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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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Keeping eye on Orioles bullpen in September

Posted on 05 September 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s little to be concerned about with the Orioles enjoying a 9 1/2 game lead in the American League East entering the weekend, but the late innings of Thursday’s 9-7 win over the Cincinnati Reds suggest there might be something worth monitoring in the short-term future.

The Orioles bullpen has been stellar all season, ranking fourth in the AL with a 3.21 ERA, but there have been a few leaks over the last week that likely grabbed the attention of manager Buck Showalter. Baltimore relievers only rank sixth in the AL in innings pitched, which doesn’t indicate overuse being a major concern, but witnessing Brian Matusz and the newly-recalled Evan Meek warm up in the eighth inning of a two-run game Thursday — the night after Miguel Gonzalez had pitched a complete-game shutout to give the entire bullpen a night off — made it clear that Showalter didn’t have his full array of arms.

Left-handed reliever Andrew Miller is currently dealing with a tweaked hamstring and hasn’t pitched since Monday when he allowed two hits and an earned run while retiring only two batters. The former Boston reliever has downplayed the significance of his injury, but it’s clear the Orioles manager was trying to avoid using him this week.

Outstanding right-hander Darren O’Day not warming up after Tommy Hunter allowed a leadoff double in the eighth inning Thursday makes you wonder if he might be dealing with a physical challenge as well. O’Day did throw 26 pitches in a rare poor appearance Tuesday when he allowed a grand slam to Jay Bruce, but the submarine-style pitcher only seeing one appearance since Saturday is a little unusual.

Right-hander Brad Brach has been one of the better stories of the 2014 season, but the 28-year-old has allowed five earned runs, nine hits, and three walks in his last three innings of work spanning five appearances. His four runs allowed Thursday allowed the Reds to come back from what was originally a 6-0 deficit in the first inning to force a 7-7 tie in the seventh.

And even though closer Zach Britton continues to do remarkable work in the ninth, he ranks eighth in the majors in innings pitched by relievers and recently completed a stretch in which he appeared in five games in seven days. The former starting pitcher is used to a heavy volume of work, but pitching so frequently is a difficult adjustment for someone in his first season pitching in relief.

By no means should these factors instill any sense of panic, but they do provide evidence for Showalter to make use of his September bullpen that currently features 11 pitchers. The manager has already said he won’t change his managerial style before the Orioles potentially clinch their first division title since 1997, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lighten the load for the key members of his bullpen such as Britton, O’Day, and Miller while passing a few more opportunities toward the likes of Hunter, Matusz, Ryan Webb, T.J.McFarland, and even veteran Joe Saunders.

It’s a careful balancing act as relievers need regular work to remain sharp, but there’s no question that Showalter will want to do everything he can to ensure that his late-inning weapons are as close to full strength as they can be in October.

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Orioles add veteran reliever Bell to minor league deal

Posted on 17 May 2014 by WNST Staff

The Baltimore Orioles perhaps added another turn to their already tumultuous closer situation Friday.

The Birds added veteran reliever Heath Bell via a minor league contract according to a report from FoxSports.com. The 36 year old is expected to report to AAA Norfolk Saturday after passing a physical.

The three time All-Star has 136 career saves now in his 11th major league season. Bell made 13 appearances for the Tampa Bay Rays this year, allowing 14 earned runs over 17.1 innings pitched.

The decision to sign the hard-throwing righty was likely aided by the recent struggles of O’s closer Tommy Hunter. Since last Saturday, Hunter blew saves in each of his two appearances-including the Orioles’ 4-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers Tuesday night.

Hunter appeared to have been replaced in the role by lefty Zach Britton Thursday night. Britton retired the side (something Hunter has not done all season) in protecting the team’s 2-1 win over the Kansas City Royals.

Manager Buck Showalter has been non-committal about the situation in recent days.

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No easy answer for Orioles to solve closer dilemma

Posted on 14 May 2014 by Luke Jones

The Orioles didn’t need a closer Wednesday afternoon as they were swept by the Detroit Tigers in a 7-5 final, but manager Buck Showalter offered few clues as to who might be taking the ball the next time his club has a save situation.

Struggling incumbent Tommy Hunter wasn’t ruled out by the Baltimore manager prior to the series finale against Detroit, but Showalter implied he would not receive the same leash as former Orioles closer Jim Johnson. Before being traded to Oakland over the winter, Johnson blew a career-high nine saves in 2013 but was only a year removed from an All-Star campaign in which he collected a franchise-record 51 saves for the playoff-bound Orioles.

