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Schmuck: Jays series should be a test for Orioles starting pitchers

Schmuck: Jays series should be a test for Orioles starting pitchers
Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado removes his batting gloves after striking out to end the third inning in the first baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

If you put any stock in preseason projections, the Toronto Blue Jays are the team the Orioles are going to have to beat to win the American League East, unless you count the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.

In other words, the Orioles were not a consensus pick to beat out any of them, but the Jays are the defending division champions and they will arrive at Oriole Park tonight for a three-game series that — even at this early point in the season — is loaded with potential entertainment value and intrigue.

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The Orioles have already won divisional series against the Rays and Red Sox. They got off to the best start in Baltimore franchise history and enter this series still undefeated (5-0) at Camden Yards.

It certainly would be a treat for Orioles fans if they could send Jose "Bat Flip" Bautista and his friends packing before heading back to the road to face the world champion Kansas City Royals this weekend.

Trouble is, this really isn't a great matchup for the Orioles, at least not the way their starting rotation has performed over the past week. They were fortunate to come off the rain-shortened six-game road trip with an even split, though it started out with two big offensive performances at Fenway Park.

The same issues have surfaced that plagued the rotation last season, which is one thing the pundits may have gotten right. Orioles starters put up decent numbers during the team's uplifting opening week, but have plummeted to 24th in the major leagues in combined ERA (5.14) with a series of big-inning blowups over the past several games.

The weather certainly hasn't helped. It's tough to develop a routine when your No. 1 starter gets rained out of his first start after two great innings and the team gets rained out two more times over the next two weeks. It's also problematic when your best young starter comes up with a sore shoulder at the end of spring training and your inexperienced fifth guy (Tuesday starter Mike Wright) has to dodge raindrops to get to the mound.

So, maybe this is an early-season aberration and everything will smooth out over the next week or two.

And maybe not.

Both ends of the Blue Jays pitching staff, meanwhile, are a study in contrast to the Orioles. The Jays rotation has a 7-3 record and a 3.27 ERA that ranks eighth in the majors, while the bullpen is 0-4 with a 4.24 ERA that ranks 21st and pales next to the second-ranked O's pen (3-1, 2.04).

That would all seem to play right into the Orioles' early-season narrative. The Orioles have been vulnerable during the middle innings and have come out clean with some late-inning offensive theatrics.

The question over the next three games will be whether the starters will muffle a Jays offense that has not yet taken off at the plate or simply tee it up for the extremely dangerous hitters at the heart of the Toronto lineup.

The Blue Jays are hitting just .230 as a team through 14 games and are averaging four runs per game. They also are averaging just one homer per game while the Orioles have hit a major league-best 23 in just 11 games.

If the early track record of each team holds, it will be a simple equation. If the Orioles can stay close until the bullpen phones start ringing, they should be in pretty good position to win another series against a divisional opponent. But they'll have to get past Jays starter Marcus Stroman tonight, which will be quite a challenge considering that he is off to a solid start this season (2-0, 4.22) and is 12-3 against AL East opponents in his brief major league career.

Throw in the volatile recent history between the Orioles and Jays and there should be some interesting moments.

No doubt, Bautista will be laying for Orioles reliever Darren O'Day and all eyes will be on third base any time Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson show up there at the same time.

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It's probably true that there are no big series in April, but this could be a particularly exciting one, since both teams have the potential to pepper the stands with souvenirs and the air is expected to be cool and dry.

If you're going to be sitting in the bleachers, it might be a good idea to bring your glove or wear a helmet.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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