ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Orioles' bizarre 2015 schedule — which included a game held without fans and a three-game homestand in Florida because of the riots in downtown Baltimore — will have one final strange wrinkle this week.
For three games starting Monday, the Orioles travel down I-95 for a late September interleague series against the Washington Nationals. Orioles' pitchers, who haven't been forced to hit since June 17-18 in Philadelphia, will have to grab a bat for the series. It's the latest the Orioles have had to deal with an interleague series since the concept began in 1997.
"I understand the reason for it," Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "But you hate to see it this late in the season."
This is the third year the American League and National League each have 15 teams, so there must be one interleague matchup each time there is a new series of games.
So there was an Opening Day interleague series this year (Boston at Philadelphia) and will be one to close the year (Houston at Arizona). It's a a quirk in scheduling.
And late-season interleague play won't go away. Next year the Arizona Diamondbacks come to Camden Yards on Sept. 23-25, which is the Orioles' last set of home games of the 2016 season.
At least with this week's series, the Orioles won't have to travel far from home in the middle of a 10-game road trip. And they'll be facing another team in a similar situation.
A year ago at this time, the Orioles and Nationals had already clinched their respective divisions on their way to identical 96-66 records. This year, barring an unforeseen collapse by teams above them, the Orioles and Nationals will fail to make the playoffs.
While Showalter's job is secure, rumors are swirling around Nats' manager Matt Williams, who has been criticized for his handling of his pitching staff and his high-salaried roster's dropoff. The Nationals are 78-71 and were seven games behind the New York Mets in the National League East when play began Sunday.
Williams, last year's NL Manager of the Year, has often said he leaned a lot about managing while playing for Showalter in Arizona and considers him a mentor. The Nationals contacted Showalter to inquire about Williams as a managerial candidate. Showalter also worked with Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo in Arizona.
Williams is on the hot seat, but Showalter said he didn't feel comfortable discussing his friend's managerial future.
"I don't know the situation," Showalter said. "We all think we're experts on things that we're not. … There are a lot things that go on that you're not aware of, and a lot of things that people that report on it and weigh in on it don't know."
Showalter said he's not sure whether he'll talk to Williams about his situation while in Washington — and if he does, he's not sharing it with the media.
"It's kind of his call," Showalter said. "If something like that happens, I won't broadcast it. I have some private thoughts. I'm on the outside looking in. I don't know all the variables."
Showalter praises Eastern League champs
Showalter talked for several minutes Sunday afternoon about how proud he was of Double-A Bowie Baysox manager Gary Kendall and his team for beating Reading on Saturday to win the first Eastern League championship in Baysox history.
"How cool was that? I was getting updates during our game," Showalter said. "You thought I was calling video replay."
Showalter said a championship on any level — from Little League through the minors — is significant. It can help teach a player what it takes to be a winner through a grueling season, he said. And that could be important because some of the organization's top prospects are on that Bowie club, including first baseman Trey Mancini, catcher Chance Sisco, outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and pitcher David Hess.
"I think learning how to win and what makes you win games is an important part of development," Showalter said, "A lot of organizations, you hear them say when they don't win, 'Well, we're developing players.' And when they do win, they say, 'That's part of development.' So it's kind of a convenient thing. I think they go hand-in-hand."
O's meet Cal Ripken World Series champs
Members of the 2015 Cal Ripken World Series champions, the Manatee All Stars based out of Bradenton, Fla., walked through the Orioles' clubhouse Sunday, meeting several players and Showalter.
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They had a special connection to the big league club. A shortstop/pitcher for Manatee, which is made up of fifth and sixth graders, is Stone Russell, son of Orioles' bench coach John Russell.
It was a special moment for the proud father as he introduced his son's team to his current team. Russell, who has managed previously in the majors, admitted he was a little nervous as his son's squad progressed through the national tournament.
"You get the nervous father (thing), where you really want them to do well and want them to continue to win," he said. "Just like the major leagues, you got to get some breaks here and there. In the long run, they played great defense and can really pitch."
Showalter spent several minutes with the players, asking each one for their name and questioning several on which positions they played.
Around the horn
RHP Miguel Gonzalez (elbow, shoulder) threw a 30-pitch bullpen session Sunday and it went well. His next step will be live batting practice or a simulated game. If he continues to progress, he could be activated to pitch next weekend. … INF Jonathan Schoop went hitless in four at-bats, snapping his career-best 12-game hitting streak. … The Orioles ended the season 10-9 against the Rays and 8-5 at Tropicana Field. Because three home games were moved from Baltimore to Florida in May, the Orioles' 13 games at Tropicana Field were the most in the regular season by one club in the opposition's stadium since the Pittsburgh Pirates played 13 games at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1955. … Showalter said he would expect RHP Tyler Wilson to get another start before the season ends. He allowed six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings Friday. … SS J.J. Hardy was out of the starting lineup Sunday. Showalter said he wanted to give the 33-year-old a break after playing on the Tropicana Field turf for three straight games. Paul Janish made his first start since Sept. 5 in place of Hardy. … Kevin Gausman faced his former LSU teammate Mike Mahtook for the first time in the big leagues and retired him all three times on a strikeout, fly out and ground out. … Chris Davis' 43rd homer ties him with Rafael Palmeiro (1998) for fifth-highest, single-season total in franchise history.