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Numbers behind Orioles’ 6-5 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 08 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A 6-0 lead through two innings typically leads to a relaxing night of baseball, but it was anything but that for the Orioles Tuesday as they held on for dear life in an eventual 6-5 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite being staked to the early lead, starter Wei-Yin Chen struggled his way through 4 1/3 innings as his fastball velocity was down and he lacked his normal crispness with his off-speed pitches. Kevin Gausman worked 2 1/3 innings in relief to earn the victory, but the right-hander allowed a two-run shot off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier in the sixth to make it a one-run game.

Instead of a night in cruise control for the Orioles, the pitching staff consistently found deep counts and needed a whopping 176 pitches to secure the victory, including a combined 42 from Darren O’Day and Zach Britton. With O’Day (24 combined pitches) and Britton (42 total pitches) having pitched in each of the first two games and potentially unavailable for the series finale, the Orioles will need a strong outing from No. 3 starter Miguel Gonzalez.

Fortunately, Baltimore will receive a day off to rest up before the home opener at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday afternoon.

* One of the biggest questions facing Steve Pearce in his quest to prove his 2014 campaign wasn’t a fluke will be whether he can sustain the success against right-handed pitching that he found a year ago.

The soon-to-be 32-year-old owns an underwhelming career .700 on-base slugging percentage against right-handers, but that’s including his .856 mark in 272 plate appearances last year. Pearce has always hit southpaw pitching well (a career .878 OPS), which is the main reason why major league clubs continued to give him opportunities despite a reputation as a “Quad-A” player over his first eight major league seasons.

The all-too-early verdict in 2015 has been encouraging to say the least as Pearce has clubbed two homers against right-handed pitching in two games.

It’s remarkable to think how important Pearce has become to this club after he was designated for assignment less than 12 months ago.

* When he acquired outfielder Travis Snider from Pittsburgh in late January, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette cited his strong second half in 2014 as a sign that the former first-round pick had finally begun realizing his potential.

After the All-Star break last year, the former Pirate posted an .880 OPS with nine homers and 24 RBIs. Small sample size alert aside, Snider has reached base in seven of eight trips to the plate and already has three RBIs in two games.

The Orioles hope Snider is just hitting his stride at age 27 and can give them good production this season for a fraction of what Nick Markakis commanded in free agency.

So far, so good.

* You think Chris Davis was eager to make his 2015 debut and play in his first real game since Sept. 10, 2014?

Serving as the designated hitter on Tuesday, Davis swung at six of the first seven pitches he saw in his first two at-bats and appeared too anxious early in the game. However, his best at-bat came in the eighth when he flied to deep right after a nine-pitch encounter with Rays right-hander Kevin Jepsen.

Davis finished 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the sixth inning.

It goes without saying how critical a bounce-back season from Davis would be in replacing the power production left behind by Nelson Cruz. And it’s even more critical for the 29-year-old’s future as he’s set to become a free agent this coming offseason.

* The Orioles collected six runs and five hits over the first two innings against Tampa Bay starter Nathan Karns, but Everth Cabrera had their only hit the rest of the way as he collected a single in the top of the seventh.

Yes, the pitching staff should have been better in minimizing stress after an early six-run lead, but the offense essentially checked out after Pearce’s two-run homer in the second.

 

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2015 Orioles preview: Zach Britton

Posted on 12 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day under four weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy

LHP Zach Britton

Opening Day age: 27

Contract status: Under club control through the 2018 season

Minor-league options remaining: None

2014 stats: 3-2, 37 saves in 41 chances, 1.65 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 7.3 K/IP, 4 HR, 76 1/3 innings

Why to be impressed: A year ago, Britton was out of minor-league options and responded by embracing a relief role and producing one of the best seasons ever from an Orioles closer with 37 saves from May 15 through the end of the season. His 5.68 ground out to air out ratio reflected how incredibly successful he was with his heavy sinker in his new role.

Why to be concerned: Because he relies on inducing so many grounders, Britton will be prone to stretches of bad luck more often than your typical closer that relies on the strikeout. His heavy workload in his first year as a reliever makes it worth monitoring the southpaw’s health this spring as he prepared this offseason as a regular reliever.

2015 outlook: Asking Britton to post a 1.65 ERA again might be asking too much, but his reliance on his sinker (he threw it 89 percent of the time last season) should save some wear and tear on his arm and allow his impeccable infield defense to continue to record outs. If he stays healthy, Britton should have few problems approaching 40 saves with an ERA below 3.00.

