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Ravens take care of business using same flawed formula

Posted on 28 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens did what they needed to do to snap their five-game losing streak against Cincinnati.

No matter how depleted the current Bengals might be, you don’t take a victory for granted when you haven’t beaten the division rival in over three years and you need to win. The 19-14 final drew Baltimore even with Pittsburgh for first place with the calendar turning to December this week.

The Ravens couldn’t ask to be in better position, especially when you recall where they were a month ago.

But several offensive starters lamented the inability to build off a fast start that included a Joe Flacco 14-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman and a field goal on their first two drives of the game. Leading 16-3 at halftime, the Ravens went 0-for-6 on third down and managed only one field goal the rest of the way, which gave the Bengals a chance to tie the game before Elvis Dumervil’s strip-sack and Lawrence Guy’s recovery with just over a minute remaining.

Yet again, a good defensive performance and a perfect Justin Tucker played the leading roles in the win while the offense spun its wheels after some early success.

“I’m confident in my ability to play games like this and win down the stretch and do the right thing with the football,” said Flacco, who was a relatively efficient 25 of 36 for 234 yards and an interception to go with the opening-drive score. “But in order for us to take that next step and be the kind of team that we want to be and be a championship football team, we’re not going to survive week in and week out doing things like this. We’ve got to keep the foot on the gas and learn how to put teams away.”

The ninth-year quarterback offered the same sentiment after the Week 3 win in Jacksonville two months ago. Fortunately, the offense has recovered from its miserable — and injury-plagued — October, but Flacco’s words reflect the lack of overall improvement from the opening month of the season until now.

The Ravens have scored just 19 touchdowns this season, ranking 31st of 32 teams in the NFL. The offense certainly deserves credit for the work required to put Justin Tucker in position to go a league-best 27-for-27 on field goal tries, but 18 were from 40 yards or longer, meaning the Ravens haven’t exactly been all that close to the end zone on most of those drives.

Baltimore has managed more than one offensive touchdown in just five of 11 games and has scored fewer than 20 points six times. The Ravens have scored 25 or more in just three games with two coming against winless Cleveland.

It’s scary to think where they might be without Tucker, who is rapidly cementing himself as the league’s best kicker and is an impressive 7-for-7 from 50 yards and beyond after converting three from that range in the first half on Sunday. He’s been to the Ravens what All-Star closer Zach Britton was to the Orioles this past season, the difference in making them a playoff contender despite other flaws.

For now, the offense can only continue working to improve, pointing to the recent stabilization of the offensive line and the steady emergence of rookie running back Kenneth Dixon as reasons for optimism.

“I know that we’re getting better on offense,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think we’re doing a good job, but we’re striving for more than that. Our guys are going to tell you, we want to put a lot more points up than that. That’s what we’re working towards.”

The most encouraging development from Sunday’s game may have come on the opposite side of the ball with the return of Dumervil, who was rusty in his first action in seven weeks until the final defensive play when he blew past Bengals right tackle Eric Winston to strip quarterback Andy Dalton of the football inside the red zone. The turnover sealed the victory for the Ravens defense, who buckled but didn’t break against a Cincinnati offense lacking its best player in wide receiver A.J. Green.

The Ravens need top cornerback Jimmy Smith to return from a back injury that’s sidelined him for the last two games, but a healthy Dumervil could work wonders for an edge pass rush that’s relied heavily on fellow veteran Terrell Suggs, who collected two strip-sacks of his own on Sunday. It was just the third game of the season for Dumervil, who’s dealt with a frustrating rehab from offseason foot surgery.

“You get a guy and add that to the defense that we already have, it just opens up the possibilities of being even better than what we are right now,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It was huge. He practiced outstanding the last two weeks. We knew it was going to give us a boost, and adding him across from [Suggs] and our other rushers and [to] our game plans, we’re going to be a tough team to stop.”

The Ravens keep hoping for their offense to improve, but maybe the current formula can be enough. After all, it’s earned them a 6-5 mark to this point, which is good enough for a first-place tie with a Steelers team sporting a very good offense but a below-average defense.