“The difference between Tommy and Jimmy is, Jimmy had a track record,” said Showalter, alluding to the former entering the 2014 season with only four career saves. “Tommy does, too, in certain other things. So, there’s some unknown with where it is we’ll go with Tommy.”

Sporting a 6.60 earned run average and 1.87 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) so far this year, Hunter is on thin ice to put it mildly, but the Orioles knew this was a possibility when they elected not to sign an established closer after a two-year, $14 million agreement with Grant Balfour was scrapped due to a failed physical over the winter. The problem is figuring out where to turn next if three blown saves in 14 tries are enough in Showalter’s mind to demote Hunter from the role — at least temporarily.

Many have called for a closer-by-committee approach in which Showalter can play the matchups on any given night, but such a strategy only thrives with starting pitching that consistently works deep into games to leave some combination of the club’s top relievers available for the ninth inning and the opposing hitters it might bring. If the starting pitching is substandard,  a manager must then lean more on long and middle relief for the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, decreasing the likelihood of even getting to the ninth inning with a narrow lead intact.

Of course, the possibility of an outside addition exists as the Orioles still sit in first place in the American League East, but here’s an assessment of the most likely alternatives currently on the 25-man roster who would be in line to receive the ball in the ninth inning instead of Hunter:

RHP Darren O’Day (0.60 ERA, two saves)
Case for: The veteran sidearm pitcher has the longest track record with Showalter and has averaged 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, proving he misses plenty of bats despite his unorthodox style and underwhelming velocity.
Case against: Left-handed hitters batted .309 against him last season and have posted a .300 average so far this year, making him an easy target for opposing managers to use left-handed pinch hitters in the ninth inning.
Is he a good option to try next? Maybe, but O’Day would need to recapture the success he had against lefties in 2012 when they hit only .205 against him.

LHP Zach Britton (0.84 ERA)
Case for: The 26-year-old’s sinker has been devastating against nearly everyone he’s faced as right-handed hitters are batting .167 and lefties only .156 against him in 21 1/3 innings this season.
Case against: The left-hander has only been a reliever for seven weeks, and moving him to a defined closer role would mean he would no longer be stretched out enough to be able to save the bullpen as he has on a number of occasions already this season.
Is he a good option to try next? Yes, he’s the perfect example of riding the hot hand even if you’re concerned about rattling his confidence for the remainder of the season if he fails in the role.

RHP Ryan Webb (3.94 ERA)
Case for: His career splits against left-handers (.284) and right-handers (.238) are balanced enough to suggest he might be able to handle regular appearances in the ninth, and his sinker also plays well at Camden Yards.
Case against: His lifetime 1.36 WHIP is on the high side and his career 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings isn’t ideal for the closer role where you typically want a pitcher to miss more bats.
Good option to try next? Yes, Webb’s splits aren’t dramatically skewed to one side of the plate or the other unlike other candidates currently in the bullpen, and he has more relief experience than most in the Baltimore bullpen.

LHP Brian Matusz (3.46 ERA)
Case for: Lefties hit only .168 against the southpaw in 2013 and his background being stretched out as a starter as recently as spring training suggests he may have the durability for a regular closer role.
Case against: His 1.77 WHIP so far this season is far too high, right-handed batters hit .302 against him last season, and he’s more valuable as a lefty specialist to use in a big spot against an imposing left-handed bat such as Boston’s David Ortiz.
Good option to try next? No, Matusz simply hasn’t been effective enough this season and right-handers feast on his stuff too often to take him out of his current specialist role.

Who should be next in line for the closer job? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.



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Britton continues coming up huge for Orioles bullpen

Posted on 16 April 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Miguel Gonzalez earned the win and Tommy Hunter secured his fourth save, but it was Zach Britton who deserved a gold star for his work in the Orioles’ 3-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.

The left-handed pitcher moved his streak of scoreless innings to 11 1/3 to begin the season after blanking the Rays over three frames to bridge the gap from Gonzalez’s five-inning start to Hunter in the ninth inning as Baltimore swept an abbreviated two-game set in unseasonably cold conditions on Wednesday afternoon. Britton wasn’t perfect in his longest appearance of the season, but his strikeout of Wil Myers on a low-and-away sinking fastball in the seventh not only thwarted a bases-loaded scoring chance but provided the latest example of just how dependable the 26-year-old has been.

