In some ways, the Orioles are still trying to figure out what they have in Alec Asher, and on days like Friday night, the biggest question is how the Philadelphia Phillies dealt the 25-year-old right-hander for next to nothing.
Asher continued to be one of the club’s biggest surprises walking off the field to a standing ovation in the seventh inning of the Orioles’ 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox after his third quality start in four starts this season.
“Awesome,” Asher said of receiving the ovation from the announced crowd of 33,193 at Camden Yards. “Awesome. That was probably one of the coolest things I’ve experienced. Just being able to hear the crowd cheer for you is great.”
Back in March, Asher was battling for one of the last spots in the Phillies bullpen before he was traded to the Orioles in the final week of spring training for a player to be named later or cash. That began an unpredictable trajectory into a multipurpose bullpen role and ultimately the fifth spot in the Orioles rotation.
He was coming off his worst outing of the season Sunday -- his first start since displacing struggling right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez in the rotation. But the Orioles (29-24) showed their faith in Asher by giving him another start Friday against the Red Sox.
Up until then, Asher had been nothing but good while filling multiple roles – spot starter, long man and late-inning reliever – and manager Buck Showalter believed one rocky outing shouldn’t force a haphazard decision to bump the right-hander. It didn’t hurt that Asher’s first win as a starter this season came against the Red Sox, as he filled the spot created when right-hander Chris Tillman missed the season’s first month with shoulder problems.
Asher (2-3) rewarded the Orioles’ faith in him Friday, holding the Red Sox to two runs on three hits over 6 1/3 innings, and outpitching reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello (3-7).
“We won the game because of how he went out there and did his job,” Orioles third baseman Manny Machado said of Asher. “He got us back in the dugout when we needed to go back in the dugout and hit. We needed him to keep us in the game; he kept us in the game. Anytime you can take advantage of a pitcher like [Porcello] early on in the game, it’s always big.”
Asher held a Boston team that entered the night ranked second in the AL in hitting to just one hit over his first five innings – a solo homer run by Pablo Sandoval in the third. Asher retired 16 of the first 17 batters he faced.
It was the perfect rebound from Sunday, when Asher’s command escaped him as he allowed six runs in a 42-pitch second inning against the Astros.
“Obviously, you don’t want to have bad outings back-to-back,” Asher said. "You kind of want to jump back on the wagon. It’s nice to rebound and have a good game. But we win the game, that’s the No. 1 goal.”
On Friday, Asher went back to what made him successful, pounding the bottom part of the zone with his sinking fastball and using that to build off breaking ball success.
Asher got ahead of the Red Sox early in the count, he threw first-pitch strikes to seven of his first 10 hitters and 12 of 22 on the night, relying on the two-seamer and an occasional curveball. He used the latter mostly against the three left-handers and two switch-hitters in the Boston batting order. Working the bottom part of the zone, he drew 14 called strikes on his sinker – he threw the pitch 45 times – and four swings and misses, and complemented it with a his new cut fastball that allowed him to work both sides of the plate.
"Just get ahead of hitters and pound the strike zone,” Asher said. “Just pitch the game that we settled through to do and just let things happen. … You know, just to give the team a chance to win is my main goal, and when I'm out there, I'm going to try to get guys out for as long as Buck lets me."
His one real mistake on the night was a 1-1 sinker with one out in the third, a pitch he left up to Sandoval, who sent it over the left-field fence. Otherwise, Asher stifled the Red Sox. Just seven balls left the infield – Asher was the beneficiary of five infield popouts and five groundouts.
“He had a lot of pitches working,” Showalter said. “I was really impressed that -- there are little things you look at. Like after giving up the home run to [Sandoval], he comes right back and gets the next guy out and doesn’t walk him. How many times do you see people get fearful of the barrel and get out of the zone after that? Also, [Hanley] Ramirez hit a couple home runs off him last time. That’s the thing you like about Asher. He ain’t scared. He got right back in the fight and did a big job for us tonight. Probably threw him four or five more pitches than I wanted to, but he got into that seventh.”
Asher yielded a leadoff double to Xander Bogaerts in the seventh, and a run was charged to him after right-hander Mychal Givens allowed an RBI single to Jackie Bradley Jr. later that inning.
In three outings against the Red Sox – including two starts – Asher owns a 3.62 ERA. On May 2, he held Boston to three runs over six innings at Fenway Park.
More importantly, Asher has three quality starts in his four starts this season. He began to show that his previous outing was out of the norm, and continued to earn the confidence the Orioles have shown in him.
“We live in a world where we’re all looking for dents in the armor,” Showalter said. “[We ask] what does somebody know that we don’t know? This guy’s not 30 years old. He’s one of our younger guys on the staff. I just like his demeanor. He’s got a little you know what in the giddy up. He likes competing, and he’s a watcher. He watches the game. He’s very approachable about anything. He has an opinion, but he doesn’t have all the answers.
“[You tell him we’re] putting you in the bullpen tonight, ‘I’ll be ready.’ Threw two innings, ‘Hey, I’m good tomorrow.’ And it’s not some false stuff like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be sent out.’ That part of it has been impressive. And I’ve said many times, if you have a good delivery, you’ve got a chance to repeat pitches.”