Jake Arrieta deserves the benefit of the doubt, and I take him at his word when he said after the Orioles' 8-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates last night that he "just had one of those nights" when he didn't feel too good physically. The right-hander had a 7-0 lead by the time he took the mound for the second inning, yet he proceeded as if every one of his pitches could win or lose the game. Arrieta is a bulldog. He wants the ball, he keeps himself in great shape and, above all, he has great stuff. His biggest issue is that he pitches way too tentatively at times. If you have the lead he had last night, you have to figure out a way to go at least seven innings. That's not going to happen when you are going to three-ball counts with every batter, including one of the Pirates' relief pitchers. It's something I believe Arrieta will learn and get better at, and he'll have to. He has made 16 starts and has pitched more than six innings in only three of them. But let's be clear: The Orioles have way too many other issues before they have to start worrying about Arrieta, who has made major strides in his first full big league season.
A case could be made that the most important development last night was not the long-awaited breakout of the offense, but the performance of reliever Jason Berken. Sure, the right-hander had a five-run lead to work with, but he retired all six Pirates he faced and struck out three. He spotted his fastball and mixed in some nice sliders and very much looked like the Berken from the first half last season. The Orioles simply can't rely on Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara to pitch multiple innings every time they have a lead in front of Kevin Gregg. With Alfredo Simon on the disabled list and Jeremy Accardo recently designated for assignment, the Orioles need a couple of "bridge guys" to emerge. Berken has been in that role before and done well. He just needs to get his confidence back, and an outing like last night's could go a long way.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next two games of the series, but one thing that shouldn't be overlooked is how the Orioles got into the Pirates' bullpen by the third inning last night. The Orioles have struggled mightily this year to knock opposing starters out of the game, which is what the other teams in their division do on a nightly basis. The Pirates used four relievers -- two for two innings or more -- in relief of Charlie Morton a day after they played an 11-inning game. Closer Joel Hanrahan, a likely All-Star, was forced to throw 23 pitches in the top of the ninth. I don't know the Pirates well enough to conclude who will be available and who won't be tonight, but you can bet that bullpen won't be at full strength. Not only is seeing several relievers in the first game of the series beneficial because the familiarity helps in later matchups, but you also ultimately could make certain relievers unavailable for the next couple of days. It is such an obvious observation. However, it's something that the swing-early-and-often Orioles rarely do.
My colleague Dan Connolly wrote plenty about Mark Reynolds the past couple of days, so I don't think we need to again debate the third baseman's performance and worth. But I thought it would be appropriate, especially after Reynolds' three walks last night, to point out that he has walked 41 times this season. That's 20 more times than Nick Markakis, who is second on the team. Besides Reynolds, only three players on the Orioles have 20 or more walks -- Markakis (21), Luke Scott (20) and Robert Andino (20).
A lot will depend on how Jeremy Guthrie fares tonight, but it certainly sounds as if the Orioles will push back Brian Matusz to Saturday or Sunday while starting Chris Jakubauskas in Friday's series opener against the Cincinnati Reds. The Orioles want to give Matusz every opportunity to build up his arm strength and straighten out his mechanics before he returns to game situations. They also noticed that Matusz's velocity was up a tiny bit and his stuff was a little crisper in his previous start, which came on extra rest.
Now, to another topic that I have beaten to death: If I'm Orioles [resident of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, I'm getting on the phone with J.J. Hardy's agent immediately and trying to get a contract extension done. Every day, Hardy does something to prove his worth and remind me that he's a far better player than I thought he was when the Orioles traded for him. His getting two outs last night on Garrett Jones' grounder in the sixth was such a heads-up play, and he also added two hits and a walk. There are several potential contenders that need a shortstop, and only one of them can get Jose Reyes. The Orioles figure to be in a great position either way, but my vote would be to re-sign the guy. I don't care that Manny Machado is getting promoted to High-A on Thursday and could be ready for the big leagues by 2013. The Orioles need to retain as much talent as possible. For years, the Orioles have struggled to find one major league-caliber shortstop. Having two would open up so many options.
I'm not sure how it came across on television, if it did at all, but it was quite an atmosphere last night at PNC Park. There was a lot of orange in the crowd, and several "Let's Go Orioles" and "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" chants that broke out throughout the game. This is my first trip here, and I couldn't have been more impressed by the ballpark. I can see why so many Orioles fans are interested in making the trip. It was an impressive showing.