Orioles manager Buck Showalter had the Houston Astros' penchant for living off pitching backwards wired before Friday's series opener against the best team in the American League. And in the 8-7 loss to the Astros, the script played out as Showalter expected, with right-hander Mike Fiers flummoxing the Orioles' fastball-feasting batting order with soft stuff.
Asked before Friday's game whether the AL West leaders' arrival at Camden Yards served as a litmus test for the Orioles after their four-game sweep of the Texas Rangers, Showalter shrugged, "Was the Cubs a litmus test?"
The Orioles hope for a better result after getting swept by the Cubs in the first three games out of the All-Star break a week ago, and Showalter saw parallels — two organizations that rose to prominence through solid drafting and player development after several moribund years.
But the Astros are unique in the way they've dominated the Orioles in recent years. Friday's loss was the Orioles' 10th in their past 11 meetings with Houston dating to the beginning of last season.
The Orioles rallied with six runs off the Houston bullpen in the final two innings Friday, but even with their late comeback, they've scored three runs or fewer in seven of their past 11 meetings with the Astros.
The Orioles scored five runs in the ninth inning, with three of their four hits coming off fastballs, something they didn't see much of against Fiers earlier in the game.
Two Houston starting pitchers the Orioles see this weekend – Fiers and Sunday's starter Lance McCullers Jr. – rank in the top six among qualified AL starters who throw the lowest percentage of fastballs per start. Fiers went into Friday's starting throwing fastballs just 42.4 percent of the time, and McCullers just 40.3 percent.
On Friday, Fiers held the Orioles to just one run on six hits over seven innings, striking out nine.
"Really, it's all over baseball, not just him," Showalter said after the game. "You've got to be able to handle something off-speed. Their guy reminds me a lot of [Marco] Estrada in Toronto. A lot of changeups, high fastballs, big leg kick, front side jumps at you. He seems to always be throwing the pitch you're not looking for. But obviously it was different pitchers that we did it against. Their bullpen's been pretty good, too. That's a good baseball team. We came within a swing of tying it up."
Fiers actually threw more fastballs than usual Friday, using his four-seam or two-seam to start out the count on 17 of the 28 batters he faced on the night. The two-seamer helped him get ahead early in the count – he recorded 12 called strikes on the pitch, according to baseballsavant.com – and it allowed him to use his curveball and changeup to keep the Orioles hitters off balance.
"He was changing speeds," Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "He was filling up the strike zone and when he needed to expand, he had us out on our front foot. That really kinda was the game plan going in and we knew that he was going to throw a lot of off-speed pitches and use his fastball in spots. It's tough to hit on your heels."
It led to a frustrating outing for the Orioles against Fiers. They did square him up on occasion, with each of Manny Machado's first three at-bats having exit velocities above 101 mph – 111.5, 101.3 and 106.2 – but those rockets offered no hits to show for it. Mark Trumbo's sixth-inning lineout came off the bat at 103.6 mph.
"Yeah, I don't think guys are going up there and sitting on pitches, but you have an idea of how he's going to approach you. And when he starts pitching you backward and then speeds you up, it's tough, but that's just kind of the game we're in right now," Davis said. "You've got to find ways to make adjustments and I feel like we hit a lot of balls hard. Manny, his first three at-bats, it's kind of the beautiful, sick thing about it, you know?"
On Saturday, the Orioles will see right-hander Collin McHugh, who will be making his first start of the season after spending the entire year on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Last season, McHugh threw his four-seam fastball just 35.7 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs, and complemented it with a cutter (29 percent) and curveball (30 percent).
And then Sunday, there's McCullers, who throws his curveball an AL-high 46.1 percent of the time and adds a changeup (13.6 percent). So barring more late comebacks against the Astros bullpen, the Orioles will have to solve the soft stuff this weekend against the Astros.