Baltimore plays two of the next three at home against Miami and Philadelphia, who are formidable teams but hardly juggernauts. The surprising Dolphins have won six straight, but the last five have been by a single possession and they rely heavily on their running game, a favorable matchup for the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Whether the Ravens will find enough wins over the final five games to make the playoffs remains to be seen, but Sunday was another reminder that it will probably look the way it has all season — a good defense, a frustrating and below-average offense, and the best kicker in football.

“If it ain’t tough, it ain’t the Raven way,” Suggs said. “I really wish we could have got off the field instead of scaring everybody and having Elvis make a fantastic play. But that’s the Raven way. It ain’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”

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Orioles thoughts on Wieters decision, Britton snub, Showalter as finalist

Posted on 08 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles gambled by extending a qualifying offer to catcher Matt Wieters last offseason and ultimately chose not to do it again.

Yes, they were able to keep the 30-year-old for another season when he accepted, but the $15.8 million price tag wasn’t cheap and likely altered the rest of their offseason plans. Wieters earned his fourth trip to the All-Star Game in 2016, but his .243 average and .711 on-base plus slugging percentage were his lowest marks since 2013. In fact, his league-adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 87 was the worst of his career and he was worth a decent but unspectacular 1.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

Those are numbers unlikely to improve — or to be maintained — as he gets older.

It’s easy to point to Caleb Joseph’s abysmal 2016 campaign as validation for keeping Wieters last year, but there’s no telling how the backup might have fared had the latter moved on. Joseph had been acceptable at the plate with regular playing time in the previous two seasons, and the Orioles would have added another veteran catcher to the mix anyway.

We also don’t know what executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette might have done with an extra $15.8 million at his disposal last winter. As just one example, would the Orioles have been able to sweeten their multi-year offer to outfielder Dexter Fowler — the kind of player they needed at the top of the order in 2016 — to make him change his mind about returning to Chicago?

A year later, arguments for extending Wieters a $17.2 million qualifying offer with thoughts of fetching a compensatory draft pick were certainly valid. Another year removed from Tommy John surgery, the veteran backstop quelled concerns about his right elbow by playing in 124 games and throwing out 35 percent of runners attempting to steal, making him more appealing to potential suitors than he would have been last year. There’s also the reality of Wieters being the top catcher on the open market after Wilson Ramos suffered a torn ACL in September.

Observers have pointed to recent deals awarded to Russell Martin (five years, $82 million) and Brian McCann (five years, $85 million) as benchmarks for Wieters even though Martin is a superior defensive catcher with similar offensive production and McCann was substantially better as a hitter at the time of his signing.

But a qualifying offer would have also depressed Wieters’ value to other teams, who would have then been required to forfeit their first-round pick to sign him. Would that reality coupled with an underwhelming season at the plate have prompted Wieters and super agent Scott Boras to take another great one-year payout from the Orioles with thoughts of being in decent free-agent position again next year?

It’s hard to say, but you can understand the Orioles’ trepidation.

Replacing Wieters will hardly be a slam dunk, but the Orioles proved in 2014 that his presence isn’t the be-all and end-all of their success as they won 96 games despite him missing most of the season and Joseph and journeyman Nick Hundley handling the catching duties. Manager Buck Showalter and teammates have long praised Wieters’ leadership and ability to handle a pitching staff, but there’s also his below-average pitch-framing numbers, his struggles blocking pitches, and sometimes-questionable pitch-calling to consider.

Wieters does offer intangibles that are difficult to quantify, but the perception of him has always been better than the actual player who never met the unreasonable expectations laid out before he even debuted in the majors.

It will be interesting to see how an over-30 catcher already with 7,000 major league innings behind the plate will be valued in the open market without a qualifying offer attached to him.

A draft pick would have been great had Wieters rejected the qualifying offer, but the possibility of having to pay him $17.2 million was too risky with other needs to address and significant raises owed to younger players in arbitration.

He may have been the right player, but it wasn’t the right price.

Britton “snubbed”

I was surprised when All-Star closer Zach Britton wasn’t named a finalist for the 2016 American League Cy Young Award.

