Reigning home run king Mark Trumbo hitting a game-winning, walk-off home run to give the Orioles a victory wasn’t exactly a foreign sight on Opening Day, though the way the team arrived at that pivotal at-bat, and the lengths they went to win before that speak to a crucial difference manager Buck Showalter sees in this year’s team.
All three of Joey Rickard, Trey Mancini, and Craig Gentry came off the bench and transformed specific deficiencies the Orioles had into strengths that helped them start the season 1-0.
“We’re a product of the parts, and there’s a lot of pieces available that we didn’t have last year,” Showalter said.
Showalter’s deep and versatile bench — for however long it lasts — gives the Orioles almost a National League vibe with their late-game moves. And while Trumbo’s home run wasn’t impacted by it, even his presence in the game at that point was a product of the team’s new roster.
Last season against a right-handed starter Trumbo would have slotted in as the right fielder with Pedro Álvarez at designated hitter. But because of the addition of Seth Smith, who started in right field, Trumbo was the designated hitter, and the team didn’t have to choose between his game-changing bat and a better glove.
What they did do, however, was take left fielder Hyun Soo Kim out of the game in the seventh inning for Joey Rickard. And in the 10th inning, Showalter pinch-hit rookie Trey Mancini for Smith against left-hander Aaron Loup, then had Craig Gentry run for Mancini and take over in right field.
Gentry was running on a pitch when center fielder Adam Jones was up, and Showalter said he would have stolen second had Jones not made contact. While the Orioles didn't score that inning, Gentry's action on the bases helps illustrate how the team changed from the first pitch to the last.
In truth, it was almost two different teams. Smith and Kim are the first-choice outfielders against right-handed pitching, but are limited in their defensive range. Once starter Marco Estrada came out of the game, Showalter began shifting toward a team that was better defensively at the corner outfield spots. Getting a typically strong at-bat from Mancini, who fell behind swinging away at fastballs but stayed back on a two-strike breaking ball for a single up the middle in the 10th inning, was a bonus.
The challenges in utilizing all these pieces will be abundant. For starters, the Orioles can’t carry this deep a bench and bullpen for the whole season. But one question will be addressed Wednesday against left-handed starter J.A. Happ; Showalter will likely start Rickard and Mancini. Kim and Smith will be valuable bats off the bench in the late innings against right-handed relievers, but there’s a defensive sacrifice there to take Rickard out, even if you just pinch-hit one of the others and get Gentry into the game after.
There’s also the question of when to pull the trigger. Showalter could have used Gentry to run for catcher Welington Castillo in the ninth inning. Instead, Castillo stayed in the game and was doubled off first base on a line drive out by Rickard.
There’s also the temptation to use Mancini’s bat earlier, though it seemed worth waiting Monday.