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De Aza last man standing in Orioles’ busy arbitration season

Posted on 08 February 2015 by Luke Jones

Orioles outfielder Alejandro De Aza is the last man standing on a docket that included 11 arbitration-eligible players to address this winter.

Most attention understandably has been placed on the free-agent departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and lefty reliever Andrew Miller, but the Orioles will have given more than $21 million in raises to De Aza, pitchers Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz, outfielder Steve Pearce, infielder Ryan Flaherty, first baseman Chris Davis, and catcher Matt Wieters this winter. It’s the reason why Baltimore’s payroll is estimated to rise from $107 million in 2014 to a projected $120 million despite minimal additions this offseason.

While the ongoing MASN dispute raises fair questions about owner Peter Angelos’ willingness to expand the payroll any further, the high volume of arbitration cases adds context to the losses of Cruz, Markakis, and Miller. Simply put, the Orioles are now paying the price for the cheap and productive labor they’ve received from the likes of Tillman, Gonzalez, Britton, and Pearce over the last couple seasons.

While the sting of this winter’s losses is apparent, the Orioles will be faced with even more difficult decisions next offseason when De Aza, Pearce, Davis, Wieters, Norris, and left-hander starter Wei-Yin Chen all become free agents.

De Aza is set to become the first Orioles player to go to a hearing since pitcher Brad Bergesen in 2012. The club has an impeccable record in arbitration cases, going 7-0 in cases handled by Russell Smouse, and hasn’t lost a hearing since pitcher Ben McDonald defeated the Orioles 20 years ago.

The left-handed hitter is projected by most to become the Orioles’ new leadoff hitter and asked for $5.65 million while the organization countered at $5 million. De Aza made $4.25 million last year in splitting time between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore.

After being acquired a day before the waiver trade deadline on August 30, De Aza hit .293 with three home runs and 10 runs batted in over 89 plate appearances with the Orioles to close the regular season. He also hit .333 with three doubles and three RBIs in 21 postseason at-bats.

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Orioles come to terms with closer Britton

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles resolved their penultimate arbitration case of the winter by coming to terms with left-handed closer Zach Britton on Wednesday.

According to MASN, the 27-year-old will make $3.2 million in base salary after emerging as the club’s closer a year ago. In 76 1/3 innings, Britton posted a 1.65 ERA and converted 37 of 41 save opportunities for the American League East champions.

With Britton working out of the bullpen for the first time after a few underwhelming seasons as a starter, his sinker reached the mid-to-high 90s working in relief as hitters struggled to square up his pitches. Britton finished the 2014 campaign ranked fourth in the American League in saves and became the 10th different Orioles pitcher to record a 30-save season in club history.

He made only $521,500 last season after he entered spring training with no assurance of even being on the 25-man roster and was out of minor-league options. When the sides exchanged figures earlier this offseason, Britton asked for $4.2 million while Baltimore countered with $2.2 million, meaning they split the difference as is often the case.

Outfielder Alejandro De Aza is the only remaining arbitration case for the Orioles to settle this offseason.

 

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Orioles tender contracts to Davis, Matusz, nine other arbitration-eligible players

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There were no surprises prior to Tuesday night’s deadline for arbitration-eligible players as the Orioles tendered contracts to all 11 eligible in that department.

The group includes position players Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Pearce, and Alejandro De Aza and pitchers Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz. There had been some debate about the futures of Davis, De Aza, Hunter, and Matusz, but the Orioles tendered each a contract with the former three set to become free agents after the 2015 season.

As is always the case with arbitration situations, the sides will exchange salary figures in hopes of meeting somewhere in the middle and avoiding a hearing. For now, each player simply remains under club control as the Orioles can include them in any potential trade.

Though it was previously undetermined whether the Orioles would retain De Aza, his presence becomes even more important after the free-agent departure of Nelson Cruz and the undetermined status of free-agent outfielder Nick Markakis. De Aza batted .293 with the Orioles after being acquired from the Chicago White Sox in late August and is projected to make $5.9 million in 2015, according to MLBTradeRumors.com.

Davis is coming off an abysmal season in which he hit only .196 and was suspended 25 games for amphetamine use, but the memory of his 53-homer campaign in 2013 was too much to ignore as he enters his final season before free agency. After making $10.3 million in 2014, Davis is projected to receive a raise to $11.8 million next season.

Perhaps the most questionable decision was tendering Matusz a contract as the lefty specialist is projected to make $2.7 million in 2015. The 27-year-old remained effective against left-handed hitting in 2014, but he once again struggled against right-handed hitters, who posted an .876 on-base plus slugging percentage against him.

