Orioles observations: Overcoming offspeed pitches, bullpen quandaries and looking back at Davis at third
As much as it had to be painful for Orioles fans to watch a one-run game get out of hand as the bullpen allowed five runs in the seventh and eighth innings in Friday's 8-2 series-opening loss to the division-leading New York Yankees, watching left-hander Jordan Montgomery dissect the offense with an array of off-speed pitches was just as frustrating to watch.
The only two runs the Orioles scored off Montgomery came on Jonathan Schoop's two-run homer in the second inning, a changeup tattooed an estimated 454 feet. But other than that, the Orioles mounted very little. Ruben Tejada's fifth-inning double was the Orioles only hit off Montgomery after the second inning.
Montgomery went seven innings for the first time in his big league career while recording a career-high eight strikeouts as an impatient fastball-feasting batting order was flummoxed by the off-speed-dominated arsenal.
Out of Montgomery's 94 pitches on the night, he threw just 37 fastballs, two-seam and four-seam, while relying on an arsenal of sliders, curveballs and changeups that ranged from the low-to-mid 80s.
"It's just, the game's evolved," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's a less than 50 percent fastball game and there's no hitting fastball counts, especially when our guys show you they can do that. So, we're going to have to make that adjustment or we're going to continue to see that stuff. I think two out of the last 10 pitchers we've seen throw more than 50 percent fastballs. You can talk about it and talk about it. But there are no fastball counts anymore. It's more than that, but we get behind in the count … we get a two-run homer and that's it. It's been a challenge for us."
Just two of the 13 swings-and-misses Montgomery induced came on fastballs. He drew five from his slider, and three each from his curveball and changeup. He dropped his curveball in for eight of his 16 called strikes.
Meanwhile, the Orioles bullpen, which has been the constant rock of the team in recent years, lacks an identity. Closer Zach Britton is on the disabled list and the team is cautiously optimistic he can return by the All-Star break. And with setup man Darren O'Day landing on the DL on Thursday, the Orioles must overcome being without two of their top two relievers.
That affects the bullpen two ways. First, it puts more pressure on Brad Brach and Mychal Givens to shoulder the load, but it also forces the Orioles to look for more late-inning possibilities.
On Thursday, right-hander Edwin Jackson received the opportunity to come into a one-run game in the seventh inning – a high-leverage situation for a pitcher who was in Triple-A last week – and he allowed three unearned runs, all of them scoring after his own throwing error opened the inning.
Stefan Crichton, whose ascension to the major league roster was quick, has also received that opportunity, but hasn't grabbed it.
Meanwhile, Showalter is waiting for someone to take control of helping to be the bridge to the late innings.
"But I look at it as guys getting an opportunity and you better remember what you did to get here and let it rip when you get here," Showalter said. "But the good offensive clubs in the American League East can put you on your heels. But there's a job there for somebody and we just haven't had anybody grasp it."
Looking back at Davis at third
Part of the reason Showalter gave Chris Davis his first start at third base in more than two years on Thursday was because he didn't think he'd be exposed there by a lefty-heavy Washington Nationals batting order.
It was still an uneasy move for Davis, who came up as a third baseman but hadn't played a game there since Sept. 10, 2014, in the Orioles' 6-1 loss to Washington at Nationals Park, especially when the team went into shifts on left-handed hitters.
"Let me ask you this, how did it look?" Davis deadpanned when asked how it felt being at third. "Because it felt a little awkward. I think the biggest think was maybe the bunt defenses and making sure I had all the signs right. The funny thing was that I knew the signs, but most of the plays we put on, at first base you really don't do a lot. And so I think the shift was a little awkward, too. [Shortstop J.J. Hardy's] basically telling me where to go and moving me around like a Little Leaguer. So I'm like, 'Right here? Right here's good?' But that's to be expected when it's been however many years since I played there."
Davis was approached by Showalter about playing third before Thursday's game. Playing in a National League park -- the game was the makeup of the rained-out May 11 contest with the Nationals – Showalter wanted to have the team's utility infielder, Ruben Tejada, available off the bench, and was also without a designated hitter.
The Orioles played a modified shift on select left-handed hitters Thursday, and Davis was aligned to the right side of second base near the edge of the outfield grass.
"I think it was like a modified shift. We didn't play the normal shift that we do when Schoopy's like a lot deeper in right field," Davis said. "You make do. You do the best you can. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that no balls were really hit my way, but I did take a dive at one that was probably in the outfield by the time I got down on the ground, so I got that going for me."
Manny Machado was out of the lineup for the second consecutive game in Friday's series opener at Yankee Stadium, but Tejada started at third and Davis was back at first base.
"I don't know," Davis said when asked if he believed he'd have to fill in at third again. "We have Tejada, and I know that we have a few options. I think the fact that it was a National League game made things a lot, made things harder because you know there are possible changes late in the game because of pinch hitters or pitchers coming up. We'll see. I'm going to prepare myself for whatever and I'll go out there and play the game. That's all you can really do."