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Guthrie gets overdue help from offense in Orioles’ 7-5 win over Reds

Posted on 26 June 2011 by Luke Jones

It was far from Jeremy Guthrie’s best performance in a 7-5 win to give the Orioles their first series win since June 6-8.

But the bats owed him one.

Guthrie pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing four earned runs and six hits while uncharacteristically walking four batters in an afternoon in which deep counts caught up with him, forcing an early exit against the Cincinnati Reds. However, five runs in the first four innings and two late insurance runs proved to be enough despite eight walks by Baltimore pitching.

Receiving the ninth-worst run support in the American League entering Sunday, Guthrie was grateful for the extra hand in securing his third win of the season despite a very respectable 3.93 earned run average in 16 starts. It marked the first time since May 26 that Guthrie had received five or more runs and just the fifth time all season.

“Winning three games in three months, it’s frustrating,” said Guthrie, who improved his record to 3-9. “I want to be better; I want to have better results. At times, momentum seems to swing against the Orioles, so it’s nice to have held on and won this game. It’s important for the team.”

Though not his sharpest outing, Guthrie’s stuff removed any shred of doubt that might have lingered after straining his back two starts ago in Toronto. His fastball sat in the mid-90s and struck out five Cincinnati hitters despite giving up his 13th home run of the year to Brandon Phillips in the fifth inning.

Racking brains over Reynolds

No Oriole in recent memory has sparked more debate — or created more frustration — than third baseman Mark Reynolds.

Despite raising his batting average from .190 to .227, clubbing seven home runs, and walking 20 times in the month of June, Reynolds’ defense continues to suffer after committing two more errors on Sunday, giving him 18 for the year. Manager Buck Showalter is preaching patience with Reynold’s glove and arm, but the miscues haven’t yet affected his performance at the plate.

“I can’t think that way,” Reynolds said. “I have struggled over there at third base, it’s no secret. Just have to stay focused and not carry my at-bats into the field with me. Just keep going out there and making all the routine plays.”

Casual observers cringe at the low average and the high strikeout numbers (78 in 242 at-bats), but Reynolds’ .819 OPS is better than any regular in the lineup not named J.J. Hardy (.907) or Adam Jones (.823). His .356 on-base percentage makes him a strong candidate to be moved higher in the batting order if Showalter wants to maximize his return.

Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee were brought to Baltimore to be run producers for the middle of the order, but Reynolds has done a far better job than either veteran if you can look past the unconventional numbers.

Unfortunately, the glove has overshadowed what he’s been doing at the plate.

“I am working every day with [third base coach Willie Randolph] at it, trying to get better,” Reynolds said. “It’s just one of those things I can’t really explain. Hopefully, I can be more consistent in the future and keep getting better.”

Markakis on the rise

Following a three-hit afternoon in which he drove in two runs, Nick Markakis is riding a 16-game hitting streak that includes eight multi-hit games. He’s elevated his average from .236 to .277 over the 16 games in what many are hoping is a sign of better things to come for the struggling right fielder.

“He’s letting the ball travel, getting deep,” Showalter said. “He’s making them get him out. He’s not getting himself out as much, and he’s taking what they give him. Nick’s not going to sneak up on anybody. Everybody in baseball knows what kind of hitter he is, and they’re pitching him tough. Also, some of the guys around him swinging the bat better with J.J. and Jonesy and D-Lee coming on have made the focus less on him.”

Markakis has recently been choking up about an inch on the bat, with the knob noticeably taped. His 14 extra-base hits are still far below his yearly average of over 60 over the first five seasons of his career, but a homer on Saturday and three hits Sunday are encouraging to see as the All-Star Break approaches.

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Hardy and Reynolds are key pieces of Orioles’ future

Posted on 20 June 2011 by Peter Dilutis

Andy MacPhail’s 2010-2011 offseason has been criticized by many. MacPhail went out and overpaid for Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee, two veterans on the downside of their respective careers who were unlikely to play on a contending team in Baltimore, unless of course that contending was going to occur in 2011.

He acquired an average pitcher in Kevin Gregg who happened to rack up a bunch of saves the previous four seasons, thus making him a $5 million man.

MacPhail also traded for J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds. Hardy was set to become a free agent after the 2011 season, while Reynolds could be under team control through 2013 if the Orioles exercise their club option for ’13.

Throughout the early stages of the season, Reynolds and Hardy weren’t looking so great. Hardy was injured again, a problem that has overshadowed his production the past few seasons. Reynolds was striking out way too much, while homering at a career low clip.