Of the Orioles’ other arbitration-eligible players, Pearce figures to receive a significant bump after a career year while arbitration first-timers Tillman, Gonzalez, and Britton are in line for significant raises after impressive accomplishments in 2014.

Davis, Wieters, De Aza, Norris, Pearce, and Hunter are all scheduled to become free agents next offseason.

Below is a list of of Baltimore’s 11 arbitration players with their MLBTradeRumors.com projected salaries for 2015 in parentheses:

LHP Zach Britton ($3.2 million after making $521,500 in 2014)
INF Chris Davis: ($11.8 million after making $10.3 million in 2014)
OF Alejandro De Aza ($5.9 million after making $4.25 million in 2014)
INF Ryan Flaherty ($1 million after making $513,000 in 2014)
RHP Miguel Gonzalez ($3.7 million after making $529,000 in 2014)
RHP Tommy Hunter ($4.4 million after making $3 million in 2014)
LHP Brian Matusz ($2.7 million after making $2.4 million in 2014)
RHP Bud Norris ($8.7 million after making $5.3 million in 2014)
1B/OF Steve Pearce ($2.2 million after making $700,000 in 2014)
RHP Chris Tillman ($5.4 million after making $546,000 in 2014)
C Matt Wieters ($7.9 million after making $7.7 million in 2014)

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Cruz on Royals: “They’re coming back” to Camden Yards

Posted on 13 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After two days of hearing questions about the inflammatory comments made by Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz finally bit just a little after downplaying any significance of the bulletin board material.

Dyson said after Game 2 of the American League Championship Series that he didn’t expect to return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards later in the series and that Orioles players didn’t believe they would, either. A day later during the teams’ workout at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, the reserve outfielder — who’s 0-for-2 attempting to steal bases over the first two games of the series — questioned how much fight the Orioles might have left.

Cruz was asked Monday whether he expected the series to return to Baltimore later this week, and the 34-year-old took the opportunity to finally take a veiled shot at Dyson.

“Oh yeah, ” said Cruz as he cracked a smile. “They’re coming back, too.”

To this point, the designated hitter has allowed his bat to do the talking in the playoffs as he’s hit .476 with two home runs and seven runs batted in over 22 plate appearances this October.

In 39 career postseason games, Cruz has hit an incredible 16 home runs and batted .306 with a 1.059 on-base plus slugging percentage. The veteran said the Orioles aren’t concerned with how anyone outside their clubhouse feels about their chances with a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-seven series, and they’re eager to prove it upon getting back on the field after Monday’s Game 3 postponement.

“There’s going to be talk. You can’t help it,” Cruz said. “There’s going to be talk, but you stay in the present and focus on whatever you need to focus on and whatever you can control.”

Most players have taken the high road in responding to Dyson’s confidence, but manager Buck Showalter and a couple others have taken a different approach in agreeing that the Royals have a right to feel good about themselves after winning two games at Camden Yards.

But that doesn’t mean the Orioles haven’t made a mental note as the series is now scheduled to resume on Tuesday night. And you do wonder why a player who’s had such a small role in his club’s success in Game 1 and 2 would find the need to act as the Royals’ spokesman.

“He’s trying to get his team jacked up. It is what it is,” closer Zach Britton said. “They should be confident. They played some good games, but we’re not going to let what he says dictate the way we go out and play, and we understand that.”

Gausman embracing relief role with eye on future

With Monday’s rainout, the Orioles hope to potentially find themselves planning for who might start a deciding Game 7 with the teams now set to potentially play five straight days.

That responsibility could ultimately fall on normal No. 5 starter Kevin Gausman, who’s worked exclusively out of the bullpen to this point in October. In two appearances spanning 5 1/3 innings — one outing each against Detroit and Kansas City — Gausman has allowed only one earned run and four hits while striking out six and walking two.

“I hope that we’re back here next year and the near future, and hopefully, I’m starting one of these games,” Gausman said. “That’s what I would like, obviously, in the future. But anytime you have success in the postseason, it definitely helps not only yourself but your confidence level and it says a lot about your career.”

Gausman has proven to be a valuable piece out of the bullpen after he got his feet wet in that capacity as a rookie last year. In his 15 relief appearances a year ago, the 2012 first-round pick pitched to a 3.52 ERA and struck out 11.3 batters per nine innings.