Considering the amount of discussion surrounding his candidacy over the last few months, I assumed he would sneak into the top three in the voting conducted at the end of the regular season. However, the Baseball Writers Association of America correctly concluded that very good starting pitchers are still far more valuable than an exceptional closer over the course of a 162-game season.

There’s no disputing that Britton had a historic season with a 0.54 ERA in 67 innings while going 47-for-47 in save opportunities, but the lefty also tossed less than one-third of the innings recorded by Rick Porcello, Corey Kluber, or Justin Verlander and only 16 of Britton’s 47 saves came in one-run victories, meaning he was working with some margin for error in roughly two-thirds of those save chances.

That’s not intended to diminish what Britton did, but the context is necessary. A better argument probably could have been made with a bigger workload, but the 28-year-old pitched more than one inning just seven times.

None of the aforementioned AL Cy Young finalists posted an ERA below 3.00, but there’s a reason why virtually all relief pitchers are former starters. It’s far more difficult to succeed going through a lineup multiple times in an outing, and that should still be recognized despite no AL starter standing out with a truly great season in 2016.

Britton absolutely earned the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award and warranted far more consideration for the Cy Young than any relief pitcher in recent years. It would have been great to see him as a finalist, but I can’t go as far as saying it’s a travesty, either.

Showalter as a finalist

It’s unfortunate that Showalter being named a finalist for the AL Manager of the Year now looks like a punchline after his decision not to use Britton in the wild-card game cost the Orioles a better chance of advancing.

A club almost universally picked to finish in fourth or fifth place in the AL East this season qualified for the playoffs for the third time in the last five years, a reflection of the exceptional work Showalter has done since arriving in Baltimore in 2010. You can still consider Showalter to be an excellent manager while also believing he made a terrible move that he’ll likely hear about for the rest of his career.

Great doesn’t mean perfect as the Orioles and their fans painfully learned that night.

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Orioles make qualifying offer to Trumbo, pass on Wieters

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Facing Monday’s deadline to submit qualifying offers to their pending free agents, the Orioles settled on a split-decision with their two biggest names.

As expected, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette did make the one-year, $17.2 million offer to outfielder Mark Trumbo while passing on the opportunity to do so with four-time All-Star catcher Matt Wieters. Should Trumbo reject the offer, the Orioles would be entitled to a compensatory draft pick if he signs with another club this offseason.

While making the qualifying offer to the 30-year-old Trumbo was a no-brainer after he led the major leagues with 47 home runs this season, the decision with Wieters was more complicated. After accepting the club’s $15.8 million qualifying offer a year ago when he was still returning to full strength from Tommy John surgery, the 30-year-old Wieters appeared in 124 games but posted a .243 batting average and .711 on-base plus slugging percentage, his lowest marks since 2013.

With Wieters now considered the top free-agent catcher on the market after Wilson Ramos suffered a serious knee injury in September, this offseason likely represents his last best chance to secure a long-term deal. That reality led many to believe he would have rejected the one-year offer, which would have then led to draft compensation for the Orioles. However, a $17.2 million salary for 2017 would be hefty for a player worth only 1.7 wins above replacement this past season, according to Baseball Reference.

A two-time Gold Glove winner earlier in his career, Wieters threw out 35 percent of runners attempting to steal in 2016, but his pitch framing is rated well below average and he struggled to block pitches in the second half of the season. With early estimates already putting their 2017 payroll above $150 million with club-controlled players owed raises in arbitration, the Orioles ultimately didn’t want to risk having to make such a large one-year commitment to a catcher past his prime.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of Baltimore working out a long-term deal with Wieters should his market be cooler than anticipated, but super agent Scott Boras will be hellbent on finding the kind of deal he didn’t believe was out there a year ago when he accepted the Orioles’ qualifying offer.

It will be interesting to see how the market develops for Trumbo, who is coming off a career season that earned him the second All-Star invitation of his career. The offensive numbers speak for themselves, but his defensive struggles in right field negatively impacted his overall value as he finished with a 1.6 WAR, making him a better candidate to serve as a first baseman or designated hitter moving forward.