However, both of these players have really gone on a tear throughout the month of June. Hardy is arguably the team’s best player right now, and has produced with the best SS’s in baseball. In fact, Hardy’s numbers are better than they were in 2007 when he hit 26 HR’s and drove in 86 with Milwaukee. His defense has also been better than advertised. In short, he has been the best outside acquisition for the Orioles since Miguel Tejada in 2004.

Reynolds has picked up his offense of late, hitting 6 HR’s in June, while raising his average from .186 to .217 in just one month. He also has an on-base percentage of .335, which while not wonderful, it isn’t awful either, and it is actually extremely impressive for a guy who is hitting just .217. Reynolds, despite his strikeouts, has a very good eye at the plate, and at the very least is someone who Jim Presley can count on to work the count and make the pitcher work a bit.

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Orioles on cusp of .500 (again), other random thoughts

Posted on 11 June 2011 by Luke Jones

1. Déjà vu all over again.

After Friday’s 7-0 win over Tampa Bay, the Orioles once again find themselves on the brink of the .500 mark with a 30-31 mark entering Saturday night’s test against Tampa ace David Price. A win would put Baltimore at the .500 mark for the first time since May 26.

The problem was the Orioles responding to the achievement with a disastrous 1-5 West Coast trip from which they have yet to fully recover in the win-loss column. They are 2-4 this season when entering the day with a record of one game below .500.

“We understand the math of common denominators of teams that have a good season,” said manager Buck Showalter before the Rays series. “At some point, we’ve got to get to and pass that threshold as an organization.”

Of course, Showalter knows .500 is not the top of the mountain — notice how he said to “pass that threshold” — but it’s still a significant step for a franchise lacking a winning season since 1997. The Orioles have not been above the .500 mark since April 14 when they fell to 6-5 after suffering a two-game sweep to the Yankees in the Bronx.

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2. Hardy the offseason prize

The signings of veterans Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero grabbed the headlines. Third baseman Mark Reynolds was acquired via trade three days earlier in December.

But is there any doubt that shortstop J.J. Hardy — even after missing a month with a strained left oblique — has been the offseason prize for the Orioles?

Entering Saturday, Hardy has more home runs (six) than Guerrero (five) in only half the at-bats (118 to 236). He has more runs batted in than Lee (19 to 15) in 57 fewer at-bats, many coming far lower in the lineup.

His defense has been superb after replacing the slick-fielding, light-hitting Cesar Izturis of the past two seasons.

With Brian Roberts continuing to miss time with concussion-related symptoms, Hardy has recently taken over leadoff responsibilities and responded with two leadoff home runs this week. His .370 on-base percentage entering Saturday’s game is a welcome change at the top of the order from the impatient Felix Pie and allows Robert Andino to hit more comfortably in the ninth spot.

Though there are more than three months remaining in the season, the Orioles should already be contemplating a new contract for Hardy, who is scheduled to become a free agent. Manny Machado may be the future at short, but Hardy has been a pleasant surprise in the present.

3. Arrieta racking up wins while Guthrie and Britton bite the bullet

After pitching seven shutout innings Friday night, Jake Arrieta recorded his eighth win of the season, becoming the first Baltimore pitcher to record eight wins by June 10 since Sidney Ponson in 2003. A season ago, no Orioles pitcher recorded his eighth victory until August 29 (Jeremy Guthrie).

Arrieta’s eight wins equal the total number by Guthrie (two) and Zach Britton (six) despite both holding lower earned run averages. Entering Friday night’s game against the Rays, Arrieta benefited from the fourth-best run support (7.14 runs per game) in the American League. Wins are a poor indicator for how well — or how poorly — a pitcher is performing, but Arrieta has done what’s necessary to win in most instances.

The 25-year-old still walks too many hitters and needs to be more economical with his pitches, but no one can deny his array of four pitches and overall makeup. His strikeout rate per nine innings has increased from 4.7 his rookie season to 7.5 this year, but his walks per nine innings have increased from 4.3 to 4.5.

Britton and Guthrie have been better overall in 2011, but Arrieta has solidified his position in the starting rotation. His command issues may always keep him a notch or two below the seemingly more-polished Britton and Brian Matusz, but you have to be pleased with Arrieta’s progression through 14 starts in 2011.

4. Interleague Vlad

With interleague play set to pick up again next weekend, the Orioles will travel to D.C. to take on the Nationals followed by a three-game trip to Pittsburgh the following week. That, of course, means the Orioles will be without the designated hitter spot.

What do you do with your cleanup hitter?