Showalter hasn’t shied away from using Gausman as more than just a long man out of the bullpen as he was trusted to keep the Orioles close in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, allowing his offense to eventually stage the comeback win. The 23-year-old was then used in Game 1 of the ALCS to keep the Orioles within one run as they tied the score while he was still in the game.

“It’s not so weird for me,” said Gausman about once again having a relief role after starting all season. “I feel like if we put any other starter down in the bullpen, it might take him a little while to get used to it. When I was told I was going out there, I wasn’t mad or upset. I just kind of took it as a challenge, and I think it’s really fun coming out of the bullpen. That’s when you have your best stuff, and you get to kind of showcase [it].”

Duquette wheeling and meal-ing

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette expressed confidence Monday that his club would be ready to play whenever the weather would allow the series to resume.

But he may have offered the line of the day when a reporter asked if he planned on signing anyone else to a contract extension to provide some material for media on a slow news day after Monday’s postponement.

“I’m going to sign the room service [bill] at the hotel,” he said.

Duquette signed shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year, $40 million extension with a vested option last Thursday.

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Orioles can only look forward in trying to erase ALCS deficit

Posted on 12 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It felt as though the momentum was finally shifting in the Orioles’ direction.

Tied 4-4 with the Kansas City Royals in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Orioles had just gunned down pinch runner Jarrod Dyson trying to steal on a perfect throw from catcher Caleb Joseph and retired the side a moment later when Eric Hosmer flied out to center. A sold-out crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards that balanced enthusiasm with concern for much of the evening could sense the Orioles were on the verge of finally breaking through for their first in-game lead of the series.

Those cheers only grew louder as Nick Markakis reached on an error by reliever Kelvin Herrera and Alejandro De Aza walked to start the inning, bringing the heart of the order to the plate. Even after Adam Jones swung through three straight pitches, spirits were once again elevated when Nelson Cruz singled to left to load the bases with one out for Steve Pearce and J.J. Hardy.

But instead of the Orioles pushing runs across the plate, Kansas City delivered a body blow as Pearce popped to shallow left and Hardy flied out to right. The threat was over with no damage done.

Two innings later, an infield dribbler, a sacrifice bunt, and Escobar’s sharp grounder inside the first-base bag gave Kansas City the lead and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series as they went on to win 6-4 on Saturday.

The saying goes that you’d rather be lucky than good, but the Royals have been lucky and good in putting the Orioles on the ropes as the teams now travel to Kansas City for the next three games of the series. Sure, the upstart Royals have benefited from a number of broken-bat hits, bloopers, and dribblers in the first two games of the series, but they’ve also homered four times, pitched tremendously in relief, and put at least one runner on base in 18 of their 19 innings at the plate in the ALCS.

“The hot team makes things go their way,” said closer Zach Britton, who surrendered Escobar’s game-winning double in the top of the ninth. “They are hot, they beat [the Los Angeles Angels], and they are continuing that right now. We scored some runs, and we’re not able to shut them down. The big key — if we want to win this series — is when we get that momentum, keeping it on our side.”

No, the Orioles haven’t been firing on all cylinders as their starting pitching has been poor and normally-reliable relievers Darren O’Day and Britton have struggled, but they’ve lost two games by a combined four runs with Kansas City scoring the winning runs in the final inning each time. It isn’t a case of the Royals being dramatically better, but Ned Yost’s club has endured every shot from the Orioles and returned one just a little bit stronger.

Baltimore now faces a steep climb to get back in the series as no team has ever won an LCS after dropping Games 1 and 2 at home. But there have been teams to bounce back from that same scenario in the World Series as the 1996 New York Yankees were embarrassed by the Atlanta Braves in the first two games in the Bronx before they won four straight for their first championship in 18 years. The 1985 Royals and 1986 Mets also won titles after dropping World Series Games 1 and 2 at home, so the chore isn’t impossible, even if unlikely.

The Orioles can either roll over for the red-hot Royals, who’ve won all six postseason games they’ve played, or they can focus on a simple task. Facing former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie in Game 3, the Orioles need an early lead to lift their in-game spirits and a win on Monday. That’s all they can try to control at this point.

“You’ve got to earn everything, every inning, every at‑bat,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Like I said last night, you can’t bottle the concentration level and everything that goes into these games. Humanly, you couldn’t do it for the 200 games we play a year. You see at this time of year guys are firing, and you’re getting the best from everybody.”

While many are now counting out the Orioles more because of Kansas City’s current play and karma than anything else, one of Baltimore’s biggest strengths under Showalter has been an ability to compartmentalize every game and every series over the course of a 162-game schedule. Rarely have we witnessed the Orioles too high after an important win or too low after a significant loss.

