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May 11, 2012

Prospectus Game of the Week

A Strange Start in Baltimore

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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The Orioles have had a bizarrely historic week. On Sunday, 1B/DH Chris Davis picked up the first pitching win by a position player in the American League since Rocky Colavito did it in 1968 against the Boston Red Sox. When the Sox sent Darnell McDonald (another former Oriole) to the mound after him in the top of the 17th inning, it was the first time both teams had used a position player as a reliever since 1925, and it was the first time two position players had gotten a decision since 1902. Until Davis's afternoon, a 0-8, 5K, GIDP day at the plate combined with a pitching win hadn't happened since 1905.

That curiosity accomplished, the Orioles travelled back down the East Coast to Baltimore to host a four-game series against the Texas Rangers. After a quiet Monday game with little in the way of historical fanfare, Josh Hamilton livened up Tuesday night by going yard four times off of Jake Arrieta, Zach, Phillips and Darren O'Day, tying the major-league record for home runs in a game by a single hitter. It was the 16th time that feat had been achieved in major-league history—five fewer times than a pitcher has pitched a perfect game.

Wednesday night's game was rained out, moving it to 4:05 on Thursday as game one of an impromptu doubleheader and pitting new Baltimore's new No. 2 pitcher Wei-Yin Chen against Colby Lewis of the Rangers. It wasn’t long before the two teams were making weird history again.

The Orioles have been holding onto Ryan Flaherty since the beginning of the season. Flaherty was their selection in the Rule V draft, a utility man out of the Cubs organization who naturally plays second base but found himself all over the diamond during spring training with Baltimore. Ideally, Showalter would use him as a super-sub, since the Orioles fully intend for him to spend the entire season on the 25-man roster so that they can send him down next year to play every day.

Since the Orioles were playing a doubleheader, every active position player on the 25-man roster would see some sort of playing time. For Flaherty, that meant leading off against Colby Lewis. He took a flat fastball for a ball, and then Lewis threw him another one, this time right in his wheelhouse. Flaherty took it out to right field.

That brought J.J. Hardy to the plate. Hardy started the season slow but has been red-hot recently, and Lewis continued to groove straight mid-eighties to him. Hardy took the first for a strike, the second for a ball, and then annihilated the third 10 or 15 rows into the left field stands. MASN play-by-play man Gary Thorne didn't even pretend there was any question about whether or not the ball was leaving the yard off his bat—that's how solidly it was hit.

That brought Nick Markakis to the plate. Markakis has been a strange creature on offense over the last few years of his career. Every season, he seems to reinvent himself in a different way, but none of these reinventions seem to make him significantly better or worse on the whole. In 2009, he hit with moderate power, good walk skills, and a number of strikeouts. In 2010, he lost some of the power but walked much more than he had the year before, with about the same number of strikeouts. Last season, he lost even more power, and the extra walks disappeared, but he struck out much less often as well. This season, his slugging is still concerningly low, his OBP is terrible, and he's hitting under .250, but it's early, and there's no reason to suspect he can't get back to at least where he was last year—not that that would make his contract much less disappointing.

But last night, Colby Lewis learned that no matter how little power Nick Markakis hits for these days, he still knows what to do with a slider that doesn't slide. He put that one on the flag court, too. In fewer than 10 pitches, the Orioles went up 3-0 on the Rangers, scoring each time via the home run. This marked the first time in the history of the American League that a team had opened up a game with back-to-back-to-back home runs. The other three times it had happened were in the National League, with the most recent instance also involving J.J. Hardy hitting second. In 2007, Brewers Rickie Weeks, Hardy, and current reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun did it against Phil Dumatrait of the Cincinnati Reds in one of the one games he started that year. Dumatrait, who has a career ERA of 6.20, may sound familiar to Twins fans—he pitched 41 innings for their team last year, his most recent action in the bigs since throwing 13 innings for the Pirates in 2009.

After the Markakis home run, Lewis seemed to get his four-seamer back under control, because the next batter, Adam Jones, was able only to drive a ball to the warning track in the deepest part of the ballpark. Lewis struck out the next two batters, Matt Wieters and Wilson Betemit, to end the inning.

That first inning was basically a microcosm of the entire day. Lewis would go on to pitch seven complete innings while giving up only five hits, walking one, and striking out 12 batters. In most cases, a line like that is so dominant that Josh Hamilton merely staring oddly at home plate with a bat in his hands is enough offensive support to guarantee a win. But all five of the hits Colby Lewis surrendered were home runs. In fact, the Orioles did not record a single non-home-run hit in the entire game—they had a .000 BABIP. Orioles runners reached base only via the walk, a hit by pitch, or an error.

Lewis's start is the only time since 1918 that a starting pitcher has struck out 12 batters and given up five homers in the same outing. Curt Schilling managed to give up four HR while striking out 12 in 1997, but that's as close as anyone has come—and Schilling did that in 5 2/3 innings, not seven.

Thanks to the general inability of the Orioles hitters to do anything on the afternoon except hit the long ball, there was no score-padding after Adam Jones and Wilson Betemit left the park in the seven inning, and Luis Ayala almost managed to throw the game away out of the Orioles' pen. That would have wasted a fantastic start by Wei-Yin Chen, whose work has almost been forgotten. After all, it's happened countless times that a solid young starting pitcher has come into a game, gone 7 2/3 innings, given up some hits, given up some runs, struck out five, and walked one. That doesn't make it any less valuable, though.

While not a flashy historical oddity like Lewis's start, Chen's was perhaps the more important of the two. Once Lewis found his fastball command, he cruised until that trouble in the seventh inning, and there's no real reason to believe that he'll be giving up home runs in those quantities as a regular part of his pitching from now on. Chen, however, had the longest start yet of his young major-league career, showed a fantastic ability to locate his pitches, and executed when he needed to execute.

The biggest concern with him through the first month and change of the season was that he was taking too long to get through lineups, many times barely making it in to the sixth inning before Showalter would have to go to the pen. Not here; Chen stayed in until the last out of the eighth. The Orioles hope that trend will continue and that they'll be able to expect seven or so quality innings per start from Chen moving forward.

As a bonus that really cements this afternoon and evening in Baltimore as our Game of the Week: Josh Hamilton did not hit a home run in game one of the doubleheader. He did, however, hit one in his very first at-bat of game two—and it broke a second-floor window on the warehouse out to right field, across Eutaw Street. That's the first time the warehouse has been hit on the fly by a ball off the bat since Ken Griffey, Jr., put one on the roof during batting practice for the 1993 All-Star Game.

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