Even matched up against a New York Mets lineup that’s found it nearly impossible to score of late, the pair of starts turned in this week by Alex Cobb and Dylan Bundy are part of a slow progression toward stability that the Orioles rotation has been on for nearly a month.
That they enter this four-game set with the Toronto Blue Jays Having posted a rotation ERA of 4.53 since Chris Tillman landed on the disabled list and they settled on the current group of Cobb, Bundy, rookie David Hess, Kevin Gausman and Andrew Cashner is only notable considering they had a major league-worst 5.84 ERA on that date, when this group took hold. The rotation’s season ERA is 5.29, still in the bottom third of the major leagues. And that's on the heels of two seasons in which the starters have had ERAs of 5.70 in 2017 and 4.72 in 2016.
Progress is defined in a lot of ways, even small ones to be sure. But it's been the team's contention all along that with strong steps forward from Gausman and Bundy, plus steady contributions from new additions Cobb and Cashner and the hope for some young pitching to emerge, the rotation was set up to be a stabilizer on the team both now and in the future.
Manager Buck Showalter continues to believe that will be the case, and wants to think he's seeing it now.
"I hope so," he said. "It's like I said earlier, pitching every fifth day and being the same pitcher every time out is really, really hard to do. Just the sum of the parts as far as the rotation, we’re starting to get a little depth in it now. Not only here, but down below, so down the road I still think this year and next year and years to come it’s got a chance to be strength of ours. And from within.”
Entering Wednesday, the Orioles were still only 20th in the game in rotation ERA since May 11, a date that's made significant because that's when the badly struggling Tillman ceded his rotation spot and went on the DL. But that's up from 30th in the majors before Tillman went on the DL, and features the good and the bad for pretty much everyone involved.
Bundy began that spell in the throes of his bad stretch of three starts, but has four quality starts in five counting Wednesday's seven scoreless innings.
Cobb has never as an Oriole had the caliber of pitches or the results that he did when he pitched six innings of two-hit, one-run ball with a season-high seven strikeouts Tuesday. That was his third quality start in six during that stretch, with one bad one mixed in at the Chicago White Sox. The unsuccessful start to his Orioles career, when he allowed 17 earned runs on 30 hits in 11 2/3 innings over three starts, gets further behind him with every turn through the rotation.
Gausman has been back to the uneven version of himself in that span, having lowered his ERA to 3.30 after his first start of May but posting a 6.84 ERA in five starts since — even with two quality starts.
Hess has been hurt almost exclusively by home runs in his four starts, and those were a factor in only one start. In the other three, he has gone at least six innings and allowed three or fewer runs, bringing him to Thursday's start with a 3.47 ERA.
And Cashner, even with a 5.02 ERA, has given the Orioles a chance to win in three of his four starts since May 11.
That they're 9-14 in that stretch isn't terribly positive on a team level, but that has just as much to do with them averaging 3.5 runs per game over that span. And that number is inflated considering that 35 of those 80 runs came in three of those wins.
But this is a team that needs to grasp at whichever glimmers of positivity it can find at 19-41, and doing so with the success of a rotation that's the only thing expected to be left intact as the team sheds some pending free agents over the next couple of months is a fine place to start.
Pretty much everyone save for Cobb has proved susceptible to home runs, and only Gausman and Bundy have consistently missed bats and struck hitters out, which is vital considering the Orioles defense has not been a friend to its pitching staff this year.
Yet shortstop Manny Machado said he thought as he watched Bundy use four pitches to keep down the Mets on Wednesday that that was the type of performance that could anchor a rotation.
"If he does that, I think he can carry this pitching staff and get this pitching staff going where they're going," Machado said. "With Cobb, how he threw the ball yesterday, he was doing the same thing — putting the ball where he wanted it, and I think if the pitching staff keeps doing that, I think we could start getting rolling."
Closer Brad Brach said the team's recent scores are "definitely an indication" of the rotation gaining form.
"I know that we're not scoring the most runs right now, but our pitching is keeping us in it and every game is close," Brach said. "You've just got to be ready to go, and the starting rotation is definitely picking up their slack or whatever you want to call it right now, and just kind of keeping us in the game and giving us a chance to win."