After a month or so of the Orioles’ season being defined by exceeded expectations and more competitive games, each night becomes a note-checking occasion to update the latest gory details: six straight losses, just two wins in their last 15 and, at 17-29, a .370 winning percentage that’s only matched by their next opponent, the Minnesota Twins.
The 2021 season has been every bit the challenge on the pitching side that it was expected to be, and made worse by the Orioles’ general inexperience and inconsistency in the rotation and in the bullpen.
No one wants to go back to the pandemic year of 2020, but such a drag of a month like they’ve had makes one think back to the alternate training site. Without the roster numbers to make up full games there, everything was geared toward the players — the most significant prospects when it comes to the Orioles’ future, and those they believe can be part of future championship teams — simply doing their own work with no mind paid to the positions that aren’t theirs on the field.
This year would be simpler to understand if that were happening at the major league level. If all there was to look at was John Means and the hope of the crop of rookie starters, or the ascents of relievers Paul Fry and Tanner Scott with a soon-to-be-healthy Dillon Tate and Hunter Harvey to join them, or the top handful of spots in the lineup for Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle, it would obviously be a different story than the one playing out on the field each night.
That way, all the up-and-down relievers, the inconsistent starters there to eat innings, the infielders and the catchers could all just be hand-waved away — and all the frustration that comes along with it.
Manager Brandon Hyde can’t do that. But if he’s trying to take positives, as he said he is, then the alignment of those performing well with those who are written on a grease board somewhere in the B&O Warehouse as starters on the 2022 or 2023 Orioles will be first and foremost.
He will start with Mancini, who has once again gotten comfortable being the focal point of the Orioles offense and is producing as if it’s a role he can keep for years. He’ll look at Mullins’ Gold Glove worthy center field defense and steady presence at the top of the lineup, and Hays beside him with a center fielder’s skillset in left field and an OPS near .800 in May.
Santander showed glimpses of his Most Valuable Oriole productivity this weekend in his return from the injured list, and Mountcastle has been living a dual-existence of being on the cusp of a breakout and looking as if he’s fallen out of his approach for nearly two months now. Considering he had a .515 OPS in April and ended Sunday with a .723 OPS in May, he’s going in the right direction.
That same myopia makes the moments when those players err sting more. Any time Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin or Bruce Zimmermann struggles, however understandable it is for the respective stage of their careers, it hurts even more because it seems to affect the view of what they can be long-term. Fry pitching well for a month and then allowing three runs in a big spot is particularly jarring. Scott losing his command for a week feels worse than it should.
When Hyde bluntly and flatly airs out Hays for his sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss, it’s a learning moment, but also one that comes at the cost of a signature one. The Orioles and hitting coach Don Long have spent the past six weeks reminding the players of the collective, and Hays bunting in that spot fits that mindset. Him standing in, bare palms on the handle of his bat, driving a ball off a former All-Star closer like Brad Hand and continuing a game-turning rally against the Nationals would have done much more for him and the Orioles on Sunday and going forward.
Those are all the kinds of growing pains that sticking with players you believe in can bring. It’s what makes those moments sting more, but also makes it that much more meaningful when they come through.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, all those players pointed toward the future can’t get their work in and get better each day the way it happened at the alternate site. They’re playing games in what Hyde rightly referred to as a results-based business on a nightly basis. Especially now, those results are clouding any scenic view of the future the players hoping to be on the next competitive team are trying to create.
What’s to come?
The Orioles’ grind of a road trip continues through Memorial Day with a three-game set against the struggling Twins and four games at the Chicago White Sox, who are decidedly not struggling (albeit coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees).
Considering it’s been six seasons since Nelson Cruz left the Orioles, and letting him walk is one of probably a dozen personnel moves that contributed to their collapse at the end of the decade, there’s no use using the occasion of playing his Twins team to rehash that.
He entered Sunday batting .292 with 10 home runs and an .878 OPS in his age-40 season. Not a lot of players can say that.
What was good?
Santander returning to the Orioles lineup and replicating his form at the plate from 2020 would be a most welcome addition to this top-heavy Orioles lineup, and this weekend showed why. He was able to help lengthen the batting order hitting out of the cleanup spot, and Hyde said he was “really impressed with Santander’s at-bats” Saturday.
In three games back so far, Santander is 6-for-13 with two doubles and a home run, and despite striking out in his last three at-bats Sunday, Hyde continued to be impressed with his approach at the plate.
Combined with Mancini, who had an unbelievable week (10-for-23 with three doubles, three homers and five walks to six strikeouts), and the Orioles could have the makings of an imposing force in the middle of their lineup. All it will take is one of Maikel Franco, Mountcastle or Pedro Severino to join them.
The shine sure did come off Adam Plutko this week. Since his opener outing last Sunday against the Yankees, Plutko was hit hard, allowing four runs that day in an inning of work, then two runs in ⅓ of an inning Wednesday, then four runs before he recorded an out in his two innings Saturday. He faced 22 batters, recorded as many outs as allowed runs (10) and gave up four home runs. His ERA is now 4.74.
It’s hard to be an Orioles reliever. Everyone from Hyde to the starters who are often putting those relievers in tough spots these days acknowledge it. Plutko has the experience and track record that backed up the early season reliance the Orioles had on him, though, and it’s hard for all involved in a stretch like this.
On the farm
Personal connections and friendships aside, the pitchers at Triple-A Norfolk have to be seeing the struggles on the major league staff right now and sensing there’s an opportunity for them in the chaos.
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Not all are pitching in a way that makes them viable options for the big leagues at the moment, but right-hander Spenser Watkins sure did Sunday. He struck out four in six hitless innings for the Tides, lowering his ERA to 3.15. A minor league free agent signing this winter, Watkins is one of several pitchers brought in that way in the offseason who could help chip in some innings at the big league level in short order.