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April 20, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

The Week the O's Stopped Winning

by Ben Kabak

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Once upon a time, the Orioles were the Cinderella story of the American League East. After finishing the 2010 season 34-23 under the tutelage of new manager Buck Showalter, the Baltimoreans started this year 4-0 and were 6-1 after blanking the Texas Rangers last Saturday. It’s been a long, hard fall since then.

When the O’s wrapped up their 11-0 drubbing of Carl Pavano and the Twins last night, they earned their first victory since that Saturday shutout of the Rangers. In fact, when they went ahead on a Matt Wieters RBI in the second, they had their first lead in 39 innings. Their win marked the first time in five contests that the team had plated more than three runs in a game. So what went wrong during that disastrous section of the schedule?

For eight games, nothing the Orioles did went right. Overall, they scored just 20 runs during their losing streak, while allowing 54. Playing two first-place teams, they dropped a pair to Texas and got swept in a rain-shortened two-game set in the Bronx. They were shut down by the Indians’ pitching in Cleveland and lost the opener of their four-game set against the punchless Twins.

By the time the proverbial dust had settled, many observers who were skeptical of the Orioles in the first place were wondering which Baltimore team would show up for the rest of the season. Before last night, the Orioles as a team had a .246 BABIP, a mark nearly .040 below the American League average. Their .283 on-base percentage ranked them even with the Twins in dead last.

Coming off of the recent losing streak, their pitching hasn’t been much better. While their 3.3 BB/9 IP walk rate is a plus, the 6.5 batters per 9 IP that the team’s pitchers strike out aren’t. Baltimore's hurlers haven't been particularly adept at keeping the ball in the park, either, and when Buck Showalter has been forced to manage close games, he has made questionable moves.

One game in particular from the Orioles’ set against the Yankees is instructive. Baltimore took an early 5-0 lead against the Bombers as Phil Hughes made his last start before making a trip to the DL with a dead arm. Jake Arrieta had held the Yanks in check through four no-hit innings, but the game slowly unraveled in the fifth. The Yankees were making contact, and Arrieta had recorded strikeouts for just two of the game’s first 12 outs. Back-to-back doubles by Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano put the Bombers on the board on the fifth, and the Yanks tacked on another pair of runs in the sixth on three hits and a sacrifice fly.

The Orioles’ bullpen proceeded to seal the loss. Jason Berken gave up another run on a walk, a double and a ground out. A great block of the plate by Joba Chamberlain on a wild pitch in the top of the eighth held the Orioles in check, and Kevin Gregg gave up a lead-off home run to Jorge Posada in the ninth to blow the save. In the 10th, Buck Showalter ignored the match-ups and used lefty Mike Gonzalez to face Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Nick Swisher. Of the four hitters, Gonzalez retired Cano, the only lefty, and gave up a walk-off sac fly to Swisher.

The Orioles failed to score over their final 6 1/3 innings and managed just three hits over that span as the Yanks came back. Only three of their 11 hits went for extra bases; even in their 11-0 win last night, only three of their 13 hits were better than singles. Vladimir Guerrero has yet to draw a walk, Derrek Lee isn’t hitting for any power, and Nick Markakis is mired in a slump as well. Without those three going strong, the Orioles need to lean on a young pitching staff trying to get by with potential. The Orioles may have some pieces for future success, but that future is likely another season or two down the road.

* * *

As the Orioles have stumbled, the Rays have risen. After their 2-1 win over the White Sox last night, in which James Shields threw a masterful nine-strikeout shutout, the Rays are 7-1 over their last eight games. Somehow, without Manny Ramirez, without Evan Longoria, and with a patchwork bullpen, they’ve done it with both pitching and hitting.

Pitching always seemed as if it would be the Rays’ strong suit this year, and lately it has been, as they've allowed just 19 runs over their last eight games. The offense exploded with 16 runs in a game against the Red Sox last weekend, but since then, they’ve plated 25 over their last seven contests, which has been just enough to win.

Johnny Damon has been one of the prime movers during the winning streak. Shelved for the past two games because of a finger injury, he was named last week’s AL Player of the Week after hitting .375/.400/.625 with 11 RBI. He played himself out of the left field spot, but he seems to enjoy DHing in a weak lineup. If the Rays can tread water until Evan Longoria returns, they’ll have as good a shot as any to make an October push. The pitching is there, and they sit only two games behind the Yankees.

* * *

In the Bronx, meanwhile, the Yanks have gone a quiet 4-2 since last week. They suffered through another April rainout and played a weekend set against the Rangers in 40-degree temperatures. They managed to walk away with two victories against a strong Texas offense, but the Yanks’ problems have been on full display.

First, the club has been hit with the injury bug. Pedro Feliciano, the team’s key free-agent bullpen signing, had to make a trip to Dr. Andrews this week, while Phil Hughes, who threw over 190 innings last year, is on the shelf with a dead arm. Alex Rodriguez left Saturday’s game with a sore lower back and oblique. He says he will be in the lineup tonight, but he wasn’t available to pinch-hit in the Yanks’ loss against the Blue Jays last night.

On the pitching front, the club’s lack of rotation depth is starting to show. No Yankee starter this week lasted more than 6.1 innings, and Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova both turned in subpar 13-out performances. As a result, both Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera have appeared in 10 of the team's first 15 games, while Rafael Soriano has pitched eight times and David Robertson has made seven appearances. The Yanks were a rare Mariano Rivera blown save away from a 5-1 week, but without innings from the rotation, the bullpen is going to burn out soon.

* * *

North of the border, the Blue Jays are treading water. Playing two teams with the worst records in the AL (although only one could claim to be the worst team in the Junior Circuit), the Jays beat the Mariners but then lost three of four to the Red Sox. Somehow, the Blue Jays scored just three runs as Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka shut down the Toronto offense. For a weekend, at least, the Red Sox looked formidable, while the Blue Jays appeared to be an uneven also-ran in the American League East.

Of course, that changed with their comeback win last night against the Yankees. They plated two in the ninth off of Mariano Rivera for the future Hall of Famer’s 68th career blown save. At 8-9 and with a +1 run differential, the Blue Jays are still hanging around in a division with no clear frontrunner.

* * *

And finally, the last-place Red Sox. With their loss to the A’s last night, the Sox fell to 0-7 on the road, the only team without an away victory. Prohibitive World Series favorites going into the season, the Red Sox are now 5-11 through the first tenth of the season.

Since last week, the Sox have gone 3-2, an improvement for them, but the pieces still aren’t clicking. Carl Crawford is hitting just .143/.182/.175, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has posted just a .194/.256/.222 line. The starting pitching is rounding into shape, though, as the Sox have gotten four straight starts in which their pitchers have gone at least six innings and given up at most one earned run.

Despite their slow start, the Sox are only 4.5 games behind the first-place Yankees. The Fenway Faithful may be despairing, but they’re not out of it yet. When the hitting catches up to the pitching, the W’s will start to add up.

Related Content:  The Streak,  Phil Hughes

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