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Orioles analysis: Struggling starters finally go deep in Oakland

All it took for the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation to hit its stride was getting away from the East Coast.

Some 3,000 miles away, playing games while most of their fans were already in bed, a pair of Orioles starters combined to go 14 innings without allowing an earned run in wins over the team that has scored the most runs in the major leagues.

Jason Hammel went six innings giving up no earned run in the series opener against the Oakland Athletics on Thursday and Wei-Yin Chen followed with not only the best performance by a Baltimore starter this year, but also the best outing of his career. Chen threw eight innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits.

Until that point, Orioles starters hadn't been consistently getting deep into games. Nor had they been particularly effective during their short stays on the mound.

The Orioles headed west with their starters sporting a 6-6 record and a 4.88 ERA. Only the Cubs, Blue Jays, Angles, Indians and Padres had fewer wins and the ERA ranked 23rd in baseball. Additionally, Baltimore starters had lasted only 118 innings in 21 games, meaning they were going just under 5 2/3 innings per start. They had yet to have a starting pitcher make it through seven innings.

Manager Buck Showalter had been asked often about the failure of his starting pitchers to go deep into games.

"I'm hoping we get to a point where we can get another question," he said.

Maybe now they have.

A big reason for the struggles had been too many bases on balls. Through 22 games, Orioles starters had given up a major-league worst 57 walks. (Meanwhile, they were just tied for 23rd in strikeouts by starting pitchers with 81).

"I know that they've been frustrated, they've been talking that they're frustrated with the walks here and there, but it's still early," closer Jim Johnson said Tuesday. "Right now we're just trying to tread water until everyone gets in their groove."

The starters, obviously, know what ails them.

"We've got to eliminate those walks and we'll be fine," starter Miguel Gonzalez said Tuesday. "It looks like all of our starters are struggling with that."

Hammel, the "workhorse" of the staff who has pitched at least six innings in each of his five starts, gave up two walks Thursday.

Chen averaged six innings per start before Friday. Gonzalez averages the same. Chris Tillman has pitched more than 5 1/3 innings just once in four tries and Jake Arrieta never got past five innings in four outings before being shipped back to the minor leagues. (Josh Stinson's lone start lasted 5 2/3 innings, prompting a quick demotion).

Outside of the Orioles' decision not to re-sign slugger Mark Reynolds, the organization's most controversial choice during the off-season was to not bring in a proven starting pitcher to replace lefty Joe Saunders or to compete with the remaining pieces for a spot in the team's rotation.

The beginning of 2013 has been a bit like the beginning of 2012, when three-fifths of the season-opening rotation (Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz) was demoted to the minors, to the bullpen or both.

The Orioles are off to a good start (14-9 through Friday) but it has been largely in spite of the rotation.

Their record can be attributed to a bullpen that has picked right up where 2012 ended, to an offense that ranked second in runs scored heading into the weekend, and to a defense that includes arguably the best defensive left-side-of-the infield and catcher-center-field combo in the game.

The danger, of course, is that an ineffective rotation will lead to a tired bullpen. After a busy homestand for the relievers, it seemed a certainty the current 11-game West Coast swing would severely test the pen.

But that was before Hammel and Chen got it going, necessitating only three relievers to work a total of four innings over two days.

Whether this is a true turnaround or an aberration might just dictate the entire course of the season.

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