Though Trumbo is likely to reject the qualifying offer, he found a home in Baltimore and was very comfortable in the Orioles clubhouse after being traded three times in a two-year period.

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Britton named 2016 Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year

Posted on 29 October 2016 by Luke Jones

Despite never getting to pitch in the Orioles’ all-too-brief postseason run, Zach Britton made it to the field prior to Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night.

The two-time All-Star closer was named the 2016 recipient of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award after a historic season in which he converted all 47 of his save opportunities. The 28-year-old completed the third-longest stretch of consecutive saves to begin a season in major league history and posted a microscopic 0.54 ERA, the lowest by a qualified reliever since 1913.

Britton led the AL and was tied for second in the majors with his 47 saves.

“You’re only as good as the guys behind you on the field,” Britton said in a press conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday. “Me relying on ground balls, obviously we have a great defense back there, so a lot of the credit goes to the teammates and putting me in situations to be successful, too. The coaching staff really went out of their way to put me in situations to be successful.”

Throwing his nasty sinker a whopping 91.7 percent of the time, Britton posted a career-high 80 percent ground-ball rate while also striking out 9.9 batters per nine innings. The lefty allowed just one home run and 18 walks over his 67 innings of work to help Baltimore qualify for the postseason for the third in the last five years.

Britton’s 120 career saves rank third on the Orioles’ all-time list behind only Gregg Olson (160) and Jim Johnson (122). In August, he moved past Tippy Martinez for the club record for saves by a left-handed pitcher. Since 2014, Britton leads the AL in saves and ranks second among qualified major league relievers with a 1.38 ERA.

Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen was named the 2016 Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award winner.

Both winners were selected by a panel of eight of the game’s all-time great relievers: Rivera, Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, John Franco, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Billy Wagner. The reliever awards were introduced in 2014.

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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?

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.

Inconceivable.

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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Gausman shines like an ace in high-stakes win for Orioles

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Luke Jones

A talented young pitcher rarely becomes an ace overnight.

It’s often an organic process including some bumps along the road and requiring patience.

The Orioles and their fans have waited a couple years for Kevin Gausman to take that step from solid starting pitcher to something special. For the better part of the last six weeks, he had pitched a lot like a No. 1 starter, but the eighth inning of Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over Boston sure felt like the “aha” moment of his young career.

Having already thrown 104 pitches over seven superb innings, the right-hander returned to the Fenway Park mound and was a batter away from facing the top of the order for a fourth time. Manager Buck Showalter’s decision to send the 25-year-old back out there against the best lineup in baseball in a one-run game appeared to be debatable — at least on paper.

It really wasn’t as Gausman pitched a 1-2-3 eighth.

His 120th and final pitch of the night was his second fastest at 98.5 miles per hour as Xander Bogaerts fouled out to retire the side. It came after he’d touched 98.8 just three pitches earlier.

Talk about saving your best for last in a game where the stakes couldn’t have been much higher in mid-September. It was the stuff of top-of-the-rotation starters, frankly.

We’ve been so conditioned that even when the Orioles receive a good outing from their maligned rotation, you’re waiting for that moment to hand it over to a bullpen that’s been the backbone of their success out of necessity over the last five years. But after watching Gausman shut down an imposing Red Sox lineup all night, there was no one else you wanted pitching in that tight game other than All-Star closer Zach Britton and even that might have been an interesting debate had the starter’s pitch count been lower after eight innings.

He was that good.

His fastball command was impeccable as he threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 29 hitters he faced, something that’s been a challenge for him this year. He effectively threw his split-changeup and once again mixed in an improved breaking ball, the pitch that’s held him back for most of his career. Boston squared up a couple balls early in the game, but the 2012 first-round pick got stronger and induced mostly weak contact as the game continued.

Since a disastrous July 29 outing in Toronto in which he allowed three home runs to the first five hitters of the game and gave up six runs over three innings, Gausman has pitched to a 2.06 ERA over nine starts covering 56 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 62 batters and allowed just four home runs over that stretch.