Entering spring training without any minor-league options remaining and coming off two straight disappointing seasons in which he battled a tender shoulder and inconsistency, Britton has embraced his middle-relief role while being one of the Orioles’ most valuable players thus far. He’s allowed just four hits and has struck out seven while walking four in his 11 1/3 innings this season.

“The first weapon is that he can get left- and right-handed hitters out,” manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s huge for a relief pitcher. He’s in a good place right now. You can see it presentation-wise as much as physically. We had other people who could pitch, but the situation puts you in a nice little rocking chair sometimes when you have a left-handed pitcher who can defend himself against right-handers. And that comes from his starting background and also comes from a pretty good sinker.”

Britton’s effectiveness with a sinker consistently in the low to mid-90s has led some to question whether the southpaw is worthy of another chance in the starting rotation. Showalter was comfortable in allowing Britton to throw 42 pitches since he hadn’t pitched since a 30-pitch outing on Saturday, but this development was particularly interesting given that the Orioles used only two relievers on Monday, were rained out Tuesday, and will enjoy another off-day Thursday before beginning a four-game set against the Boston Red Sox over the weekend.

Beyond right-hander Evan Meek, who pitched 1 2/3 innings Monday and was dealing with flu-like symptoms over the last two days, the rest of the bullpen was fresh even though Showalter alluded to other relievers potentially feeling the effects of the bug that’s been going through the Baltimore clubhouse over the last week.

Of course, Showalter isn’t going to broadcast any potential desire to stretch out Britton to the point that he would once again become a starting option and the latest turn through the rotation — sans Ubaldo Jimenez — provided improved results, but there’s no harm in having a relief option that can bring both length and results in close games like Britton has done. It’s the same way the Orioles used Arthur Rhodes — another former left-handed starting prospect — with great results in their 1996 and 1997 playoff seasons.

Before arguing that Britton should move into the rotation, it’s important to acknowledge that what he’s done while facing hitters one time through the order is a different story from being entrusted to retire batters three or four different times as a starter. Assuming success in relief translates into being an effective starting pitcher is often fool’s gold, and Britton has found a niche working out of the bullpen.

The temptation is certainly there to envision him as a starter again, even if the memory of his 4.95 earned run average, 1.725 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), and meager 4.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in eight appearances (seven of them starts) last season make it unsettling to try to mess with something that isn’t broken. But Britton hasn’t looked this good since his rookie season in 2011 when he was 5-2 with a 2.35 ERA in his first 10 starts and appeared on his way to becoming a mainstay in the Baltimore rotation.

No changes in the starting rotation are imminent — nor should be at this early stage of the season — but Britton has provided Showalter with a major bullet out of the bullpen who could become an intriguing alternative if the likes of Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, or Bud Norris slip in the coming weeks. The return of Troy Patton from suspension in the near future will also add another left-handed arm to the bullpen.

Regardless of what happens, the Orioles are pleased to simply see Britton back on track.

“He’s throwing the ball with a lot of confidence,” Hunter said. “He’s got a game plan, and he’s sticking to it. Him and [catcher Matt Wieters] are on a good page right now. I’ll pat him on the butt and hope he keeps it up.”

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Orioles clear first hurdle of ninth-inning experiment to start 2014

Posted on 31 March 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The first trial of the great experiment that is the ninth inning was a success in the Orioles’ season-opening win over the Boston Red Sox on Monday.

Manager Buck Showalter sent new closer Tommy Hunter to the mound with a 2-1 lead and the 27-year-old eventually shut the door on the defending World Series champions despite some nervous moments along the way. There will be other uneasy times as a club with postseason aspirations tries to fill the void of Jim Johnson’s 101 saves over the last two years with a bullpen that had just 13 combined major league saves entering Monday.

The Orioles can add one more to that total as Hunter worked around a leadoff hit by pitch and a one-out single before retiring designated hitter David Ortiz — gulp — on a fly out to left and right fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. on a called strike three to send the Orioles to their 11th victory in their last 14 season openers. It took Hunter 22 pitches to get three outs, but there was no better way to acclimate him than against an offense notorious for wearing out pitchers with foul balls and deep counts.

So far, so good.

“That was fun. Hopefully, it’s like that a lot more,” Hunter said. “I had to earn it. That is a way of life in baseball. A one-run game to start the season off against the defending world champs. Here we are.”

Hunter passed his first test and showed the bulldog toughness you often find in successful closers, but there’s no telling whether his propensity for giving up the long ball or struggles against left-handed batters will ultimately lead to his undoing as the Orioles’ ninth-inning man. As Showalter said prior to Monday’s game, the hard-throwing right-hander is merely the first to receive the opportunity to do the job with the likes of Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb waiting in the wings if he falters.