Showalter will not reveal his plans just yet, but admitted Guerrero hasn’t made a strong request to play the outfield in National League ballparks. Anyone who watched Guerrero hobble around right field as a member of the Texas Rangers in the World Series last October should hardly be surprised.

Though hitting .288 entering Saturday, Guerrero hasn’t exactly provided the power (.394 slugging percentage and five home runs) that suggests the Orioles absolutely need his bat in the lineup. The defense lost in right field or first base — the only two positions you could conceivably imagine Guerrero playing — creates a simple decision.

The Orioles will likely have “one heck of a pinch-hitter,” as Showalter quipped on Friday, but it’s hard to justify putting Guerrero in the field for any reason.

5. Adams’ splinters continue

If you asked most fans, they probably couldn’t even tell you if Ryan Adams was even on the 25-man roster. The rookie second baseman has 16 plate appearances since being recalled on May 20.

Sixteen.

Instead of an anticipated platoon, Andino has solidified his job at second base, and the 2006 second-round pick continues to waste away on the bench while veteran infielders Brendan Harris and Nick Green hold spots for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides.

Showalter has conceded that Adams needs consistent at-bats somewhere, but the manager has also said the young infielder is gaining exposure to life in the big leagues by being in the clubhouse and dugout during games.

Maybe a hint of truth, but I’m not buying it.

Whether it’s Baltimore or Norfolk, Adams needs to be getting regular at-bats. It’s not helping the future of the club — especially with Roberts’ status becoming cloudier every season — to have Adams sitting on the bench on a nightly basis when he could be playing everyday for the Tides.

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Orioles’ struggles becoming not so ‘early’ after weekend sweep to Rays

Posted on 08 May 2011 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The old baseball adage is heard countless times in the early weeks of every season, whether a team or player is off to a smoking start or struggling to clear the spring training cobwebs when the games begin to actually count.

It’s early.

Or, it’s still early.

The Orioles dropped their sixth game in seven tries on Sunday, falling 5-3 as the Tampa Bay Rays completed a three-game sweep at Camden Yards. The club now finds itself with a 14-19 record and in last place in the American League East. After a 6-1 start to spark early-season excitement, Baltimore has now dropped 18 of its last 26 games as the lineup continues to sputter and the back of the starting rotation and bullpen struggle to get the opposition out.

After losing 11 of 13 in mid-April, the Orioles and optimists insisted it was simply a bad stretch, claiming it was too early to panic. A brief run of five wins in six games to close April looked like the start of better baseball, but that idea vanished after the Orioles flamed out in Kansas City and the Rays extracted revenge for the Orioles’ sweep in Tampa Bay to begin the season. The lineup has now scored three or fewer runs in the last five games to continue the early-season frustration after the offense was expected to be much better this season.

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At some point — 33 games into the season, or roughly a fifth of the season — you have to ask yourself when it stops being “early” and concerns become more legitimate. And while many — including me — have pointed to the Orioles’ 2010 woes as a sign that things could be a lot worse to begin 2011, should a historically-terrible pace through the first fourth months last season really be the standard by which a supposedly improved club is judged?

“Just keep grinding,” said manager Buck Showalter about the club’s struggles following a third straight loss to the Rays. “What do you do, give in? Pull the dirt around you? That’s not going to happen. I was proud of the effort and the way they came back today. [The Rays are] pitching well and our bullpen came in and gave us a chance to get back in there. It just didn’t happen.”

After a 34-23 finish put him in unique, mystical territory entering last winter, Showalter sounds far more like Lee Mazzilli or Sam Perlozzo or Dave Trembley these days, unable to explain the short-circuited lineup that has done nothing to help alleviate pressure on the pitching. Of course, Showalter can do a lot of things, like change up the lineup as many have suggested, but he doesn’t swing a bat. Entering Sunday, the Orioles ranked 12th in the American League in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 11th in runs scored, and 10th in slugging percentage.

Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero have looked old, Mark Reynolds hasn’t hit his weight (.187 after going 0-for-2 Sunday), and J.J. Hardy has 15 at-bats all season. Even worse, Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis aren’t getting on base consistently, the two players counted on the most in that department. Looking up and down the lineup, Luke Scott has really been the only player to produce what you would have expected entering the season. Roberts, Matt Wieters, and Adam Jones have had brief stretches, but the collective result has amounted to a very underwhelming lineup through the first five weeks of the season.

If Scott’s comments following the game were any indication, players are beginning to realize it’s no longer that early in the year. The frustration is mounting.

“I take a lot of pride in what I do and I speak for a lot of these guys,” he said. “We come prepared as a group and we want to see fruit from our labor on the field. For me, I lose sleep over this stuff, it bothers me. Do I have peace during it? Yes, because I know I have done everything I can possibly do. Get in the weight room, get in the cage and take care of my body.

