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First task for new pitching coach Roger McDowell: fix slow-starting Orioles rotation

Though he's a longtime reliever, new Orioles pitching coach Roger McDowell said on a conference call with local reporters Tuesday that he had no problem connecting with his starters over his long career as the Atlanta Braves' pitching coach.

If there's one thing he'll have to work out quickly with the six major league starters that return from the Orioles' rotation it's just that: working things out quickly.

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The Orioles' pitchers were the worst in the American League in the first inning last season, posting a 5.67 ERA. One of the two major league teams that were worse? That would be the Braves, who had a first-inning ERA of 5.76 in 2016.

The difference, of course, was that the Orioles were an aspiring playoff team that has invested heavily in draft picks and free agent signings to have a competitive rotation. Atlanta had shed itself of its more reliable starters, and outside of Julio Teheran, had a rotation full of promising young pitchers who proved that they weren't ready for the major league rotation.

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In McDowell's past, not only were the Braves' pitchers much better than they performed since their rebuild began two seasons ago, but their first-inning track record was much cleaner, too.

The 2014 Braves rotation had a 3.50 ERA in the first inning. Through the meat of McDowell's time there, the Braves started games out with no higher than a 4.09 ERA over a six-season span.

There's certainly something to be said for the quality of pitchers he had at that point, but the Orioles' starters had a 4.52 ERA after the first inning — over a full run better than their opening frame — so it's not like they're as bad all game as they are at the start.

McDowell has been in the game long enough to know there's no blanket solution for all pitchers. Every Orioles starter said late last season that he had his own way of combating the problem. Chris Tillman said he tries to treat the first inning like he's trying to earn a save in a one-run game, a device aimed at making him more focused.

That could mesh well with McDowell's theories on handling all of his pitchers — if you execute, good things will happen.

"I think whether it's a starter or reliever, that's what our goal is — to execute pitches as frequently as we can," McDowell said. "I don't want to say it's not difficult [to work with starters], but my thing is just narrow it down to one pitch. It's always the next pitch, whether you're a starter or reliever. That's the part that you try to convey to the pitchers, that you can't bring back the last pitch. Your focus is on the next pitch, and it's always the next pitch and the execution of that pitch. It's the same for me, just execution of pitches on a consistent basis."

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