Bottom of the order playing key role for the Orioles

Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty and Steve Lombardozzi all major factors as club hangs around .500

It would be easy enough to look at the way the Orioles have hung around the .500 mark through the first three weeks of the new season and wonder what might have been had Manny Machado been able to start the season on time and had J.J.Hardy not temporarily been reduced to a part-time player by back and hamstring problems.

It also would be grossly unfair to the three players who have stepped into that breach.

Jonathan Schoop might be getting more "seasoning" at Triple-A Norfolk now if Machado were playing every day at third base. Ryan Flaherty might be riding a lot more pine, and who really knows whether newcomer Steve Lombardozzi would even be on the Orioles roster, though you have to believe executive vice president Dan Duquette would have jumped at that win-win deal with the Detroit Tigers, regardless of the situation.

The point here is not to say the Orioles are better off because a couple of key players have been unavailable. The club is counting the days until Machado heads off for a minor league rehabilitation assignment and rejoins the major league starting lineup. And don't ask manager Buck Showalter whether there's a bright side to the unpredictable situation with Hardy, unless you want to take a verbal haircut that leaves you with the word "dunce" trimmed into the side of your head.

When those two guys come back healthy, the Orioles again will field one of the most potent lineups in the major leagues and reassemble most of the defensive alignment that made history last year with the fewest errors and highest fielding percentage in a 162-game season.

That'll be all good, but the Orioles have bounced back from a rocky opening week to hang tough in the American League East, and it's not just in spite of the fact that they've had to go with Plan B in the bottom third of the lineup. There's plenty of room to make the case that it is because of the performance of those three players.

While it's tempting to look at a frustrating game, such as Sunday night's sloppy loss to the Boston Red Sox — on national television, no less — and contend that there is no way the infield defense would have melted down that way with all the first-string guys in the lineup (and that's almost certainly so), it's more important to recognize the dynamic role that Schoop, Flaherty and Lombardozzi have played in the Orioles' success so far.

They haven't just held the fort. They have made a major contribution to the team's offensive chemistry in the games the Orioles have won.

Lombardozzi, for instance, has played in eight of the Orioles' nine victories and hit safely in all eight of those games. He's batting .412 when the Orioles win.

Schoop started seven of the nine wins and batted .379 with a home run and eight RBIs. Flaherty, who got off to a very discouraging start at the plate, also played in seven of the first nine wins, batting .320 with six runs scored and three RBIs.

If you want the amazing totals, the three of them combined during the Orioles' first nine victories to bat .375 with 14 runs scored, 33 hits and 13 RBIs.

Of course, there is a flip side to those impressive numbers. The bottom third of the batting order has been almost invisible at the plate when the club loses, hitting a combined .146 with just three runs scored and one RBI. Defensively, the inexperience of Schoop has loomed large in a couple of losses, and the trio's seven errors all have come in defeat.

That isn't exactly counterintuitive from a cause-and-effect standpoint. In general, everyone plays better in wins than losses, but the across-the-board offensive performance of Schoop, Lombardozzi and Flaherty — who have batted a combined .260 and scored or driven in a total of 31 runs in 19 games — has been a very positive development.

In addition to the raw numbers, the team has been able to give Schoop an extended major league audition and get Flaherty and Lombardozzi some everyday playing time.

There might be a tough roster decision ahead when Machado is ready to return, but no one is going to complain about having too many effective infielders in the organization.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

 
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