Five thoughts as the Orioles return home from daunting road trip to Houston, New York

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Circumstances forced the Orioles to play a lot of baseball this weekend in New York — 37 innings in about 46 hours starting at 7 p.m. on Friday — but three wins in four tries in New York made the train home a happy one for them.

Ten games is too few to completely define a season, but the beginning of this season facing all five of the playoff position occupants from the American League last year is as difficult an assignment as a team can get.

The Orioles still have a losing record, and thereby a losing record against playoff teams. But what went into their 4-6 start is just as important as the end result. Here are five thoughts on how they arrived at this point that, using an NFL analogy, basically puts them at Week 1 of the season.

1. Celebrating a 3-4 road trip says a lot about the context of this team

Considering this seven-game swing to visit the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees — the two ALCS combatants from a year ago — had the chance to completely torpedo this season before it ever really got going, a 3-4 trip is on closer "shrug-and-nod" on the happiness-to-sadness scale than anything else.

A 1-2 homestand to start the season amplified some of the early fears, and in Houston, pretty much nothing except for Dylan Bundy matched up to their counterparts, who are the class of the league. Then Andrew Cashner came in and helped them to a victory Friday, Manny Machado and the bullpen starred in Friday's 14-inning game, everyone was tired and Chris Tillman got hung out to dry on Saturday, and they overcame a five-run deficit to win in extra innings Sunday.

Nothing about this April is easy, and Alex Cobb is on his way. A few more weeks of surviving can allow this team a little reset, which will be welcome as long as they're still in touch with the league leaders.

2. No one is really hitting yet

As a collective, the Orioles' offense hasn't done much to be thrilled about. Their 116 strikeouts are 20 more than the next-closest team. They're averaging 3.7 runs per game, batting .210 as a group, and the very real issue of teams pitching them backwards and making them work to get to their preferred power attack isn't going away. (Through 10 games, they've seen 44.6 percent fastballs, according to FanGraphs. It will be interesting to see whether Scott Coolbaugh is correct in that it's just an Astros and Yankees thing and not a league-wide one).

Manny Machado had a great series in New York, both at the plate and in the field, and leaves New York batting .310/.396/.500. Adam Jones is still Adam Jones. Pedro Álvarez is a walk machine off the bench. Trey Mancini is batting .316 with a .409 on-base percentage since taking over as the leadoff hitter Thursday. But none of the other regulars have gotten things moving yet, including Jonathan Schoop and Tim Beckham. They're always at their best when the bottom of the lineup and bench players like Danny Valencia and Craig Gentry chip in themselves, but they should be supplementing the stars, not out-performing them.

3. The bullpen has workload and leverage problems

With 26 innings of relief over four innings in New York, the Orioles' bullpen bears a lot of responsibility for the team pulling itself out of its 1-5 start. Richard Bleier has been the most reliable of the bunch. But as a group, they also did plenty to contribute to the team's early woes.

Brad Brach caused extra innings on Opening Day, and after getting back on track with a few appearances in Houston and New York, needed a very smart 1-2-5 double play with Caleb Joseph to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the 12th Sunday. Mychal Givens hasn't gotten in sync yet on the mound, and almost lost Friday's game on a wild pitch with a runner on third that was only saved when he made an incredible plate-blocking play to prevent the winning run. Darren O'Day has pitched well when he's been called upon, but oversaw the Yankees tying the game in the seventh Sunday with Tanner Scott's baserunners.

Rule 5 picks Pedro Araujo and Nestor Cortes Jr. presided over Monday's game in Houston getting out of hand, though neither allowed a run in New York and Araujo showed some serious mettle in 4 1/3 innings of relief in New York. He fanned six while allowing two baserunners.

It's early enough that roles are still being shaken out, and nothing about the series in New York represented a normal work schedule for the relievers. Their 48 2/3 innings of work this year is second-most in the league already — more than the Tampa Bay Rays, who have no starting pitchers. But a lot will be asked of them without Zach Britton, especially in close games, and the results have been mixed so far.

4. The Orioles' starters pitched backwards a lot, and it helped

On Saturday, Chris Tillman threw more sliders than fastballs for the first time in his major league career. Granted, he didn't really have a slider that he liked and trusted until 2016, but it worked to keep the Yankees off his fastball and he was in control until he tired in the sixth inning.

He said it was something he noted Kevin Gausman did well the night before. Gausman admitted after the game that he has to use his slider and splitter more because teams know he's so fastball-heavy now, so he cut that back and threw his fastball just 51 percent of the time. He'd only threw it less frequently once last season, and got through five innings without his best stuff. On Thursday, Andrew Cashner threw his fastball 53 percent of the time, and got most of his outs on his cutter.

It could just be a Yankees team, with the Orioles trying not to supply heat for their big bats to turn around. But there's value in having a good gamplan like they did on the mound this weekend and pitching to it, and the Orioles rotation set themselves up with plenty to build on this weekend.

5. Alex Cobb can help this team, and Andrew Cashner already has

Cashner coming into Yankee Stadium for his first career start there as his team carried a five-game losing streak and keeping the Yankees at bay is the type of thing that changes the feeling around a team. It's something the Orioles have lacked, especially with their free agent and trade acquisitions on the mound, and it's something he brought them and turned the week around with. He's already helped, and Cobb will, too.

Mike Wright Jr.'s disastrous start pretty much assured it would be him and not Chris Tillman who cedes a rotation spot to Cobb after the Orioles' highest-paid free agent pitcher in club history completes his final extended spring training start Monday and gets ready to join the team. All there is to go off at this point is his track record, but it's a good one. And barring a disaster, the Orioles will still be afloat when they get Cobb on the mound for the first time. This daunting trip could have tripped them up out of the gate and left them out of the race entirely. That didn't happen, and now they can look to Cobb for what they need going forward.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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