“It’s going to turn for us. If these are our low moments — with everyone struggling — imagine what it’s going to be like when we are clicking. That is what we are looking forward to.”

For now, everyone can only wait, but the poor on-base percentage and lack of plate discipline — despite drawing walks on Sunday — doesn’t exactly scream a turnaround is imminent.

Of course, the pitching hasn’t been much better as the Orioles continue to cringe every time they get to the back end of the rotation. Brad Bergesen again allowed a start to get away from him on Sunday, allowing five combined runs in the fourth and fifth innings in a fifth career loss in five career starts against the Rays. He has now allowed 24 earned runs in 23 2/3 career innings against Tampa Bay. His earned run average ballooned to 5.57 after the loss, and the right-hander will be a strong candidate to be moved to the bullpen when Brian Matusz returns later this month.

However, Bergesen isn’t even the worst — statistically speaking, anyway — pitcher in the rotation through the season’s first 33 games. Chris Tillman’s 7.16 ERA, diminished velocity, and poor command don’t exactly scream for the 23-year-old to remain in the rotation either. The two have a combined 6.30 ERA in 60 total innings this season, a painful duo to continue sending to the hill, but who else is there to turn to with the minor leagues bare?

Baltimore starters have allowed 23 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings in the last four days, with Jeremy Guthrie and Zach Britton also taking it on the chin this weekend. With the collective struggles at the plate and on the hill, the Orioles will benefit from Monday’s day off before the Seattle Mariners come to town to conclude a six-game homestand off to an 0-3 start.

“It shouldn’t matter mentally,” said Showalter after the Orioles were swept in a three-game home series for the first time since he became manager last August, “but it’s a challenge to be mentally disciplined and not let that be a ‘Here we go again’ mentality. And that will change, too. We’ll pitch better.”

Showalter continues to remain upbeat, insisting the “worm will turn” as he often likes to say. But despite popular belief last season, the Orioles skipper doesn’t hit, pitch, run, field, or even walk on water. Juggling the lineup or making another pitching change only goes so far; the players aren’t producing.

And it was the same problem all the previous managers had.

Everyone — players included — keeps waiting around for the Orioles to start playing better. Their brief stretches of strong play have been dwarfed by longer periods of bad baseball.

There’s still plenty of season, but it’s no longer “early.”

If the Orioles are truly a better team, it’s time they start showing it.

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Resilient Britton overcomes bug to beat Twins

Posted on 21 April 2011 by Luke Jones

The final stat line tells you how Zach Britton pitched in a 5-4 win over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday night.

Good enough to win, but not overly impressive.

Britton earned his third win in four starts but struggled with his command at several points, including two walks in the sixth inning that led to two runs and turned a comfortable 5-1 lead into a two-run nail-biter that was handed over to the bullpen. He departed after six innings and 88 pitches, giving up three earned runs, five hits, and issuing three free passes while striking out three.

However, listening to his post-game comments provided a new appreciation for the outing after learning he was under the weather and even wheezing on the mound at several points, according to manager Buck Showalter. And it reaffirmed what many have suspected despite the 3-1 start to the 23-year-old’s infant career.

His best work is still on the way.

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With a scratchy, hoarse voice, Britton expressed disappointment in his control issues and credited five early runs — thanks to home runs from Matt Wieters and Vladimir Guerrero and a two-run double by Adam Jones — for putting him in position to pick up the victory. It certainly helped that he faced a hapless Twins lineup that hasn’t scored more than five runs in a game all season, but Britton made key pitches when it mattered most, pitching out of jams in the second and third innings and minimizing the damage in his final inning of work.

Instead of patting himself on the back after his third quality start of the season, Britton viewed the outing as a learning experience for pitching with a sizable lead — and what you can’t afford to do with one.

“It could have been better,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with the walks, especially with the 5-1 lead, and you put guys on base and it ends up being a close game like that. So I wasn’t happy with the wildness, but we scored a lot of runs and kept us in the game.”

Of course, as Showalter pointed out after the game, players compete at less than 100 percent all the time, and the opposition doesn’t care if you’re not at the top of your game. Competing against a lineup without Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and allowing three runs in six innings, Britton may have been more fortunate than anything else, but it’s hard not to like his makeup, both physically and mentally.

In 25 2/3 innings, Britton has allowed only nine earned runs (3.16 ERA) with four of those coming in one disastrous inning in Cleveland last Friday. He’s pitched at least six innings in all four of his starts.