He lowered his season ERA to 3.43 in winning his fifth straight decision.

The surge has come at a time when the Orioles needed it most with veteran starter Chris Tillman missing most of the last month with a shoulder injury.

Wednesday wasn’t a playoff game, but it sure felt like October baseball with Gausman pitching on the road like an ace against a right-handed-heavy lineup that hit him hard twice earlier this year. It was the best and most important start of his career and the exclamation point on a strong 6-3 road trip that moved the Orioles to just one game out of first place in the American League East as they return to Camden Yards to begin an 11-game homestand on Thursday.

We’ll see how the final 17 games of the regular season play out in a tremendous division race.

But Wednesday was one hell of a statement from the Orioles.

And perhaps the clearest signal yet of an ace having finally arrived.

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Long, painful week for Orioles ends with no relief

Posted on 22 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles had a chance to stop the bleeding on Sunday after a difficult 1-4 start to an eight-game homestand.

Waiting out a rain delay of more than four hours on the heels of two of their worst losses of the season, the Orioles watched first-place Toronto squander another late lead in a loss at Cleveland. Second-place Boston fell hard in Detroit. Even Seattle — who entered the day one game behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot — blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning to lose to lowly Milwaukee.

A victory in the finale of the four-game set with Houston would have shrunk the Orioles’ American League East deficit to just 1 1/2 games and increased their lead over the Mariners. It wasn’t a must-win game, but it represented a valuable opportunity to salvage a four-game split, exhale, and regroup after allowing an unseemly 27 runs to the Astros the previous two nights.

Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed after poor performances by Wade Miley, Chris Tillman, and a host of long relievers had decimated the bullpen to the point that infielder Ryan Flaherty pitched the ninth inning of Saturday’s loss. Enduring two different rain delays, Gallardo allowed one run over the first four innings on Sunday.

Then, the fifth came.

Two-time Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado bobbled a chopper off the bat of Teoscar Hernandez for an error to begin the inning. Four batters later, a Carlos Correa line drive to right-center went off the glove of right fielder Chris Davis for a two-run double that would give the Astros a 4-1 lead. Manager Buck Showalter said after the game that his normal first baseman had lost the ball in the lights, but the two defensive miscues led to three runs for Houston.

The bottom of the fifth wasn’t much better as Adam Jones singled home Nolan Reimold to make it a 4-2 deficit, but the center fielder overslid second base as he advanced on the throw home and was then tagged out, ending the inning and adding a baserunning mistake to the poor defense in the top half of frame.

Taking nothing away from a strong eight-inning performance by 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, the Orioles cost themselves dearly in that fateful inning. Of course, it didn’t help that the bats largely fell silent again after the Baltimore pitching hadn’t given them much of a chance on Friday or Saturday.

Gallardo deserved better over his seven solid innings of work, but the Orioles have done whatever it takes to lose on this current homestand. In a two-game sweep against Boston, little went right across the board. After a 13-5 blowout victory over the Astros in the series opener, the Orioles made major league history Friday night by homering four times before recording a single out and amazingly lost by seven as Miley and the bullpen surrendered a combined 15 runs.

Despite falling to just 11 games over .500 for the first time since June 22, the math tells you the Orioles are still in fine shape and only a modest winning streak away from potentially being back in first place. But it doesn’t feel that way with a maddeningly inconsistent offense, a shorthanded bullpen, and a starting rotation reverting to its first-half form after showing some improvement since the All-Star break.

Since a four-game winning streak in which they swept Cleveland and won the opener of a series with Colorado to improve to an AL-best 58-40 on July 25, the Orioles have gone 9-16 and have been passed by both the Blue Jays and the Red Sox in the division.

It isn’t panic time yet, but losing the final three games against Houston — a team that came to Baltimore having lost four in a row and 13 of its previous 19 — felt alarmingly reminiscent of last year’s four-game home sweep to Minnesota that led to a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games ending any real chance of making the postseason. Of course, the Orioles are in better position now than last year at that point, but their 2016 season appears to be at a crossroads.

