Unlike 2012, Orioles hitters seek to avoid power outage in postseason this year
By By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun|
Sep 30, 2014 | 3:39 PM
The key offensive component to the Orioles' resurgence the past three years has been the ability to hit home runs. They're never out of any game simply because they can change the tone of it with one swing.
The Orioles have hit at least 200 home runs in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history. It's a big part of who they are, but as the club embarks on its second playoff run in three years, there is a question whether their biggest offensive weapon will work in the postseason.
This season, the Orioles led the major leagues with 211 homers, a total that was 25 more than the next-highest team, the Colorado Rockies (186).
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has said repeatedly in the past few weeks that there are four different parts to a baseball season: spring training, the regular season, when rosters expand in September and the postseason. And winning is a little different in each of those parts.
In the postseason, runs generally are at a premium because balls don't carry as much as the weather cools. The Orioles aren't going to be able to rely on the long ball in the playoffs, Showalter said.
"Usually pitchers play in the postseason, so when a pitcher is on top of his game and a hitter is on top of his game, the pitcher usually wins," Showalter said. "We'll have to do some things to win the game other than hit home runs.
"But we're going to have to stay engaged and connected in the game. There's not one game in the series where you go, 'Well, we'll take this one on the chin and fight another day.' With the off day and a best-of-five series, it's all hands on deck."
The Orioles' prolific power is coming at a time when home runs are down across the major leagues.
Five teams hit 200 or more homers in 2012, but the Orioles are the only team to reach that mark in either of the past two seasons. While the Orioles have hit at least 211 homers in each past three years, the New York Yankees (245) and the Chicago White Sox (211) — both in 2012 — are the only two teams to hit that many in a season.
Although their manager might believe the club needs to find other ways to score, Orioles players believe they should stick with what got them here.
"I don't think you try to change anything," said Cruz, who led the major leagues with 40 home runs this season. "I think, as a team, you are who you are. If you're a home run guy, you're not going to expect to go out there and bunt. We're not going to change the way we play. We've been successful so far."
Having played in two World Series with the Texas Rangers, Cruz carries the most postseason experience of any player on the Orioles' roster. With 14 career postseason home runs — including six in the Rangers' six-game series win over the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 American League Championship Series — he's proof that you can win playoff series by primarily hitting the ball out of the ballpark.
"Honestly, I feel like that's one of the better ways to score runs," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "When you have guys all the way through the lineup who can drive the ball out of the ballpark, you don't have to put together two or three hits. I think we've been able to manufacture a run here or there, which could be huge.
"But I think pitching and the ability to drive the ball — three-run homers, solo homers — I feel like those are way games are won in the postseason."
In 2012, the Orioles hit 214 homers, averaging one home run every 26 at-bats. But in their five-game AL Division Series loss to the Yankees, they had a dramatic power drop-off. They hit just three homers in the series and one every 60.7 at-bats. The Orioles also hit .187 in that series.
There is one distinct difference between this year's Orioles and the 2012 team: They hit considerably better with runners in scoring position. This year's club is hitting.268 with runners in scoring position, ranking third in the AL. In 2012, they were ninth in the league with a .256 average.
"You really can't say that until you're in the situation," right fielder Nick Markakis said when asked whether the home runs work in the playoffs. "I'm sure we're going to need a little bit of both. I think with this team, and the guys we've got here, we realize that. During the postseason, every base runner matters, so we're going to do everything we can to score.
"When you look at the bottom line, if we win, whether we hit home runs or not, I don't think it matters. Winning is the main thing, whether it comes by singles, doubles, home runs, pitching a shutout, scoring one run. All that matters is the 'W' in the end. That's what we're shooting for."
The Orioles' ALDS opponent, the Tigers, have allowed the second-fewest home runs in the AL (127), trailing only the Los Angeles Angels (126), who could match up with the Orioles in the ALCS.
When Showalter announces his 25-man ALDS roster, it will have the power hitters, but likely also will include players who can help manufacture runs. He likely will carry just 10 or 11 pitchers in the best-of-five series, so he can load his bench with speed and defensive flexibility.
"We're kind of more versatile now because we have some guys who can run the bases for other guys and have more speed, so in the playoffs that helps a lot, having guys who can steal bases and take extra bases, move the runners, stuff like that," Cruz said. "No doubt you're going to change a little bit because every run is important. But at the same time, you know who you are."
Ultimately, being in the playoffs in 2012 will help this club going forward. And experienced postseason veterans like Cruz helps.
But this Orioles team, statistically, is better suited for a postseason run, and like Showalter said, the main reason is pitching. The team's ERA is third-best in the AL (3.43), nearly a half-run better than 2012 club (3.90), so it's better armed for the low-scoring games that are commonplace in October.
"Usually, the [games are] pitchers' duels and they are decided by one run in the playoffs," Hardy said. "I think in 2012, that's what we had going for us, however many games we won by one run. That was a positive thing going into the playoffs because postseason games are usually pretty close.
"I think when we went in 2012, there weren't a whole lot of people in the locker room who knew what to expect. We took it all in. We were all kind of in awe. I think, this year, we know what to expect. Just that experience of being there once has got to help."
The Orioles have hit at least 211 home runs in each of the past three seasons. A look at how many home runs they hit in every season since Camden Yards opened in 1992 and where the total ranked in the American League.