In fact, the first glimpse at the rest of the bullpen was interesting as Showalter turned to left-hander Zach Britton for two strong innings in which he enticed six ground-ball outs. The Baltimore manager then surprisingly handed the ball to newcomer Evan Meek — a non-roster invitee to spring training — to begin the eighth before the former Pittsburgh Pirates reliever walked two batters and forced Showalter to bring in lefty specialist Brian Matusz for the final out of the inning.

Meek had pitched nine scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play to make the club out of spring training, but Showalter’s confidence in a pitcher who spent the entire 2013 campaign in the minor leagues was surprising with O’Day and Webb available.

“It’s not easy,” said Showalter of his bullpen’s four shutout innings. “It’s not always going to look aesthetically pleasing, but it’s a hard thing to do. And you’re playing the world champions and there’s a fine margin for error, whether it be Zach Britton or Evan Meek or Brian Matusz.”

Perhaps his eighth-inning use of Meek was a sign that the Orioles manager himself is still trying to gain a feel for a bullpen that lacks the experienced late-inning man on which you can depend. Baltimore tried to address that need in its pursuit of veteran closer Grant Balfour this winter, but when that deal was squashed, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette decided against throwing money at a veteran reliever with gaudy save totals.

That decision likely made it possible for the Orioles to sign left fielder and designated hitter Nelson Cruz — the offensive hero of Monday’s win with his seventh-inning home run — and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, but it remains to be seen whether the ninth inning becomes the Orioles’ Achilles heel in their quest to advance to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Deciding to jettison Johnson and his nine blown saves from a year ago was one thing, but leaving such inexperience in the closer role appears to be a treacherous path.

Of course, the club the Orioles defeated showed it can be done as Koji Uehara eventually settled into the ninth inning last year to save 21 games on Boston’s path to the title, but even the 38-year-old Japanese pitcher entered 2013 with 14 career saves, the same number the Orioles’ entire bullpen had at the close of business on Monday.

The first venture with Hunter was a success, but there must be more before anyone will rest easy in the ninth.

“I’d like to say they’ll get easier, but they won’t,” Showalter said. “One-run leads in the American League East — home or away — are hard to finish. You know you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We gave it ours, and we were fortunate to come out with one more run than they did and 27 outs.”


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Seven Orioles players to watch closely during spring training

Posted on 11 February 2014 by Luke Jones

The start of spring training will inevitably bring a new batch of clichéd stories about players being in the best shape of their lives or feeling poised for career seasons, but the Orioles will need several players to emerge from the shadows to continue the momentum started over the last two seasons.

After a disappointing offseason that has featured no impact signings or significant acquisitions at this late stage, manager Buck Showalter must look from within the current roster for solutions to hopefully bring the Orioles a third consecutive winning season, a modest achievement they haven’t realized in 20 years (1992 through 1994).

The Orioles face uncertainty in the starting rotation and in the back end of the bullpen as well as at second base, designated hitter, and left field, making this spring’s workouts in Sarasota as important as any in recent memory. However, most answers won’t truly come until the regular season when Baltimore is thrown back into the reality of competing in the heavyweight American League East.

Here are seven players (with their 2013 stats noted in parentheses) to watch closely over the next six weeks before the Orioles break camp ahead of Opening Day on March 31:

7. 2B Ryan Flaherty (.221, 10 HR, 27 RBI, .683 OPS)

The opinions on the 27-year-old Flaherty have been polarizing in his brief major league career with plenty of good (16 home runs in 438 plate appearances and strong defense) and bad (a 12-for-90 start to 2013 that landed him at Triple-A Norfolk in May) over the last two years. However, the former Rule 5 pick appears to be the favorite to replace Brian Roberts as the starting second baseman and hit .276 with an impressive .812 OPS in 156 at-bats after being recalled from the Tides in late May. As we saw early last season, Flaherty’s defense alone gives him a long leash in Showalter’s eyes, but the Orioles hope he finally finds consistency at the plate with no established veteran in the mix as a serious threat.

6. OF/DH Henry Urrutia (.276, 0 HR, 2 RBI, .586 OPS)

The Cuban defector was the toast of the Orioles’ farm system last season as he raked at both Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk — hitting .347 with 31 extra-base hits between the two levels — before being called up to the majors in late July. All but one of Urrutia’s 16 hits with the Orioles were singles, but far too many have written off the 27-year-old while overlooking how tumultuous the last couple years were for him in simply trying to get to the United States, let alone immediately thrive in professional baseball. There’s no question that Urrutia needs to hit for more power to stick, but nearly 20 extra pounds and a full offseason to hone his craft make this spring an interesting one for him as the Orioles are still unsettled at the designated hitter spot.

