HOUSTON — Before Tuesday's game against the Houston Astros, the Orioles hitters strode around the clubhouse in shirts bearing the phrase "POFO," a phrase representing something that's often alluded to among the players: productive outs for Orioles.
That the shirts arrived on a day they struck out 19 times in a 13-inning game, in a stretch in which their strikeouts have shot up, is immaterial to those who wear them. To hear the phrase defined by hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, who had the shirts made, Tuesday's game that frustrated so many who watched actually played right into that strategy.
"I think the bottom line is you get two strikes and they're yours," Coolbaugh said. "After two strikes, the third strike is the team's. That's really what it boils down to.
"Once you get to two strikes, you have to find a way to put the ball in play or find a way to extend the at-bat, to make it tougher on the pitcher so even when you do make an out, the next guy behind … you might get a mistake. Good things happen. That's kind of passing the baton."
By that definition, even some of those strikeouts can be classified as productive.
"It's not so much giving yourself up or moving the runner for an out," Coolbaugh said. "An out is an out. It's about having quality at-bats, and when you get into the situation, when you get into two strikes, you have to do whatever you can to get that pitcher to extend that at-bat. Fouling off pitches, tough pitches, and be disciplined in your strike zone to know you're not afraid of strike three."
Those whose shirt sizes were not taken for this charcoal gray run of cotton clothing might view a productive out as something like a sacrifice bunt, or moving a runner into scoring position. Some of the Orioles do, too. But they're not the type of team that's built to do that, and they're quick to acknowledge it. Center fielder Adam Jones after last night's game said the team's DNA is to swing hard and take the good with the bad.
"That's who we are," first baseman Chris Davis said. "I think if the front office wanted a bunch of slap hitters and base stealers, they would have signed those guys. We're a three-run home run kind of team, and with that comes the strikeouts. But I think guys have done a pretty good job early on, not just going up there and hacking but really trying to put together good at-bats and that's the biggest thing.
"If you look at strikeouts, are you looking at just the strikeout total or how we're getting to the strikeout? I don't see a lot of guys going up there, like I said, just gashing, hacking at three pitches and just sitting down. I feel like we're working counts, trying to get something accomplished and sticking to the plan."
That's a sticking point for catcher Matt Wieters, who seems baffled by the notion that the Orioles are suddenly this floundering offensive team that strikes out too much. They struck out 18 more times Wednesday and have 372 on the season for an average of 8.46 per game. They entered Wednesday with the 18th most in the majors.
"I don't really see all the panic out of the media about all the offensive struggles — [four] days ago we scored nine runs," Wieters said. "I think it's the media that keeps bringing up offensive struggles. We feel completely confident in here."
The approach that led to the ballyhooed strikeout total was actually what the Orioles wanted, Wieters said. Doug Fister is a strike-thrower, and the Orioles waited him out to the point that he had to exit in the sixth inning. More often than not, getting to a team's bullpen that early will not result in 16 strikeouts by that bullpen.
"Everybody will look at the strikeouts," Wieters said. "It was the fact that we were willing to get deep in the count — which has kind of gotten us in trouble before, not getting deep into counts — that was able to get us into the bullpen. Granted, they threw the ball well against us yesterday, but we were able to get to the bullpen and get the starter out, which is productive in that aspect."
So, yes, the Orioles took what Wieters called a "Buck-ism," for manager Buck Showalter, and ascribed positives to strikeouts. But they rightly point out that the 65 home runs they have hit, and the 26-18 record that came with it, has worked out more often than it hasn't, and likely will again before long.
"We've shown signs of it all year, the beginning of the year," Coolbaugh said. "It's just kind of gotten into a little bit of a funk, and I just think yesterday was an aberration of things not going well and frustration kind of built up, then we end up trying to do too much to make up for it, so to speak. … We just didn't stay with it long enough and kind of finish off some of our at-bats. That's going to happen throughout the course of the year. It's just a matter of making guys aware of it. You've got to come out the next day and let it go, come out the next day with the attitude that we're going to be able to continue to build on that."