The offense has slumped for the better part of six weeks now, once again too dependent on the home run. Dating back to the last West Coast trip, the last six hits apiece from Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo have all been homers, illustrating the largely all-or-nothing performance from the lineup.

The health of No. 1 starter Chris Tillman remains in question despite him saying his shoulder felt fine after his worst start of the season on Saturday. Acquired at the deadline to fortify the rotation, Miley is sporting a 9.53 ERA in his four starts with the Orioles.

The bullpen is once again without Darren O’Day, who doesn’t appear particularly close to returning from a strained rotator cuff. Closer Zach Britton has been nothing short of brilliant all year, but getting to him is becoming increasingly difficult with fellow All-Star reliever Brad Brach struggling since the break.

The Orioles had been nearly invincible at Camden Yards this season in winning 70 percent of their games there, but they no longer have the best home mark in the majors after dropping six of their last seven in Baltimore.

No, things aren’t always as bad as they seem when a team is struggling like the Orioles are right now. The good news is that they didn’t lose any ground Sunday with their competitors all falling.

But instead of stopping the bleeding and starting to reverse their recent fortunes, the wound grew deeper in another frustrating loss.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 3-2 win over Texas

Posted on 04 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 106th game of the 2016 season.

1st Matt Wieters not only provided the deciding two-run single off Rangers ace Cole Hamels in the bottom of the first, but the catcher also made the biggest defensive play of the evening in the ninth. On a pitch that got away from closer Zach Britton, Rougned Odor took off from first base in an effort to get the potential tying run in scoring position, but Wieters pounced on the ball and fired a strike to Jonathan Schoop, who didn’t even have to move his glove to tag the sliding Odor for the second out of the inning. Entering the night with a .179 average against left-handed pitching, Wieters delivered a big hit as a right-handed batter for the second straight night — he homered from the right side late in Tuesday’s win — and was the offensive standout on a night when runs were at a premium.

2ndKevin Gausman turned in seven good innings to earn his third win of the year, but the final numbers don’t really tell the whole story of his outing. Coming off arguably his worst start of 2016 at Toronto, the right-hander had already allowed a first-inning homer and an RBI single in the second before walking Nomar Mazara to put two runners on with no outs in the second. The outing was teetering toward disaster before he retired the next three hitters to escape trouble. From that point, Gausman commanded his fastball well and needed only 58 pitches to complete the next five innings after he had thrown 50 over the first two frames. Four of his seven strikeouts came on fastballs while he effectively used his split-changeup for the other three. He received some good luck as some squared-up contact was gobbled up by his infield defense, but his strong recovery after a rough start was impressive.

3rdDarren O’Day once again took the ball after pitching a perfect 1 1/3 innings on 17 pitches on Tuesday, and he did not disappoint. Facing the top of the Rangers order in a 3-2 game, the right-hander needed just seven pitches to retire Jurickson Profar, Ian Desmond, and Carlos Beltran. Since returning from the disabled list late last month, O’Day has pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed one hit and one walk while striking out seven.

Home — Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis made a collection of fine defensive plays to support a good pitching effort from Gausman. … Britton struggled with his control in the ninth before converting his 33rd save in as many tries to begin the season, which is the major league record for consecutive save conversions to begin a season by a left-handed pitcher. His 106th career save moved him past Tippy Martinez and into sole possession of third on the club’s all-time saves list. … Manny Machado collected his 31st double of the year in the first inning to surpass his total of 30 in 162 games last season. … Steve Pearce went 0-for-2 with a walk and two strikeouts looking in his first game back with the Orioles. … Baltimore improved to 39-16 in games played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. … Left-hander Wade Miley will make his Orioles debut on Thursday night while the Rangers send right-hander A.J. Griffin to the hill.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 3-2 win over Colorado

Posted on 26 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 3-2 win over the Colorado Rockies on Monday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 98th game of the 2016 season.