Hearing his thoughts after each start, you get the sense that he’s far from satisfied. The road to success will unquestionably get tougher as scouts and opposing teams view more game tape and gain a better look at his repertoire of pitches and his tendencies.

Yes, it’s only April and only four starts, but the early return on Britton is impressive, even when he hasn’t been at his best.

“That’s what he’s going to have to do,” Wieters said. “He’s a sinkerball guy, and he’s not going to throw a sinker at the knees every time, so he’s going to give up some ground-ball hits and some broken-bat hits. That’s the life of a sinkerball pitcher. He’s going to have to get through that.

“When your bad nights are six innings and three runs, that’s not too bad.”

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Britton, Showalter, Wieters, and Kevin Gregg following the Orioles’ 5-4 win and remember to join us in the Orange Crush live chat for every weeknight home game at WNST.net.

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Orioles make it look easy in snapping 8-game slide

Posted on 20 April 2011 by Luke Jones

Following a 10-day stretch in which they couldn’t do anything right, the Orioles made it look simple in an 11-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday.

Scoring just 20 runs over the eight-game losing streak, Baltimore plated 11 runs in two-out situations, thanks in large part to four runs batted in from catcher Matt Wieters and three from leadoff hitter Brian Roberts. The pair drove in three in the bottom of the second to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead, their first advantage at any point since the end of the eighth inning in New York last Thursday.

Cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero put a cherry on top of the offensive explosion with a three-run homer to right field in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Orioles a season-high 11 runs and their third extra-base hit with two outs and runners in scoring position for the game. They had only one total in the first 15 games of the season.

Jake Arrieta mowed down the feeble Twins lineup in six shutout innings, allowing four hits and striking out four. As he often has in his brief big league career, the 25-year-old struggled with his command, pitching into deep counts and walking three, but made quality pitches in thanks to Wieters’ calls behind the plate. Arrieta allowed the leadoff man to reach only once, providing some cushion when pitching into trouble in the fourth and fifth innings.

It was quite the contrast to the 7.71 earned run average posted by Orioles starters and the 53 earned runs allowed by the entire staff over the last eight games.

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For a group shell-shocked by the violent U-turn following its hot start, the effort couldn’t have come at a better time.

“You go through things like this with real good clubs and with bad clubs,” said manager Buck Showalter after the Orioles snapped the longest losing streak of his brief 73-game tenure in Baltimore. “This one had a different feel to it for me, and I still feel that way. Who knows what tomorrow brings? It doesn’t mean anything. We all want to know about something before it happens. We don’t know what tomorrow brings.”

His words couldn’t ring any truer about a team that started the season 6-1 and followed with an eight-game losing streak before disposing of the Twins in easy fashion in the second of a four-game set. How the Orioles will respond Wednesday night with Zach Britton taking the bump after his first career loss last Friday in Cleveland is anyone’s guess.

Showalter has always voiced his pride in focusing on the little things, the intricacies that can make the difference between winning and losing on any given night of a 162-game season. Tuesday was no exception early in the game despite the lopsided final score.

With two outs and no one on in the second, Adam Jones beat out an infield single to keep the inning alive and set the table for what turned into three runs before the final out was recorded.

In the fourth, Wieters was hit by a pitch after Carl Pavano retired the first two hitters of the inning. Then, Robert Andino — who has seven hits and two walks in his last 10 at-bats in place of the injured J.J. Hardy at shortstop — singled up the middle to enable Roberts to come to the plate to double in another run.

Two innings where the starting pitcher was on the verge of getting to the dugout unscathed suddenly yielded four runs for the opposition. Things spiraled out of control from there for Minnesota.

A common theme over the previous eight games, only with the Orioles on the wrong end every night.

“There is a lot more talent in the clubhouse than we’ve had in the past,” said Wieters, who scored a career-high three runs and posted his second career four-RBI game. “And with the track records all these guys have, you know they are going to do some damage at some point.”

It’s amazing how easy it looks when you’re getting productive at-bats throughout the lineup and making quality pitches on the hill.

Whether it was the law of averages simply swinging in the opposite direction for one night or the start of another hot spell — would you be surprised with either at this point? — the Orioles needed this one, regardless of how different this year might feel in their minds.

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New Orioles coming up empty as losses continue to mount

Posted on 18 April 2011 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Over the current losing streak, which grew to eight games with a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Monday, the Orioles haven’t hit or pitched well. Whether talking about young players or veterans, mainstays or newcomers, the Orioles simply haven’t performed, transforming a harmonious 6-1 start into a 6-9 crisis in a matter of only nine days.