5. LHP Zach Britton (2-3, 4.95 ERA, 1.725 WHIP)

This year is likely to be Britton’s last chance with the Orioles as he’s out of options and coming off his second consecutive underwhelming season in which he pitched poorly in 40 major league innings and posted an unimpressive 4.27 ERA at Norfolk. Britton walked too many hitters and didn’t miss enough bats (striking out just 4.1 per nine innings), but the fifth starter job is open for now and the fact that other contenders such as Kevin Gausman and Steve Johnson have remaining options gives the 26-year-old lefty a slight edge in the race. His 5-1 start as a rookie in 2011 feels like an eternity ago, but Britton has no better chance but this spring to show Showalter and new pitching coach Dave Wallace that he’s finally figured everything out.

4. OF/DH Delmon Young (.260, 11 HR, 38 RBI, .715 OPS combined with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay)

One of the few players the Orioles signed this offseason who has significant major league experience, the 28-year-old Young agreed to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training and figures to have a good chance to make the club as the right-handed designated hitter. He carries off-field baggage to go along with uneven performance over the last three years, but the No. 1 overall pick of the 2003 draft is a career .303 hitter with an .812 OPS against left-handed pitchers in his career. It was only 2010 when Young had a career season by hitting .298 with 21 homers and 112 RBIs, but the Orioles simply hope he can be part of the answer in a possible DH platoon situation.

3. LF David Lough (.286, 5 HR, 33 RBI, .724 OPS with Kansas City)

The Orioles spent much of the winter talking up Lough’s potential and there’s no doubting his above-average defensive ability, but whether he can handle the starting job in left field remains to be seen. A younger and cheaper version of Nate McLouth, Lough slugged a decent .413 but walked only 10 times in 335 plate appearances with the Royals last season, which isn’t something you’d like to see given the Orioles’ poor on-base percentage as a team in 2013. The 28-year-old hit .292 against southpaw pitchers last season, which bodes well for his chances to play every day, but the Orioles really would have benefited from a substantial upgrade at the position instead of a poor man’s version of McLouth, who wasn’t exactly a world-beater in 2013.

2. 3B Manny Machado (.283, 14 HR, 71 RBI, .746 OPS)

It remains to be seen how much the 21-year-old will play this spring — if at all — as he continues his rehabilitation from knee surgery, but his recovery is critical to not just the 2014 season but the future of the franchise. The Orioles need to be careful in easing Machado back to baseball, but it will be interesting to see if the winter disrupts his progress as a player after some of his flaws at the plate were exposed late last season. As good as he is at such a young age, Machado needs to show more patience at the plate (only 38 walks in 912 career plate appearances) and hit only .239 in the final three months of last season, making his late-season knee injury that much more frustrating in robbing him of the ability to simply hone his craft this winter.

1. RHP Kevin Gausman (3-5, 5.66 ERA, 1.343 WHIP)

For all the discussion about the Orioles failing to land an established veteran starter to anchor the rotation, the 2012 first-round pick taking a giant step forward would be a major shot in the arm to the back end of the rotation. Gausman’s blazing fastball and split-change are plus pitches, but the 23-year-old needs a better feel for a third pitch to give himself the best chance to succeed as a starter. Regardless of where he’s playing, Gausman needs to be pitching every fifth day to develop and should not be in the bullpen as he was in the second half last season. Baltimore hopes that some added bulk to his 6-foot-3 frame will put the righty over the top physically and allow him to put things together quickly at the major league level.

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Orioles recall LHP Britton as another September call-up

Posted on 02 September 2013 by WNST Staff


The Orioles announced Monday that they have recalled left-handed pitcher Zach Britton from Triple-A Norfolk.

Britton, 25, is 2-3 with a 4.76 ERA (34.0IP, 18ER) in six starts for the Orioles this season. In 19 starts for Norfolk, Britton was 6-5 with a 4.27 ERA (103.1IP, 49ER).

In 46 career games (45 starts) for the Orioles, Britton is 18-17 with a 4.74 ERA (248.2IP, 131ER).

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Pondering second-half roles for Britton, Gausman, S. Johnson

Posted on 10 July 2013 by Luke Jones

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BALTIMORE — After optioning pitchers Zach Britton and Kevin Gausman to Triple-A Norfolk after Tuesday’s game, the Orioles are now faced with the interesting question of how each will fit into their plans in the second half of the season.

