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Orioles manage to stay even at end of strange first month

In what likely has been one of the most trying periods of his career, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has attempted to deflect the spotlight away from him and his team.

Yes, the Orioles made baseball history Wednesday by playing a game in front of no fans due to ongoing unrest in the city. Yes, they'll have a doubleheader on a May day off due to postponements Monday and Tuesday. Yes, their next three "home" games will be played in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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But Showalter scoffs at the idea that things are difficult for his crew.

"To say something that we are going to go through on a baseball field playing in the big leagues is difficult is really insensitive to everything else that's going on," Showalter said. "It's a small thing for us, comparatively speaking."

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Frankly, Showalter's Orioles thrive under adversity – as first baseman Steve Pearce says, "It seems like our backs are always against the wall."

Heading into Saturday, the Orioles were on a five-game losing streak and in danger of being left behind in the American League East. But that night, reserve outfielder David Lough hit a 10th-inning, game-ending home run and the Orioles haven't lost since, bringing their record to 10-10.

It matches their record through 20 games last year, when they ultimately ran away with the AL East. The Orioles had a losing April (11-12), and were 15-15 in May, but eventually posted their best campaign in 17 years.

The bottom line: 20 games in a big league season are akin to two games in the NFL. There's plenty of time for things to go right – or wrong. But with one month officially behind them, there are some observations that can be made about these Orioles. Here's a look at some interesting storylines one month in.

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Wieters and Hardy sidelined: The hushed hope for catcher Matt Wieters' return from elbow surgery last June was May 1. Well, that's here, and he hasn't played in a real minor league game yet. (He's been limited to catching parts of extended spring games.) If the progression continues, a minor league rehab assignment is probably on the horizon in a week or two. Wieters doesn't like to speculate on return dates, so we'll do it for him. Late May to early June seems reasonable.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy initially provided the media with a few timetables for his return – but he won't do it anymore. His left shoulder still isn't quite right after hurting it while diving for a ball in March. At the time, he thought he might be back by the club's first homestand.

But he has experienced lingering discomfort after swinging a bat and had a cortisone shot Saturday. His hope is he can start a rehab assignment this upcoming week. He'd need to play in three or four games before returning, so the best guess is, if all goes well, he is a week to two weeks away.

The Great Ubaldo?: The Orioles knew that right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez was frustratingly inconsistent when they signed him to a four-year, $50 million deal before last season. And he was pretty consistently terrible for most of 2014. This year, Jimenez has a renewed purpose.

More important, he's repeating his mechanics and his split-fingered fastball is disappearing from batters. He's compiled a 2-1 record and 1.59 ERA while allowing just 10 hits and eight walks while striking out 22 batters in 22 2/3 innings.

He was the Orioles' best starter in April. And, though he seemingly is always one mechanical issue away from disaster, his emergence could end up being a huge lift for the club.

What's up, Bud?: Right-hander Bud Norris has been the opposite of Jimenez so far. After a strong season last year in which he set personal bests in wins (15) and ERA (3.65), Norris struggled in the spring and his woes carried into April. In four starts, he's 1-2 with a 12.18 ERA, though he lowered that mark significantly in his last start by allowing just three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings against Boston on Sunday.

He has struggled with his fastball command, which makes his nasty slider less effective. And armchair managers have already called for him to be put in the bullpen, where Kevin Gausman is waiting his turn. Norris bought some time with his last outing and deserves a fairly long leash after his 2014 performance, but he needs to produce consistent results. He's capable of that.

Defending the defense: Showalter puts an emphasis on defense, and his Orioles clubs are traditionally among the best defensively in the AL. Not so much this season. Heading into Thursday, the Orioles' .979 fielding percentage was 13th of 15 teams in the AL.

They have made 15 errors in 20 games and third baseman Manny Machado, who was named the league's best overall defender in 2013, leads the team with five errors. He has uncharacteristically rushed throws and whiffed at choppers. Getting Hardy – and eventually Wieters – back will certainly help. So there's no panic here. But it's worth monitoring.

The incomparable Mr. Jones: Simply put, Adam Jones is the club's best and most consistent player. At age 29, this could be his signature season. It sure has started that way. He is hitting a league-best .400 with five homers and 19 RBIs while playing all 20 games.

He's also being a little more disciplined at the plate – walking five times and fanning 10 times in 84 at-bats. He's on pace for 40 walks; his career high is 36. Could this be the year he cracks the top five in AL MVP voting? He finished a career-best sixth in 2012.

Taxing a limited 'pen: Heading into Thursday, the Orioles are 13th of 15 AL teams in ERA (4.78), in starters' ERA (5.06) and bullpen ERA (4.35). There is something to be said for consistency. The starters also are averaging just over five innings an outing, and that puts a lot of stress on a bullpen that has demonstrated more cracks than in the recent past.

Zach Britton has done a fine job closing so far this year, but his bullpenmates have had some trouble getting to him (thanks in part to some shaky defense). Part of the problem is that Brian Matusz is the only other lefty besides Britton. Also, the team is carrying 22-year-old rookie Jason Garcia, who must be kept on the roster all year or be exposed to waivers. He has shown flashes, but can't be used in high-leverage situations. It's a tough spot for Showalter, who is better than most at using his bullpen.

The corners: Machado's healthy knees have made him a fixture at third base, which is encouraging. But the first base situation is muddled. Chris Davis has gotten his swing back recently, but Pearce, last year's big surprise, lost his for a few weeks. Davis has been holding down the first-base job while Pearce has been limited to part-time duty. That's partially because of the recent emergence of switch-hitting Jimmy Paredes, who is considered a third baseman, but is best at designated hitter. It has created a logjam of playing time, which is fine if everyone buys into Showalter's team-first concept.

twitter.com/danconnollysun

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