No one is absolved from the last eight games, but it’s hard to overlook the newest Orioles and their struggles to begin the season.

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President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail set out to improve a club that finished 34-23 under manager Buck Showalter by adding offensive pieces to provide protection for developing positional players and alleviate the pressure on a young starting rotation. He also looked to add a veteran to the back-end of the bullpen after the disastrous early-season results from Michael Gonzalez a season ago.

The architect was applauded for signing two former All-Stars, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, to fill the third and fourth spots in the lineup. MacPhail traded for third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy in separate deals to complete the infield transformation.

Kevin Gregg — along with his 37 saves — was lured to Baltimore with a two-year, $10 million contract and a not-so-secret agreement to be the closer despite Koji Uehara’s success in the role last season.

After 15 games — yes, only 15 games — it’s not looking too hot.

Lee and Guerrero have looked the part of two aging sluggers with their best years long behind them. Lee’s average dipped to .204 after an 0-for-2 night in which he drew two walks. The first baseman’s plate discipline and defense are as good as ever, but his bat has looked slow, with only two extra base hits and struggling to get around on good fastballs.

The free-swinging Guerrero’s average fell to .242 after going 0 for 4 against the Twins. The slugger has yet to draw a walk in 62 at-bats this season and is slugging an anemic .306 with only two hits going for extra bases. Entering the night, his 2.97 pitches seen per plate appearance was the lowest among American League hitters with 50 or more at-bats.

Meanwhile, Guerrero’s occupation of the designated hitter’s spot has pushed Luke Scott to left field on an everyday basis, weakening the defense and putting more pressure on the inexperienced pitching staff.

It’s not exactly the return the Orioles had in mind after spending $15.25 million for the third and fourth spots in the order.

Reynolds has fared better than the latter two with a .692 OPS, but his .224 average isn’t going to make anyone forget his struggles from a season ago in Arizona. His defense has also been erratic, looking like a Gold Glover on one play but then struggling to make the simple throw on the next.

Of course, Hardy is currently rehabbing a strained oblique in Sarasota, leaving the Orioles with a giant hole in the No. 9 spot in the order currently occupied by the combination of Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino.

With an offense sputtering near the bottom of the American League in numerous statistical categories, the offseason discussion of the Orioles having one of the best lineups in the league seem downright preposterous.

“I’m still excited about [the lineup],” said center fielder Adam Jones, who hit his third home run of the season in the seventh inning. “You’ve never heard about anybody going in a slump? It’s [15 games] into the season or however many games. Not everybody is going to rake the entire season, so it’s a spell. Let’s get it all out of the way now and come back tomorrow ready to swing the bats.”

The Orioles hope the struggles of Gregg are also just a spell as he melted down again in the ninth inning on Monday, allowing two runs — one coming on a wild pitch — and walking two batters to transform a narrow 3-2 deficit into an insurmountable three-run hole. The right-hander left to a showering of boos reminiscent of Gonzalez’s early-season struggles last season.

The Orioles paid handsomely for Gregg’s 37 saves a year ago, ignoring his career 4.02 earned run average and 1.33 WHIP that suggest he’s a solid enough reliever, but not the guy you’re going to feel comfortable with in the ninth inning, night in and night out.

While shopping for inexpensive, short-term solutions in the lineup, MacPhail has  invested $22 million over the last two offseasons on middle-of-the-road closers in Gonzalez and Gregg. Regardless of how the duo fares the rest of the season, giving multi-year contracts to pedestrian relief pitchers just doesn’t pay off.

Of course, I realize it’s still early. The Orioles weren’t as good as their 6-1 start and aren’t as bad as the current 0-8 spell sparking nightmares of last season among the frustrated fan base.

Lee and Guerrero deserve — and will undoubtedly get — plenty of time to snap out of their early-season slumps. Their track records speak for themselves.

Perhaps Gregg will figure out his issues and rebound to become the closer the Orioles envisioned in the offseason.

But these were the guys brought to Baltimore to prevent these types of losing streaks and late-inning meltdowns from taking place as they did a season ago.

And so far, none of it has worked.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Buck Showalter, Chris Tillman, and Adam Jones following the 5-3 loss to the Twins on Monday night.

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Orioles hit and walk way to 9-5 victory over Tigers

Posted on 08 April 2011 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — This one had a little bit of everything for the Orioles.

Two different lineup changes before the game even started.

An unconventional 8-9 putout in the fourth inning that really wasn’t an out at all.

Five extra-base hits and seven walks for the offense, two areas in which the Orioles had languished in the season’s first five games.

Three separate comebacks.

