Unlikely sources providing late lift for Orioles

September 25, 2016 | Luke Jones

Teams hoping to play in October often need help from unexpected sources along the way.

The Orioles acquired Steve Pearce at the trade deadline to aid their lineup against left-handed pitching, but the veteran was lost for the season after undergoing right forearm surgery last week. Minor-league prospect Trey Mancini received the call to the majors to take his place on the roster just a week ago.

The 24-year-old has responded by becoming the third player in major league history to homer in each of his first three starts to begin his career. His solo blast off Arizona lefty Robbie Ray gave the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the fourth as they’d ultimately win 6-1 to retake the lead for the second wild card in the American League.

Mancini has yet to collect a single in the majors as all four of his hits — three homers and a double — have gone for extra bases. Whether it’s short-lived success or the start of a good major league career, the spark has provided a lift at a time the Orioles have needed it with the memory of the four-game sweep to Boston still in their minds.

Of course, the rookie hasn’t been alone as Wade Miley turned in Baltimore’s second-longest start of the year on Saturday, allowing one run over 8 2/3 innings and nearly pitching the club’s first complete-game shutout in over two years. Miley matched a career high with 11 strikeouts and has now allowed one run over his last 12 2/3 innings dating back to his injury-abbreviated start last Sunday.

Who would have predicted that 10 days ago?

Facing two last-place teams has certainly helped, but Miley has commanded his fastball much better over his last two outings and is pitching with more confidence. With Kevin Gausman pushed back due to an intercostal strain and the Orioles wanting to give Dylan Bundy extra rest between starts, Miley’s improvement couldn’t have come at a better time.

After Saturday’s gem, the lefty cited a recent conversation with Scott McGregor in which the former Orioles pitcher advised him to try “easier” on the mound and to relax. Whatever he said has at least worked temporarily for the veteran starter whom many wanted to be banished to the bullpen for the remainder of the season after posting a hideous 8.41 ERA in his first eight starts for the Orioles.

He isn’t the first maligned Orioles pitcher to reverse his fortunes recently as Ubaldo Jimenez has served as one of their top starters over the last month. Recent performance doesn’t erase either pitcher’s giant missteps in 2016, but at least they’ve salvaged some good grace in helping down the stretch.

Jones sets career high

Often criticized for his aggressive approach at the plate, Adam Jones set a new career high when he drew a leadoff walk in Saturday’s first inning.

The 31-year-old now has 38 walks this season, surpassing the 36 he drew in his first All-Star campaign back in 2009. His 6.0 percent walk rate isn’t as high as his 6.9 percent mark from that season, but it’s substantially higher than where it’s been in recent years.

Jones owns a .366 average with a 1.012 on-base plus slugging percentage when swinging at the first pitch in his career and is hitting .316 with a .979 OPS on the first pitch this season. He surely goes through stretches when that approach hurts him, but I’ve always argued that the five-time All-Star center fielder would not be the same hitter if not for his aggressiveness early in the count.

Say what you want about how it might look at times, but Jones now has six straight seasons of at least 25 homers and 82 RBIs and has produced an OPS of no worse than .764 in any year over that time. He’s bounced back admirably from the rib injury that hurt his production over the first six weeks of 2016.

Drake quietly impressing

The Orioles bullpen recently welcomed back 2015 All-Star selection Darren O’Day, but right-hander Oliver Drake has quietly impressed since being recalled in late August.

In his last 11 innings, Drake has pitched to a 1.64 ERA with 14 strikeouts and only two walks and earned his first major league victory with a scoreless inning on Friday night. Manager Buck Showalter has cited improved fastball command and a tighter splitter as the reasons for his improvement at the major league level.

That splitter makes Drake particularly effective against left-handed hitting.