ANAHEIM, CALIF. -- It happened within two days on the same road trip, casting an already weary pitching staff to the edge of despair.
On April 29, Jaret Wright, the Orioles' No. 3 starter, made it through just three ineffective innings against the Cleveland Indians before the same achy shoulder that has dogged him for much of his career rendered him unable to pitch.
On May 1, Adam Loewen, the team's No. 4 starter who appeared poised to have a breakout season, pitched five innings against the Detroit Tigers, but realized that an elbow that had been bothering him for several starts was far more serious than he had originally thought.
The Orioles knew that afternoon in Cleveland that Wright likely would miss most if not all of the season. But they didn't anticipate Loewen having a stress fracture in his left elbow and being lost until August at the earliest. The two injuries, combined with Kris Benson's decision to have season-ending surgery before the season began, left the Orioles without three of their projected five members of the rotation.
A drop-off seemed inevitable, but not only have the Orioles not experienced one, they've also seen improvement since inserting relievers Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Burres into the rotation. Entering last night's series opener in Anaheim, Orioles starters posted a 3.04 ERA this month and held opponents to a .221 average. That's compared with their 4.66 ERA and .253 average against in April when their staff was closer to full strength.
"That wouldn't be your first thought coming out of that, but at the same time, the guys have done a great job," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "I think the pitchers have pitched well, but I also think there is an influence that is starting to show from [pitching coach Leo Mazzone]. I think it has kind of been brushed aside with how well we've been pitching. It doesn't happen overnight."
For the season, Orioles starters have a solid 3.77 ERA, the third best in the American League behind the Oakland Athletics (3.18) and last night's opponent, the Los Angeles Angels (3.72). The staff's batting average against was .236, the second lowest in the league behind Oakland.
Erik Bedard, the staff ace, and Steve Trachsel, who arguably has been the club's most consistent pitcher since April, credited the emergence of Guthrie and Burres.
"Even though you lost a couple of guys, you can't go out there and put too much pressure on yourself," said Bedard, who is 4-3 with a 3.67 ERA. "You have to have confidence in the guys coming in. Guthrie has been unbelievable - seven innings every time and giving us a chance to win, and Burres has done the same thing. We've had some good replacements."
Said Trachsel: "The two guys you have to look at are Guthrie and Burres. You knew Bedard could do it and I have a history of being able to do it. But Burres and Guthrie have had an opportunity to step up with the injuries and gotten a chance to establish themselves. I wouldn't really say it's competitive, like we are trying to outdo the other guy. But the same way hitting is competitive, pitchers can be that way with quality starts as well."
Entering last night, Orioles starters had worked at least seven innings in 10 of their past 16 games and in 13 of the past 26 games. That statistic is even more impressive considering Orioles starters got through seven innings in only four of the season's first 27 contests. Orioles starters had a 4.70 ERA through 27 games, but a 2.97 ERA since then.
Bedard has experienced the most dramatic turnaround, though a combination of meager run support and bad relief work hasn't reflected it on his win-loss record. He was 3-2 in six April starts with a 6.09 ERA, but went 1-1 with a 1.71 ERA in six May starts. He was winless in the month until Wednesday night, when he pitched eight shutout innings to beat the Kansas City Royals and help the Orioles complete a three-game sweep.
"Everybody panicked," Bedard said. "The first month I [stunk]. But now everything is better."
The same applies to the rotation as a whole.