Their record is predictably terrible and the pitching staff has by far the highest ERA in the major leagues, but the Orioles have been more competitive in a lot of games than those two facts might suggest.
Their big first-inning comeback Friday night led to one of their most exciting and uplifting victories of the year, and not just because it was a statistical anomaly turned loose by two last-place clubs.
It’s because just about every regular in the Orioles batting order is either meeting or exceeding expectations.
Big deal, right? How hard could that be when the expectations coming into the season were so far below the equator?
Well, it is a pretty big deal that Renato Núñez — a guy you probably had never heard of until a year ago — entered Saturday’s game against the San Francisco Giants on pace to hit 40 homers with 96 RBIs this season.
Who cares if the ball is juiced? That’s a lot of run production for a player who had appeared in 30 major league games before the Orioles plucked him off waivers from the Texas Rangers last year.
Everyday utility infielder Hanser Alberto was designated for assignment four times in four months before the Orioles claimed him a second time March 1. But he has been one of the teams steadiest hitters — his batting average hovering around .300 for most of the season.
Catcher Pedro Severino is the main reason the Orioles have the best caught-stealing rate in the majors, which is consistent with his reputation as a good catch-and-throw guy with the Washington Nationals. But he has proven that with regular playing time he can be surprisingly productive with the bat.
The list goes on, but if this is a surprise to anyone in the clubhouse, no one is willing to say so. The Orioles shook off an immediate five-run deficit in Friday’s series opener against the Giants, and Dwight Smith Jr. hammered the point home with the first-inning grand slam that just as quickly turned the game around.
“We scrap offensively,’’ manager Brandon Hyde said. “We have tough nights, but our guys bring it on a nightly basis, and I just love the way they didn’t play to the score. They played for themselves, and Smitty got us over the hump with the grand slam.”
Hyde has been saying that all along, but it’s easy to assume he’s just trying to keep things positive during this challenging rebuilding season. The offense isn’t exactly sitting among the best in the league. The Orioles entered Saturday ranked in the 20s among the 30 major league clubs in most offensive categories, but they are on top of a number of teams that can’t be happy to be looking up at them.
Established outfielder Trey Mancini is doing his thing, and he said it isn’t a coincidence that so many of his teammates have gotten comfortable at the plate. He credits the way hitting coach Don Long and assistant hitting coach Howie Clark for the long hours spent in the cages with all of them.
“Overall, as an offense, I think we’ve done a really good job this year,’’ Mancini said. “Don and Howie work so hard with each of us individually and we kind of come up with our own plans. We’re all a little bit different hitters and we all know our strengths and weaknesses. They really get the best out of us.”
In some cases, it’s possible other organizations have simply underestimated or underutilized players — such as Alberto, Smith and Severino — who are responding well to their first regular playing time at the big league level.
Severino was known for his rocket arm in the Nationals organization and hit well at times in the minor leagues. But he said Saturday that the Nats wanted him to concentrate on his defense so they could maximize their pitching staff.
Playing four or five games a week with the Orioles, he entered the weekend hitting a solid .268 with a terrific .351 average against left-handed pitching. His five homers in 32 games this season is one more than he hit in the 105 games he played for the Nats over parts of four seasons.
“My job over there was to have the mentality to win the game and call a good game and not think about my offense,’’ he said. “Right now, I feel free to do what I think Seve would do, you know what I mean. Everything is going good. I’m seeing the ball good. My timing is really good. It was tough to play once a week and take one at-bat in the ninth inning against a good closer. That’s really tough.”
Smith, who was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 2011 draft, got into just 47 major league games for the Blue Jays the past two years, batting .293 with two home runs and nine RBIs. He’s hitting .257 after 54 games with the Orioles, but he has 10 home runs and leads the team with 35 RBIs.
If it has been entertaining to watch some of those offensive exploits, it’s difficult to interpret how any of the emerging players fit into the long-term strategy of the new front office.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has put a premium on stockpiling young talent, but hasn’t made it clear just how young that talent has to be to remain in the mix until the team — hopefully — blooms in the next few years.