But most importantly, a second series win in the opening week of the season after a 9-5 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Thursday. Lest we forget, the Orioles didn’t earn their first series win until May 2 last year and their second until May 13.

Who knows how long this fast start will continue — remember the Texas Rangers are coming to town for a three-game set before the Orioles head to the Bronx to take on the Yankees — but it’s sure been a lot of fun, hasn’t it? A five-game lead over the Red Sox and the Rays might not mean much in April, but it’s a lot better than trailing by five games right out of the gate.

After doing just enough to get by but failing to overwhelm opponents during their 4-0 start, the lineup busted out Thursday with Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds knocking in three runs apiece and Vladimir Guerrero hitting his first home run of the season. It was a good thing too, as Chris Tillman struggled in 4 2/3 innings in a second straight lackluster start for the Baltimore rotation.

With the Orioles currently missing three projected members of the starting rotation, they’ll need potent bats to stick with two of the most prolific offenses in the game over their next six games. But they hadn’t been very potent in terms of power, or simply getting on base, in the first five games of the season. The Orioles had just 11 extra-base hits entering the night before collecting five against Tigers pitching, including home runs by Guerrero and Jones and a two-run double by Reynolds.

They hadn’t been patient either, collecting just eight free passes in five games before drawing seven walks against Detroit pitching.

It was an impressive display of power and patience as every starter except Brian Roberts — who collected two hits anyway — either homered or walked to send the Orioles to their biggest run output of the young season.

The Orioles’ offensive explosion occurred despite the late scratch of shortstop J.J. Hardy, who is dealing with a lower left rib cage injury. Cesar Izturis took his place in a move that wasn’t announced until the Orioles had taken the field to warm up for the top of the first inning. Left fielder Luke Scott was a late addition to the lineup after he proved to be fit to play after a successful batting practice session.

Even the light-hitting Izturis felt the hitting bug, collecting a run-scoring single as part of the Orioles’ pivotal five-run seventh inning that transformed the Tigers’ 5-4 lead into a 9-5 victory to move the Orioles to 5-1 and all alone atop the AL East.

Hardy spoke to reporters following the game, saying he felt minimal pain when swinging hard during batting practice. It was ultimately manager Buck Showalter’s decision to keep him out of the lineup on a chilly night at Camden Yards. Hardy does not believe the injury is serious but wanted to see how it responds on Friday before committing to an immediate return to the lineup.

The injuries keep piling up, but the Orioles have overcome — and thrived — against early adversity in the opening week of the season.

Instead of making excuses, or lamenting over who’s not able to play on any given night, the Orioles continue to get the job done since Showalter took over in early August of last season.

It’s sure been a fun ride so far.

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Live from Camden Yards: Orange Crush chat at 7 as Orioles go for series win over Detroit

Posted on 07 April 2011 by Luke Jones

***Join us in the Orange Crush live chat beginning at 7:00 as the Orioles host the Tigers in the finale of a three-game set at Camden Yards***

BALTIMORE — Coming off their first loss of the season in a 7-3 defeat at the hands of Detroit ace Justin Verlander, the 4-1 Orioles go for the series victory with Chris Tillman hoping to build upon his impressive debut in Tampa Bay last Saturday.

The 22-year-old held the punchless Rays without a hit for six innings before being lifted after throwing 101 pitches in the eventual 3-1 victory for the Orioles. Tillman will be opposed by veteran Brad Penny, who signed with the Tigers after an injury-shortened season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010.

Tillman still struggles with his command of the four-seam fastball, leaving it up in the strike zone far too often — including his start against the Rays, according to the pitcher — and has not shown the velocity scouts raved about during his climb up the farm system chain. He continues to work with a two-seamer to generate more movement, but did not throw it very much in his six-inning stint on Saturday.

As for Penny, he is beginning his second stint in the American League after spending a season with Boston in 2009 in which he went 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA. At 33 years old, Penny fits the description of a National League pitcher who could be overmatched against AL hitters. His first start of the season seemed to confirm that opinion as Penny surrendered eight runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Yankees in the Bronx on Saturday.

Despite the 4-1 start, the Baltimore lineup continues to struggle in the opening week of the season, entering the day 13th in the American League in on-base percentage (.253) and has just 11 extra-base hits in five games. With the powerful Texas Rangers and New York Yankees looming next on the schedule and the Orioles relying on an undermanned starting rotation, the bats need to heat up soon if the positive early-season vibes are to continue.

Tonight seems as good a night as any to break out with the veteran Penny on the mound for the Tigers.

In other news, Jeremy Guthrie is back at the ballpark and will throw a bullpen session tomorrow to determine whether he makes the start on Sunday against the Rangers. Guthrie was hospitalized with pneumonia earlier this week.

