Miguel Gonzalez

Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez pitches in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. (Adam Hunger, USA Today Sports / April 9, 2014)

So here's the good news for Orioles fans: The club heads into its six-game homestand against the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays having won three of the past four games and doing so without their Gold Glove left side of the infield, Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy.

It wasn’t long ago when it seemed like the Orioles were facing must-win situations in April. But after opening the season losing five of six, they head into the weekend 4-5.

The bottom of the lineup is starting to produce, manager Buck Showalter has again mastered the art of using his bullpen, closer Tommy Hunter is 3-for-3 with save opportunities and the offense has shown its potential for the big inning over the past two games.

But here’s the bad news: The Orioles' starting pitching definitely needs to improve.

Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez turned in a gritty effort on Wednesday night, allowing three runs over six innings for a no-decision. He really made two big mistakes, a pair of solo homers by Carlos Beltran and Kelly Johnson in the second inning.

Gonzalez’s outing was the Orioles’ second quality start over the season’s first nine games. The team’s only other quality start was Chris Tillman’s 8 1/3-inning, one-run masterpiece on Sunday in Detroit, an outing the team really needed to turn things around.

But as a whole, the Orioles starting rotation has an unsightly 6.06 ERA. Only Minnesota (6.89) and Arizona (6.57) have higher ERAs from their starters – and those two teams are a combined 7-14.

Even worse, opposing hitters have batted .341 against Orioles starters, the highest average in baseball. The rotation’s WHIP of 1.69 ranks second-to-last (Minnesota, 1.74).

Stats can be misleading sometimes, but these aren’t. Orioles starters are allowing too many base runners and putting themselves into tough situations too often, which is leading to high pitch counts and some early exits.

Showalter has been able to overcome that because he’s found some flexibility to the bullpen. He’s used several relievers in different ways and has utilized several different relievers – Zach Britton, Evan Meek and Josh Stinson among them – for outings of more than an inning.

And the way Showalter used left-hander Matusz on Wednesday, bringing him in to face lefties Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann with the go-ahead run on third base and one out, showed a lot of trust. So did telling Matusz to issue an intentional walk to Beltran to put another runner on base in a tied game.

“Matusz comes in with a man on third and he gets Ellsbury to pop up,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said of Matusz, who has stranded 51 or 56 inherited runners since moving to the bullpen in 2012.  “Big out. That’s a big out because usually Ellsbury is a guy who gets the guy in from third base. Big out.

Said Hunter: "That was huge. It was a big situation going in and he knows it. … He's good at what he does and I'm glad he's on our side."

Hunter made it interesting in the ninth, allowing the first two hitters of the inning on base with a pair of hits down the right-field line – a leadoff double by Alfonso Soriano and a infield single that popped out of Chris Davis’ glove at first.

But Hunter battled through an eight-pitch at bat with former Orioles  second baseman Brian Roberts that ended with a sacrifice fly. He hen got a much-needed double play ball from Yangervis Solarte to end the game.

“They made it exciting," Hunter said. “That was one of the last things I expected him to do right there, but it was a good end to the game right there.”