All it has taken is one road trip to show how important Thursday’s starting pitcher for the Orioles’ home opener, Matt Harvey, will be to keeping the team competitive for as long as possible this summer.
Atop the rotation, there’s John Means, who with an impressive start to the season seems to be in the best form of his major league career after another successful outing in the Orioles’ 4-3, extra-innings win over the New York Yankees on Wednesday night. Before him came rookies Bruce Zimmermann and Dean Kremer on either side of unproven 28-year-old Jorge López.
This first turn through the rotation in Boston and New York showed the most reasonable expectation for that group. There might be good spells, and there might be bad ones, but more often than not, one pitcher will turn in a winning start while the other two will put on a tight-rope act that puts them on track for pavement.
Three good starts in a turn through the rotation allows a team room to breathe, saves the bullpen and makes for less pressure when there is a lead to protect.
The linchpin who will help determine what exactly this Orioles rotation is, then, is Harvey, the former All-Star with the New York Mets who is years removed from pitching at a high level, but confident he’s found something for the Orioles that can help him contribute in a way he couldn’t at his more recent stops.
They won his first start Saturday in Boston with Harvey pitching 4 ⅔ solid innings, and the veteran right-hander knows what’s needed of him in the Orioles rotation.
“I think every guy, as a starting pitcher you know what your job is,” Harvey, 32, said. “Whether you’re young, whether you’re older, whether you’ve been experienced or not. The goal of a starting pitcher is to get six, seven innings and not tax the bullpen.
“I think you kind of learn that at a young age, and you definitely learn it as more of a veteran — there’s days where you can kind of save the bullpen and really take over, and it helps everybody. It helps the whole team.”
The way the Orioles’ rotation is set up with Harvey pitching after Means creates the possibility of fewer relievers being used, thus setting up the bullpen to more effectively back up the other three starters. Zimmermann’s six-inning start was the best and longest of that group.
The point of this Orioles season will be to get the likes of Kremer and Zimmermann, and eventually Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells, to the point where they can be relied upon the way Means was as a rookie. Zimmermann, the Ellicott City and Loyola Blakefield product, is certainly off to a good start after the first win of his major league career Sunday.
But Harvey will be asked to provide that sort of stability in the interim. Manager Brandon Hyde was full of praise for Harvey and how he threw strikes, mixed in his reinvigorated two-seam fastball and used all of his pitches against the Red Sox. He dealt with base runners early and often, but managed to get out of the game with two runs in and helped the Orioles to their opening-series sweep.
Harvey will have to get through the fifth to give the Orioles what they need from him; someone making half his $1 million salary could probably turn a lineup over twice in four-plus innings.
He averaged a hair under five innings per start in 2019 with the Los Angeles Angels and worked as a starter and reliever in Kansas City last year. The Orioles’ focus on analytics and using data to help him and his delivery were certainly pluses to coming to Baltimore, but a player who has been to the heights Harvey has also likely wanted a chance to be part of a rotation and get the ball every fifth day.
Part of the responsibility that comes with that is to provide value to the team, and Harvey’s first start in Orioles colors at Camden Yards will be another opportunity to prove he can.
“I haven’t in a while been a huge strikeout guy and I hope to get back to that at some point whether that’s tomorrow or the near future but I think what we’ve been working on through spring training is pounding the ball, throwing strikes, trying to get early outs,” he said.
“Obviously I didn’t do a very good job of that my last start, and you’re going to have some of those games. The biggest thing is weak contact, trying to get early outs and trying to be in the game as long as you can. That saves your bullpen now, and it really saves them throughout the season.”
Thursday, 3:05 p.m.
Latest Baltimore Orioles
TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM