I'm sure that it was discussed during the MASN game broadcast last night, but it kind of was lost postgame with Jeremy Guthrie's strong performance and the news that Zach Britton was coming up to the big leagues and Brian Matusz was headed to the disabled list. However, I'd say that it was a little telling when after Ben Zobrist hit a homer off Jim Johnson to lead off the ninth inning and make it a three-run game, it was Kevin Gregg that started getting warm and not Koji Uehara. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has declined to reveal his regular closer, but the consensus in the clubhouse all along was that Gregg would be the guy. Perhaps last night was more proof of that.
You continue to hear Oriole coaches and players rave about the strides Matt Wieters is making behind the plate. There was another example last night that stood out to Showalter. After allowing the homer to Zobrist, Johnson fell behind Johnny Damon 1-0. With a three-run lead, the last thing the Orioles wanted was to allow another baserunner and get the crowd at the Tropicana Field more involved, believing that a comeback was possible. Damon obviously was aware of this and was ready to take a nice hack at a fastball. Instead, Wieters called for a changeup, Johnson threw it and it completely fooled Damon who mustered only a weak and confused swing. Johnson struck out Damon, fanned Evan Longoria and then got Manny Ramirez to ground out to end the game. It was a nice sequence by Wieters and a nice comeback for Johnson. And speaking of Wieters, he and Guthrie had a tremendous tempo working all night. I guess that's easy to do when Guthrie is throwing every pitch for a strike, but it was nice to see nonetheless.
That Oriole officials were willing to call up Britton shows just how important they believe it is to get off to a decent start and continue the momentum that they built last year with the final two months under Showalter. I was told by pretty much anyone and everyone in the team's front office that it was a no brainer decision and they would not bring Britton up and blow a year of service time for the sake of having him in the rotation two weeks early. It eventually took three injuries to change their minds. Justin Duchscherer is currently shut down with back and hip injuries. Matusz will be out anywhere from three to six weeks with a left intercostal strain. And Brad Bergesen is technically not injured, but him getting drilled by the Denard Span liner set him back to the point where the Orioles don't believe he is stretched out enough to pitch late in games right now. Enter Britton. I have mixed feelings on this decision, but it is indeed hard to criticize a move that makes the Orioles a better team in the present. And just because he is up now doesn't mean he'll be guaranteed to use the full year of service time.
All the talk about the Orioles strengthening the middle of their lineup with the Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds additions is obviously appropriate. But the thing that struck me most last night was how much tougher the bottom of the order got with the addition of J.J. Hardy. Not only did he hit the double and then score the Orioles first run, but he worked David Price for a walk to set the table for Brian Roberts' two-run triple. And that defense play he made in the hole in the seventh inning was a thing of beauty as well. With Reynolds hitting seventh, Wieters eighth and Hardy ninth, there will be no easy innings for an opposing pitcher. They are going to be unable to relax at any point. It's hard to underestimate that factor.
I know it was just one game, but it didn't surprise me at all to see Nick Markakis have two quality at-bats against a really tough lefty. That single in the third inning to drive in the Orioles' first run was vintage Markakis, who didn't try to do too much with a tough pitch and just lined it into left center field. The sacrifice fly later in the game was just a professional at-bat. I watched Markakis last spring and predicted that he would have a monster year. We obviously know how that ended up so I've abstained from making any grand pronouncements about the Orioles right fielder. However, I will say that the guy looked like he was ready to start the season four weeks ago. He's been locked in since the moment he set foot in Sarasota.