This is about the fifth time I've uttered this phrase this season, but this upcoming stretch will be a good test. The Washington Nationals lead the NL East, the Cleveland Indians lead the AL Central and the Los Angeles Angels are the hottest team in baseball since April 28, when the heavens opened and uber-talent Mike Trout descended to become the new Angel in the outfield. They are 32-18 since then.
The Orioles almost certainly will be without Nick Markakis for this nine-game homestand. Markakis (hamate bone surgery on June 1) was hoping to be back before the club leaves for the West Coast on July 1, but he is still dealing with soreness in the wrist area, and the Orioles aren't going to rush him back.
They miss him two ways: One, Markakis, despite hitting just .256, puts the ball in play. He's fanned just 37 times in 199 at-bats this year. The Orioles have five guys with at least 50 strikeouts this season. And Matt Wieters has 49. They lead the majors in strikeouts and are 23rd in on-base percentage – that's a tough combo if you need to manufacture runs.
Also, Markakis' absence in right is a real strain on center fielder Adam Jones. He won't admit it, but it isn't easy for him to be flanked in the outfield by guys who aren't traditional outfielders: Chris Davis, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Pearce, Steve Tolleson, and potentially Robert Andino. Jones was charged with an error Thursday when he collided with Flaherty in left-center and dropped a fly ball. As the outfield general, it's Jones' responsibility to get to every ball he can. Flaherty is an inexperienced outfielder – he's a shortstop by trade – and didn't pull off when he should have.
Here's what Jones had to say about that play: "Miscommunication. It happens. It's frustrating that it happens. It shouldn't happen with our defense. But it happens. I told him not to beat himself up. It's something that a lot of young players can beat themselves up about and get away from playing the game that got him here. I told him, 'It happens, it's all right. Go after the ball like you would any other time.' I think I've got to be a little more aggressive in calling the ball."
The buzz right now is about Jamie Moyer – who on Wednesday threw his third game for Triple-A Norfolk. That was the magic number that Dan Duquette mentioned when he signed the 49-year-old lefty earlier this month. The inference was if Moyer pitches well in three starts, he'd get called up. Well he has pitched well, 1-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 16 strikeouts and no walks in 16 innings. Honestly, given that the Orioles have three starters with a 5.00 ERA or higher, it would be surprising if Moyer does not start a game for the Orioles this week.
One bit of caution about Moyer, though: a 16-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Triple-A doesn't automatically suggest he'll post anything close in the majors. Triple-A hitters are famously undisciplined, and Moyer's strikeout ratio in 10 starts with Colorado this season was 2-1 (36 strikeouts, 18 walks in 53 2/3 innings). He was 2-5 with a 5.70 ERA for the Rockies and gave up 11 homers in 10 games.
I wouldn't be surprised if there were a real rotation shakeup by the All-Star Break or sooner. Chris Tillman (6-8, 4.02 at Norfolk) has thrown quality starts in four of his last five games, and Zach Britton, who had struggled in his first three starts at Norfolk after his return from a shoulder injury, threw his first quality start for the Tides on Thursday.
You have to assume that rotation spots are available with Tommy Hunter (3-4, 5.70), Jake Arrieta (3-9, 5.83) and Brian Matusz (5-8, 5.00) not consistently pitching well.
We're still awaiting official word on Nolan Reimold and his neck problems. It's tough to speculate on a guy's health and career, but it's fair to say the chances of him playing again this season don't look good. And that's a shame – more for Nolan than the Orioles. The guy keeps himself in great shape and worked hard to claim the starting left field job. And just when he was flourishing, he was felled by this issue. Terrible break.