The Orioles begin a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park tonight just two games out of the second American League wild-card spot.
I know it sounds familiar. The wild-card race changes dramatically every day and expect it to take more dramatic turns over the next three days. The Tampa Bay Rays handed the Texas Rangers their seventh straight loss with a 6-2 win at Tropicana Field, the first of four pivotal games between the current wild-card leaders. The Cleveland Indians lost to the Royals in Kansas City, 7-1, on Monday in the first game of a three-game series that goes through Wednesday. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, open up a three-game series against the Blue Jays in Toronto tonight.
For the Orioles, who had an off day in Boston on Monday, not much changes. They still have to treat every game as a must win. The Red Sox have won 14 of their past 18 and could clinch the American League East as early as Wednesday.
The Orioles will turn to Scott Feldman to build on Sunday’s 3-1 win in Toronto. Feldman has pitched well lately, allowing two or fewer runs in five of his past six starts. He didn’t pitch the last time the Orioles played at Fenway Park last month, but he allowed four runs in five innings in a 7-3 loss to Boston on July 27 at Camden Yards.
Feldman is 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in nine career games (three starts) against the Red Sox, but he hasn’t pitched well at Fenway Park, pitching to a 13.50 ERA in two career appearances (one start), allowing a .435 opponents' batting average over four total innings. For Orioles fans, at least it’s a small sample size.
The Orioles haven’t had much success against Boston starter Ryan Dempster. Adam Jones is 4-for-12 against Dempster and Nate McLouth is hitting .259 with two doubles and a homer in 27 at-bats, but Chris Davis (2-for-11), Matt Wieters (1-for-10) and J.J. Hardy (3-for-32) are hitting a combined .113 against the veteran right-hander. In three starts against the Orioles this season, Dempster is 1-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 18 innings.
The club had to make a difficult decision Monday, designating Wilson Betemit for assignment. That allowed the Orioles 40-man space to keep Dan Johnson after having to activate Henry Urrutia from the restricted list because he couldn’t make the trip to Canada this weekend because of visa issues.
Betemit missed most of the season with a gruesome knee injury he suffered during spring training while running from first base to second base. Seeing Betemit crumble to the ground was one of the worst images of the season.
His rehab went slowly and once he rejoined the team in late August, his found himself in a much more reduced role. He went into the season as the team’s starting designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Since his return three weeks ago, he was hitless in just 10 at-bats.
And with the Orioles in the heat of a playoff race, the team didn’t have time to allow Betemit to find his stroke. He missed so much time that it was going to take a while for him to get re-adjusted to major league pitching, and the Orioles simply didn’t have that leeway to give.
Last season, Betemit was the team’s best hitter against right-handed pitching, hitting .302. But his struggles against left-handed pitching -- and his defensive flaws -- made him a one-dimensional player. When there weren't any at-bats left for a left-handed DH, there was little opportunity for him.
The Orioles took some slack last year for giving Betemit a multi-year deal, signing him to a two-year, $2.75-million contract with a $3.2 million vesting option for 2014. Because Betemit missed so much time with the injury, he won’t meet the plate appearances requirement for that option.
Betemit was still a popular figure in the Orioles clubhouse. He was a respected veteran who did tireless pregame work in the batting cages. He knew his job was to hit and he tried his best to be an impact player for this club. He came through with some big hits in 2012.
But the move shows how his role had been reduced with the fact that the team opted to keep Johnson, a late-season pickup when he opted out of his deal with the Yankees, rather than keep Betemit. Johnson is a pinch-hitting threat. One of the biggest homers of his career came at Fenway Park in 2008 with the Rays when Tampa Bay and Boston were jockeying for first place late in the season.
With rosters expanded and a pitching staff so large that matchups become prevalent, Johnson became more valuable than Betemit -- even if just as a pinch hitter.