez this spring prior to Saturday’s game, manager Buck Showalter was direct in saying it was the results and how the veteran had improved a little bit each time he went to the hill. Jimenez pitched on the road — meaning he would face more of the opposition’s regular hitters — in all but one of his seven spring starts, posting a 2.88 ERA in his final 25 Grapefruit League innings and walking just six batters over that span.

That success carried over and then some on Saturday as Jimenez stifled a Blue Jays lineup that had piled up 12 runs and 16 hits just a day earlier. It began with fastball command and impeccable control as Jimenez delivered first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 hitters he faced. He also effectively mixed in his split-fingered fastball and curveball while his two-seam fastball induced 11 grounders that were turned into outs by the excellent defense behind him.

Jimenez is gradually learning to trust that defense, adopting pitching coach Dave Wallace’s philosophy of pitching to weak contact and not always needing to rely on the strikeout. Unlike other starters in the current rotation, Jimenez has the ability to consistently miss bats — he still averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings last season — but it can’t come at the expense of control.

Yes, it’s only one start, but it was a glimpse into what the Orioles envisioned when they made a four-year commitment to the 2010 All-Star Game starter for the National League. While a career-worst 5.5 walks per nine innings average and a 4.81 ERA from last year are fresh in observers’ minds, Jimenez has pitched at a high level at various times in his career, which is the upside that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was attracted to.

For now, Jimenez can only take it one start at a time, one strike at a time while observers will understandably remain skeptical until he proves himself consistently.

“The only thing I’m worried about is being there for the team,” Jimenez said. “If I pitch good, they will forget [last year], but my main goal is be there for the team. I can’t be worried about what everyone is thinking.”

Saturday reinforced that the Orioles were right to give Jimenez a chance to reestablish himself in the rotation. He’ll need to prove he can remain there, but owing a pitcher $39 million over the next three years has a way of making an organization provide as many opportunities as humanly possible to fetch a return.

The Jimenez who’s surfaced over the last month dating back to spring training is one the Orioles would like to see pitching meaningful games in September and beyond. It’s the reason why they brought him to Baltimore in the first place despite his opening act being a dud.

“Nobody’s worked harder than him. You can tell he did it in the offseason, too,” Showalter said. “He came in here with a real purpose. Tonight was a good reminder why he’s been a good quality major league starter for a long time.”

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