1st Yovani Gallardo continued the run of good work from the starting rotation as he turned in his best performance of the season. Allowing only two runs and five hits while striking out a season-high six over 6 2/3 innings, Gallardo said after the game that he’s trying to be more aggressive in the strike zone and it appears to be working as he’s pitched into the seventh in each of his last two outings. He effectively used the cutter and had good command of all of his pitches, getting eight swinging strikes and walking only two over the course of the night. Gallardo lowered his home ERA to 3.33 in five starts and gave the Orioles a chance to win on a night when they struggled to score against Colorado’s Jorge De La Rosa.

2ndAdam Jones scored the winning run on an error by Rockies pitcher Jordan Lyles, but there wouldn’t have been extra innings had it not been for the center fielder driving in the other two Orioles runs. His single to right scored the first run of the game in the second inning while his grounder to short in the seventh plated the tying run. Some might ask why Jones broke home on a comebacker to the mound in the bottom of the 10th inning, but manager Buck Showalter said he did exactly what he was supposed to do. With runners at the corners and one out, the runner at third is instructed to run on any moderately-hit grounder to try to deter the defense from otherwise turning an inning-ending double play. Jones’ second-inning RBI moved him ahead of Rafael Palmeiro and into sole possession of seventh place on the Orioles’ all-time RBI list with 702.

3rdZach Britton made his fifth appearance in the last six days and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning against the heart of the Rockies lineup, striking out Carlos Gonzalez and Trevor Story in the process. The Orioles closer hasn’t surrendered an earned run over his last 34 appearances dating back to May 5. He lowered his season ERA to a remarkable 0.63 and continues an incredible season.

HomeMychal Givens took over for Gallardo with two outs in the seventh and retired four in a row. Two were left-handed batters, who entered Monday hitting .385 with a 1.080 on-base plus slugging percentage against him this season. … Chaz Roe stranded the potential go-ahead run in scoring position in a scoreless 10th inning and earned his first victory of the season. … The Orioles improved to a season-high 18 games above .500 and increased their lead in the American League East to 2 1/2 games. … Baltimore is now 4-2 in extra-inning games this season. … Jonathan Schoop hit his 28th double of the season and is now just two shy of Manny Machado for the club lead. … Making his return after a six-game absence due to a bruised right foot, Matt Wieters went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. … Playing his second rehab game at Double-A Bowie on Monday night, Hyun Soo Kim went 2-for-4 with a two-run home run and could be activated from the disabled list on Tuesday, the first day he’s eligible to return. … In search of their sixth straight win, the Orioles will send Chris Tillman to the hill on Tuesday night while Colorado hands the ball to right-hander Chad Bettis.

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Orioles activate O’Day prior to series finale with Cleveland

Posted on 24 July 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — More than seven weeks after injuring his right hamstring, setup man Darren O’Day has returned to the Orioles bullpen.

The 2015 All-Star selection was activated from the 15-day disabled list 30 minutes prior to the start of Sunday’s series finale with Cleveland. O’Day last pitched on June 1, but his return provides a signficant boost to a bullpen already ranking second in the American League and fourth in the majors with a 3.10 ERA.

Baltimore optioned left-handed reliever Donnie Hart to Double-A Bowie to make room on the 25-man roster.

In O’Day’s absence, Baltimore has leaned more heavily on Brad Brach, who has responded by posting a 1.19 ERA in 53 innings and earned a trip to his first All-Star Game earlier this month. It will be interesting to see how manager Buck Showalter sequences O’Day and Brach before getting to closer Zach Britton at the end of games. Entering Sunday, Britton had pitched on four consecutive days, but he had thrown a total of only 20 pitches.

Signed to a four-year, $31 million contract this offseason, O’Day, 33, posted a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings before going to the DL in early June. However, the right-hander had given up five home runs — matching his 2015 total — and walked 4.1 hitters per nine innings, a career-high rate.

O’Day has been the backbone of the Orioles bullpen since 2012, posting a 1.92 ERA and averaging just under 66 innings per year over his first four seasons in Baltimore.

Hart’s demotion means the Orioles are back to having only one lefty in the bullpen with Britton clearly not used for matchup purposes. The 25-year-old rookie had pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings over three appearances since being promoted to begin the second half.

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