The return of left-hander Wei-Yin Chen after nearly two months takes away a spot in the starting rotation and hopefully provides more stability than the Orioles have enjoyed since the start of the season. The starting five of Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Jason Hammel, and Scott Feldman doesn’t appear to have any candidates dangerously close to being removed from the rotation, so the question of what to potentially do with Britton and Gausman becomes more interesting.

Josh Stinson’s promotion to the Baltimore bullpen wouldn’t figure to be a long-term solution, but the right-hander provides length that Britton nor Gausman would have been able to offer for at least a couple days. As a result, the two will complete a workday in Norfolk before split pitching duties in Sunday’s game before the International League has its own All-Star break next week.

Though manager Buck Showalter said Tuesday that Gausman working out of the bullpen was a positive in terms of further acclimating himself to playing in the big leagues, the infrequent work he received was a major drawback as opposed to him pitching every fifth day in either Baltimore or Norfolk. Should a need arise due to injury or ineffectiveness, you’d expect Gausman to be near the top of the list of candidates to crack the rotation in the second half.

The thought of Gausman serving in a relief role late in the season is an intriguing one with his tremendous velocity, but it makes more sense for him to pitch regularly and to continue to develop his secondary pitches at Triple A instead of serving in long relief for the Orioles with just under half of the season remaining.

What to do with Britton is a much more interesting case as I broke down his shortcomings following last night’s game. It appears that his best chance for making a contribution to the 2013 Orioles would be as a reliever, but finding a spot for him appears tricky at the moment.

The club already has T.J. McFarland as a long reliever and you wouldn’t expect a second left-hander in that role to be a great fit. Brian Matusz and Troy Patton are also in the bullpen, so carrying a third middle reliever or specialist from the left side doesn’t sound ideal either. For what it’s worth in a small sample size this season, lefties are hitting .325 in 45 plate appearances against Britton while right-handed hitters own a .292 average in 109 plate appearances.

As for the spot currently being held by Stinson in the bullpen, right-hander Steve Johnson would appear to be a good option after the break as he was essentially serving in that role while former Oriole Pedro Strop was on the disabled list earlier this season. Johnson threw off the mound for the first time in Sarasota on Monday and will throw live batting practice on Thursday.

Johnson would be a great fit as a right-hander who can provide length — unlike Strop, which made it virtually impossible to continue to hide his struggles in the bullpen prior to last week’s trade — as well as the ability to contribute in the later innings when necessary. While the club is remaining cautious with his recovery from a strained left oblique, it wouldn’t be farfetched to see Johnson in the bullpen shortly after the second half begins.

In other injury-related news, infield prospect Jonathan Schoop will begin a minor-league rehab assignment with the Gulf Coast League Orioles. It had previously been thought that Schoop would complete his stint with Aberdeen before returning to Triple-A Norfolk, but the club will instead keep him in Florida.

Outfielder Steve Pearce underwent an MRA on his left wrist in Sarasota to check for any structural damage as progress has been slow for his recovery. On the DL since June 21, Pearce’s right wrist is feeling better, but he’s been unable to increase his activity level because of continuing discomfort in the other wrist.

Showalter acknowledged lefty Tsuyoshi Wada was someone the club briefly considered before recalling Stinson for Gausman’s vacated spot, but the Orioles would like to see Wada continue to make progress with the Tides. Asked about his potential second-half role with the club, the Orioles manager said Wada wouldn’t appear to be a candidate for a relief role, making his timetable for a potential major league debut cloudier.

Wada has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last four starts, but the organization feels it’s best for him to continue to pitch every five days instead of in the long-relief role that Stinson will serve over the remainder of the homestand. It also made sense for the right-hander Stinson to be available to back up the lefty Chen on Wednesday night and the Orioles already have McFarland in that role from the left side.

Infielder Wilson Betemit continues to make slow progress and participate in baseball-related activities “as tolerated” while recovering from the torn PCL in his right knee suffered during spring training. Showalter remains optimistic that Betemit will be able to contribute at some point in the second half, but there is no firm timetable for the veteran to even participate in sim games let alone project a return date to Baltimore.

Reserve outfielder Chris Dickson was scheduled to serve as the designated hitter in Wednesday’s game but was a late scratch as Nolan Reimold replaced him in the lineup. No immediate reason was given prior to the third game of a four-game set with the Texas Rangers.

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