The atmosphere in the clubhouse following Saturday’s defeat was predictably quiet, but center fielder Adam Jones wasn’t about to concede anything to the Royals after they handed the Orioles consecutive defeats at Camden Yards for the first time since June 28-29.

“The series ain’t over. If you guys are thinking it’s over, why are we going to show up on Monday?” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of baseball to play in this series. Let’s get back after it. We’re going to go to [Kansas City]. We’ve been a very good team on the road, so let’s go there and have some fun. Eat some barbecue.”

For a club that’s endured season-ending injuries and suspensions to All-Star players while still winning 99 games counting the playoffs, a 2-0 deficit in the ALCS is the latest trial to overcome. It won’t be easy as Kansas City holds a whirlwind of momentum that started with an improbable win over Oakland in the AL Wild Card Game.

Ultimately, it could just be the Royals’ year when we look back at the 2014 postseason.

But the first challenge for the Orioles moving forward is to win on Monday to make it a 2-1 deficit and put a little pressure on the Royals as they play in front of their home crowd. Kansas City has embraced the role of being the underdog this month, so it will be interesting to see how Yost’s players respond to being the favorite for at least the next couple games.

If the Orioles needed it, the speedy outfielder Dyson even offered some bulletin board material when asked by the Kansas City Star whether he expected the series to return to Baltimore.

“I don’t. And I don’t think they think that, either.”

Baltimore went 46-35 on the road, so maybe a day off and the opportunity to play away from the home crowd will allow the Orioles to reset mentally. The prospects of winning two of three in Kansas City — where the Royals were only 42-39 this year — aren’t impossible if the Orioles stay true to themselves in their style of play, which is pretty darn good despite the results of Games 1 and 2 that can’t be changed.

A 2-0 deficit can’t be erased entirely in one contest, but a win in Game 3 would sure make things far more interesting.

“We had chances and we just didn’t get it done,” Jones said. “Plain and simple. Ain’t no excuses in here. Take it to K.C. and get back after it.”

That’s been the mindset under Showalter for the last three winning seasons, and it’s the reason not to throw in the towel on the 2014 season just yet.

Perhaps the Orioles have a few body blows of their own to stun the Royals with before this series is over.

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Late innings suddenly not so comfortable for Orioles

Posted on 11 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Amidst changing faces and three different closers over the last three seasons, Darren O’Day has remained the backbone of the Orioles bullpen.

We saw it firsthand against the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series as he inherited a disastrous situation created by closer Zach Britton in the ninth inning and induced a 6-4-3 double play from designated hitter Billy Butler to escape a bases-loaded jam and keep the Orioles tied 5-5.

But the right-hander’s fortunes changed in the top of the 10th as Alex Gordon led off with a tie-breaking homer to help send Kansas City to an 8-6 win on Friday night. In isolation, the Orioles could chalk it up as a rare mistake for the submarine pitcher who posted a 1.70 ERA in the regular season, but Gordon’s blast continued a disturbing trend that began right around Labor Day.

After allowing only three home runs in the first five months of the season, O’Day has now surrendered five long balls since Sept. 2, with four of them against left-handed hitters. Batters from that side of the plate hit only .189 against him in the regular season, but O’Day’s recent difficulty against left-handed bats suddenly makes the Orioles’ back-end trio of Britton, O’Day, and Andrew Miller appear mortal. And it spells trouble against a lineup featuring Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas.

“Highs and lows of playoff baseball,” O’Day said. “I came in the inning before and got out of a situation you don’t expect to get out of and, as easy as that, just like I’m throwing batting practice, I gave up a home run. I take great pride in being able to get left-handers [out]. Lately, I haven’t been. Forget getting them out. You have to keep guys in the yard, left- or right-handed.”

Of course, O’Day wasn’t the only factor in explaining why the Orioles lost their first game of the postseason Friday as starter Chris Tillman struggled, the offense squandered some golden opportunities, and the defense missed a chance to limit the damage in a four-run fourth. But in a series in which the Orioles face a bullpen as imposing as their own, O’Day’s vulnerability against left-handed hitters could make for a trying series.

Since the acquisition of Miller, Baltimore has flourished while often creating a six-inning game for opponents with O’Day and the former Boston Red Sox lefty handling the seventh and the eighth before Britton would slam the door in the ninth. But it doesn’t take much for a bullpen to suddenly find itself in disarray.

As anyone in baseball will tell you, there’s nothing more volatile than relief pitching.