Despite not being in the original lineup posted by Buck Showalter, left fielder Luke Scott returns to the lineup tonight after missing the last three games with a groin injury. He will hit fifth behind Vladimir Guerrero.

Here are tonight’s starting lineups:

Detroit
CF Austin Jackson
2B Will Rhymes
RF Brennan Boesch
1B Miguel Cabrera
DH Victor Martinez
3B Don Kelly
LF Ryan Raburn
C Alex Avila
SS Ramon Santiago

SP Brad Penny (0-1, 16.62 ERA)

Baltimore
2B Brian Roberts
RF Nick Markakis
1B Derrek Lee
RF Vladimir Guerrero
LF Luke Scott
CF Adam Jones
3B Mark Reynolds
C Matt Wieters
SS J.J. Hardy

SP Chris Tillman (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

As we do for every weeknight home game, the Orange Crush live chat will be open for business as the Orioles try to take their second straight series of the season. Talk about the game with us as an array of WNST.net personalities visit the cyber sports bar throughout the night! Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@WNST) for the latest updates and analysis from Oriole Park at Camden Yards!

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Orioles brought back to reality in 7-3 loss to Verlander, Tigers

Posted on 06 April 2011 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After starting the season 4-0, even the most pessimistic of fans had to be feeling good and rightfully so.

But Detroit ace Justin Verlander provided a strong dose of reality in a stellar eight-inning, nine-strikeout performance to lead the Tigers to a 7-3 win over the Orioles, sending Baltimore (4-1) to its first loss of the season.

Of course, a little perspective is in order. The Orioles weren’t going undefeated this season, just like there’s no reason to harp on the first defeat of 2011. These nights will happen with any team in any season, especially when you’re facing one of the few bona fide aces in the American League.

“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” manager Buck Showalter said. “You know, four-pitch mix and not a whole lot of tendencies in the sequencing [of pitches] and understands what he’s doing out there. Very athletic.”

Orioles starter Brad Bergesen, on the other hand, was ineffective in his first work since a spring training outing on March 25 when he was hit in the arm with a line drive. The right-hander went 3 1/3 innings, allowing four runs (two earned) and five hits before being lifted in the fourth inning after throwing 89 pitches.

The second inning was especially costly for Bergesen and the Orioles when two errors — one made by the pitcher on a pick-off attempt at second that came after a Brian Roberts error on a pop-up to shallow right — contributed to two unearned runs after Bergesen had recorded the first two outs of the inning.

Six of the Tigers’ first seven runs came across the plate with two outs in the inning. Detroit catcher Alex Avila drove in five runs, including a two-run homer in the fourth inning that contributed to Bergesen’s early exit.

The Orioles starter was up in the strike zone and was unable to put hitters away without using too many pitches. His two earned runs allowed matched the two runs allowed by Baltimore starters in the first four games (26 total innings) of the season.

“I just never seemed to get in any type of groove tonight,” Bergesen said. “There was only a couple under four-pitch outs I had. It seemed like I went full count on almost everyone or deep counts today.”

In contrast, Verlander had a six-pitching inning in the second, a nine-pitch fifth, an 11-pitch seventh, and a nine-pitch eighth on the way to his first win of the season. The 28-year-old is 6-0 in eight career starts against the Orioles.

The Orioles got on the board via a two-run homer by first baseman Derrek Lee, his first with the club, and Vladimir Guerrero plated the Orioles’ third run of the night with an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth. That would be all the lineup could muster against Verlander, who gave way to Joaquin Benoit in the ninth inning.

“[Verlander’s] one of the best pitchers in the league, and we ran into him tonight,” third baseman Mark Reynolds said. “He pitched well, threw all his pitches for strikes. You’re just going to have those nights. I don’t think there’s been any team that’s gone 162-0. We’ll just come back tomorrow and get ready to go and hopefully get out of here with a series win.”

You can look back at any win or loss and wonder what could have been, but Wednesday night’s outcome was pretty simple.

Verlander and the Tigers were far better than Bergesen and the Orioles. Detroit’s ace was going up against Baltimore’s fifth starter, who only learned he was starting in place of the ill Jeremy Guthrie two days ago.

Not an excuse, but a fact.

The incredible run of starting pitching wasn’t going to last forever. It’s one loss that doesn’t mean any more or any less than the first four wins to begin the season.

The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.

And the Orioles hit their first bump in the road against one of the best pitchers in the American League.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Buck Showalter, Brad Bergesen, and Derrek Lee following the 7-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers.

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