Just ask former Oriole Jim Johnson, who went from record-setting closer to unemployed in less than two years. He’s still trying to fully pick up the pieces from his failures in the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees two years ago.

“They’re good hitters and they’re good pitchers, and sometimes it doesn’t work out,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Those guys that all pitched tonight are the reason we’re sitting here playing a seven-game series for the American League championship. It will continue tomorrow.”

Showalter will continue to go with O’Day and Britton just as he should. As spectacular as Miller has been in the postseason — tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings — he can’t pitch multiple innings every night in a best-of-seven series.

Britton expressed confidence after the Game 1 loss that his wildness was an aberration, but Friday’s outing in which he threw only five strikes out of 20 total pitches did follow a shaky ninth-inning performance in Game 3 of the ALDS in which he allowed back-to-back doubles and needed a 5-4-3 double play to close out the series. You have to trust – and hope – his inability to throw strikes against the Royals in Game 1 was more a product of having not pitched in four days and not evidence of developing the yips on the second-biggest stage you’ll find in the majors.

The left-handed closer held up just fine pitching in the first two games of the ALDS, which earns him some benefit of the doubt.

But O’Day’s vulnerability against left-handed pitching has now lasted the better part of six weeks. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen this from the veteran as lefty hitters batted .309 with five home runs against him in 2013, but it does complicate the bullpen’s pecking order if he can’t be trusted in certain situations.

Lefty specialist Brian Matusz certainly didn’t inspire confidence later in the 10th by allowing a two-run homer to the lefty-hitting Moustakas, which ended up being the difference in the game after the Orioles staged their 10th-inning rally.

It could mean a few more high-leverage opportunities for the 23-year-old Kevin Gausman, but Showalter wants to use the right-hander to bridge the gap to the late innings if a starter runs into trouble as we saw with Tillman on Friday and Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2 of the Division Series last week.

To be clear, the Orioles shouldn’t panic after their series-opening defeat as 13 of 28 Game 1 losers have recovered to win the ALCS since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1985. Showalter will continue to ride the horses that got the Orioles to this point, and there’s a track record to suggest they’ll bounce back for the remainder of the series.

But with O’Day’s recent struggles against lefties and Britton’s alarming lack of control Friday night, the late innings suddenly aren’t as comfortable as they’ve been for most of the season.

And that will make you hold your breath even more when you’re just four victories away from advancing to the World Series — and now three losses from elimination.

“We will go get them [Saturday],” Britton said. “We have to win four, and it doesn’t matter what four you win so we’ll bounce back [Saturday]. We’ve done it before.”

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Ten talking points for Orioles-Royals ALCS matchup

Posted on 08 October 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Orioles prepare to play the Kansas City Royals for the first time ever in the postseason and for the right to advance to their first World Series in 31 years, here are 10 talking points to break down their meeting in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday night:

1. It isn’t Eddie Murray vs. George Brett, but the tradition of yesteryear in each city makes this series a blast.

Yes, it’s been three decades since either the Orioles or Royals found themselves playing in the Fall Classic, but that’s what makes this series so much fun as younger baseball fan will be exposed to the history of each franchise. From 1973 through 1985, Baltimore and Kansas City combined to win two World Series titles, four AL pennants, and 10 division championships and were regarded as two of the model franchises in the major leagues. This history may not mean much to the current players or have any impact on the play on the field, but the fans’ thirst for a World Series will be palpable at both Kauffman Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

2. You won’t find more contrasting offensive styles with the stakes so high.

It’s thunder against lightning as the Orioles led the major leagues with 211 home runs while the Royals stole more bases (153) than any of the 29 other clubs. Meanwhile, Baltimore stole the fewest number of bases (44) in the big leagues and Kansas City ranked 30th with only 95 home runs. Five Royals players hit double digits in swiped bags while the Orioles’ leader in the category was David Lough with eight. Seven Orioles hit 12 or more homers — Manny Machado and Chris Davis will not play in this series — compared to just three for Kansas City. Despite their contrasting styles, the Orioles finished the regular season ranked sixth in the AL in runs with 705 compared to Kansas City coming in ninth with 651. Baltimore has the better offense over the long haul, but the Royals will try to turn a short series into a 100-meter dash while the Orioles emphasize their advantage in the shot put.

3. The Royals stack up more favorably to the Baltimore defense that Detroit did.

The Orioles still have the edge in the field, but Kansas City has a number of Gold Glove-caliber players including catcher Salvador Perez and outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. The Orioles rank third in the AL in BaseballReference.com’s defensive efficiency statistic while the Royals came in sixth in the regular season. Baltimore made the third-fewest number of errors (87) in the AL this season while Kansas City ranked 10th with 104. Both clubs made sparkling plays in the Division Series and rely on their defense to make a difference in close games.

4. Scoring early will be a high priority for both clubs.

Unlike the luxury the Orioles had against Detroit in the Division Series, they cannot expect to wait out starting pitchers for scoring opportunities in the late inning against the Royals, whose trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera might be even better than their own triumvirate of Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Darren O’Day. The Orioles’ 3.10 bullpen ERA ranked third in the AL while Kansas City’s 3.30 mark ranked fifth, which will cause both lineups to feel the urgency to break through prior to the sixth inning. Even with so many other great names in each bullpen, the wild cards could be right-hander Kevin Gausman and Kansas City lefty Brandon Finnegan, who made a major impact in the Wild Card Game after only being drafted in the first round out of Texas Christian a few months ago.

5. The spotlight will be much brighter on Adam Jones to produce in this series.

It’s cruel to judge any player on a sample size of only 37 at-bats, but the Orioles center fielder has amassed only four hits in his postseason career and will feel the heat if his bat doesn’t wake up in the ALCS. Being an aggressive hitter throughout his career, Jones must fight the urge to over-swing, especially when he has opportunities to drive in runs. The 29-year-old singled and walked in his final two plate appearances of the ALDS, which the Orioles hope are signs of better things to come this October for a player who’s meant so much to the club’s success over the last three years. Nelson Cruz carried the Orioles in the ALDS, but Jones waking up would make them even more difficult to beat in a best-of-seven series.

6. The Orioles are better equipped to handle Kansas City’s jackrabbits on the base paths.

The Royals are an incredible 12-for-13 attempting to steal in the postseason, which has certainly provided Buck Showalter with some restless nights this week. However, the Orioles will have more success in slowing Kansas City runners than either Oakland or the Angels because of their focus on slowing an opposing club’s running game. Baltimore ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal, but the fact that they faced the fourth-fewest number of stolen base attempts is a reflection of how well pitchers hold runners and how quick they are to the plate to help catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Of the two, Joseph is more adept at gunning down runners (a 40 percent success rate to Hundley’s 19 percent), so it will be interesting to see how much more Showalter might lean on the younger catcher in this series after Hundley started two of the three ALDS games.

7. Former Oriole starter Jeremy Guthrie pitching against his former club in the ALCS will be somewhat surreal.

With apologies to Baltimore reserve Jimmy Paredes, Guthrie is the most intriguing name to face his former team in this series and had the misfortune of being dealt away from the Orioles just before their resurgence in 2012. The classy right-hander has found a home with the Royals where he’s continued to be a solid member of the rotation and has been rewarded with a taste of the postseason after pitching respectably on some otherwise awful Orioles clubs from 2007 through 2011. Though Guthrie probably wouldn’t be slated to start before Game 4 unless the Royals elect to go with Danny Duffy in the rotation and put him in the bullpen, it will be interesting to see the Orioles face the 35-year-old, who acts as a symbol of the club’s past as they seek their first AL pennant in 31 years.

8. Neither club received enough credit for its starting pitching during the regular season.

The Orioles and Royals are known for their stout bullpens, but their rotations have been very effective despite lacking big names. The projected Game 1 starters, Chris Tillman and James Shields, are two of the better pitchers in the AL — the latter for a longer period of time — but each has just one All-Star appearance to his name. Baltimore’s starter ERA of 3.61 ranked just a hair below the Royals’ fourth-ranked 3.60 mark in the AL. The strong bullpens for both sides decrease the chances of any starter pitching particularly deep into games, but there’s no reason to think either side will have problems in this department.

9. This series may feature the two best relievers in baseball right now — and neither are closers.

While Britton and Holland have been two of the best ninth-inning men in baseball in 2014, Miller and Davis are the scariest weapons in their respective bullpens as they combined to strike out 212 hitters in 134 1/3 innings during the regular season. Miller’s ERA was 1.35 in 23 regular-season appearances for the Orioles after being dealt by Boston while Davis posted a 1.00 ERA in 71 appearances for Kansas City this year. Showalter has already demonstrated he’s not afraid to use Miller for more than one inning in the postseason while Davis was a starter as recently as last season, making you think he can be stretched out as well. Regardless of who ends up winning this series, it would be shocking if Miller and Davis aren’t the busiest bullpen arms in the best-of-seven showdown.

10. Buck Showalter has a sizable advantage over Ned Yost on this stage.

The strong sentiment shared among many around baseball is that the Royals have won in spite of their manager, who prefers the small-ball tactics detested by sabermetricians. Meanwhile, Showalter often speaks of his preference to not waste his offense’s 27 outs per game and rarely calls for sacrifice bunts and other tactics such as the hit and run. You do wonder if the Orioles’ strong bullpen will press Yost to lean even more on manufacturing runs than he normally does, but Showalter is more likely to stay the course with his lineup — even against the Royals’ stingy relievers. As for bullpen management, the skipper who is more willing to break the standard thinking of when to use his relievers will give his team the edge. Showalter is the superior tactician and has already shown his willingness to stretch his best relievers during the Division Series.

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Orioles’ strengths, Detroit’s weaknesses surface in Game 1

Posted on 03 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — An eight-run inning naturally changed the narrative of the Orioles’ 12-3 win over the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, but the winning formula was already in place.

A couple home runs, solid starting pitching, and a bullpen as effective as any in the game had put the Orioles in position to seize the opening game of the series before they came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. And that’s when Detroit’s biggest weaknesses surfaced in transforming a tightly-contested 4-3 game into a blowout before a maniacal 47,842 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Thursday night.

No, the formula wasn’t flawless as starter Chris Tillman’s high pitch count chased him after five innings and right-hander Darren O’Day surrendered a solo shot to Miguel Cabrera in the eighth, but manager Buck Showalter made it clear he was going to use his best bullpen assets — the trio of Andrew Miller, O’Day, and closer Zach Britton — to protect the opportunity. With Tillman at 105 pitches, Showalter went right to Miller in the sixth inning with the heart of the Detroit lineup — Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez — due up.

The big guns needed to be ready a little earlier than usual.

“We’ve talked to them since the season was over about how this was going to work,” Showalter said. “The way we have normally used them, they know that it’s all hands on deck. And it felt like that spot of their order was good for Andrew. And the next group of guys was good for Darren. I knew that I would pitch Zach in the eighth inning.”

Miller responded with 1 2/3 innings and O’Day got through an inning before allowing the homer to Cabrera. Britton then retired the only batter he faced to conclude the top of the eighth.

We’ll never know if the first-year closer would have pitched a clean ninth for the first four-out save of his career, because the Orioles lineup took advantage of the Tigers’ biggest deficiencies in the bottom half of the inning.

Despite the Tigers owning a more-balanced offense and the last three AL Cy Young Award winners in their rotation, their bullpen and defense lag far behind the Orioles in those areas, which led to their demise in turning a winnable contest into a humbling defeat. Errors by shortstop Andrew Romine and center fielder Rajai Davis didn’t help, but the trio of Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, and Phil Coke only reinforced the many concerns about the Detroit bullpen throughout the season.

In contrast, the Orioles played crisp defense and allowed only one run in four innings of relief to go up 1-0 in the best-of-five series.

“I feel like everybody’s clicking right now at the same time,” said Miller, who expressed no concerns about bouncing back quickly after matching a season-high 32 pitches. “If you can get the ball to the next guy, we’re going to be in good shape. You trust that you go in there and give it your best until you run out of gas, and Buck asks the next guy to come in and we’re going to be pretty good.”

The offensive explosion in the Orioles’ final turn at the plate made the outcome elementary, but it will be interesting to see how Showalter handles his staff with such a quick turnaround Friday afternoon.

Game 2 starter Wei-Yin Chen will have his work cut out for him against a lineup that hit a league-leading .285 against left-handed pitching in the regular season, making you think the Orioles would be happy if he can give them five or six innings while keeping the score close. You’d imagine Showalter would prefer to stay away from Miller on Friday, but O’Day only threw 16 pitches and Britton five, meaning both will be available on Friday.

Perhaps we’ll see the flame-throwing Kevin Gausman as the change of pace behind Chen to bridge the gap to the late innings and put the Orioles in position to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Whatever the case, Showalter has options in the bullpen unlike Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who probably felt he was only throwing gasoline on the fire that was the bottom of the eighth.

On Thursday night, Baltimore’s biggest strengths and the Tigers’ most painful weaknesses came into focus, and it resulted in a convincing win for the Orioles.

“It’s a different season. It’s a different set of rules,” Showalter said. “Everything is different. Now your team has to make the adjustments, and I think our guys know that. We’ve got to figure out how to win two more games from these guys. It’s going to be tough.”

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