May 25, 2012
Orioles fly alternate route to the top
By MIKE GANTER, QMI AGENCY
The Blue Jays expected to be chasing someone down in the AL East at this point in the season.
But more than a quarter of the way through the schedule, they didn’t think it would be the Baltimore Orioles.
Few others did, either.
But the Orioles aren’t just the best team in the American League East right now, they own the best record in the entire AL. In the majors, only the Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten off to a better start.
So how in the name of Brady Anderson have they managed it?
In short, it’s been a lot of pop and a healthy dose of relief.
As a team they O’s had belted 69 home runs prior to Friday night’s games, easily the most in the majors and four more than the next best bangers who play in Yankee Stadium.
Centre fielder Adam Jones leads the way with 14, but he’s getting plenty of help from the likes of first baseman Chris Davis, catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy, right fielder Nick Markakis and third baseman Wilson Betemit in the long-ball category.
Surprisingly, though, the O’s aren’t that stellar in any other category. By virtue of all those home runs, their collective slugging and OPS numbers are among the top six in the majors but, they are only middle of the pack with a .249 batting average. They don’t walk that much (20th) so the team on base is in the lower third among the 30 teams. They rarely force the issue with their running game, which is dead last along with the Boston Red Sox with only 13 steals.
On the pitching side, the O’s are extremely good on the back end and only marginal on the front. As a staff, their starters have combined for a 17-13 record with a 4.31 ERA. The ERA is again among the bottom third of the 30 teams, but the 17 wins in just outside the top third.
What has made the Orioles such a tough team this year is a bullpen, primarily the quintet of closer Jim Johnson and relievers Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Luis Ayala and Troy Patton.
This fivesome has combined to go 8-2 while eating up 1131/3 innings with a 1.91 ERA.
Johnson is a perfect 16-for-16 in save opportunities. A brief bout with food poisoning that landed him in the hospital, and some early back woes, cost him some time, but he’s been flawless since.
The guys in front of him, Strop, O’Day, Ayala and Patton have handled the brunt of the load almost as seamlessly. All five (including Johnson) have surpassed the 20 inning mark already with Patton’s 4.15 ERA easily the worst of the bunch.
All of which begs the question: Is a home-run happy team with a solid to great bullpen good enough to carry it through a full season.
The easy answer to that is no, it isn’t. But throw in a manager such as Buck Showalter, who makes everyone on his team from the seventh guy in his bullpen to the 12th man on his positional roster responsible for each and every action and you certainly have a good chance.
Showalter, who makes it his business to know every minute detail about everything that concerns his ball club has made settling for anything less than one’s best a firing offence. With Showalter, the expectations have changed in Baltimore.
“With other (Orioles) teams, it was: ‘Okay, it’s good if we come close to .500,’” Johnson told MLB.com. “That’s not what the goal is here. Guys put the work in, guys are expected to perform at a certain level. The expectations have been raised, starting with the manager. That’s the way (Showalter) does it. You’ve got to have guys respond. It’s fight or flight. So the people that want to stick around and fight are still here.”
Wieters, who has augmented his role among the power hackers in the lineup by guiding a no-name starting staff and that stellar bullpen through some pretty powerful opposition lineups, has only been in the majors a few years, but he sees a huge difference in this team already.
“I feel like it’s more of a professional locker room,” Wieters told USA Today. “I think that’s the main thing that’s helped us maintain winning streaks a little bit longer.”
Showalter feels the O’s have already firmly established themselves and now it’s a matter of keeping their focus.
“We’re a fourth of the way through the season,” he told USA Today, “and there are no Cinderellas, there are no flukes. If you have a weakness, it’ll show up. That’s the beauty about playing so many games. That’s also the challenge. This is a very grounded team.”
Better yet, the Orioles have help in the wings. They’ve got second baseman Brian Roberts coming back after dealing with some serious concussion issues in the next few weeks and left-hander Zach Britton, who won 11 games last season, is just now back on a mound making his rehab starts in the minors following a spring training shoulder problem.
Both are proven commodities that can help the Orioles.
Showalter’s problem might be finding room for them. As good as things have been going, he might risk upsetting the fine balance the club has already achieved.
HERE AND THERE
The Orioles, according to Fox Sports, are close to locking up Jones to a huge deal. The outfielder and his agent are reportedly weighing a six-year deal in the $85-million range. Jones would become arbitration eligible after this year, so it is in the O’s best interests to lock him up long-term now ... Former Blue Jays centre fielder Vernon Wells will be on the shelf for at least eight to 10 weeks following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. Wells was injured attempted to steal second base in a loss to the Padres last Sunday.
SLOWLY, SURELY FOR PUJOLS
Albert Pujols had four homers in his past 10 games before Friday night and things finally appear to be headed in the right direction, as Pujols told USA Today in an interview conducted in Spanish.
The long-time St. Louis Cardinals slugger is adapting to a new league with the Angels but, just as importantly, a new lifestyle with his wife and kids back in St. Louis finishing up the school year.
That latter part will be solved this weekend when the family moves west and joins Pujols now that the school year is over.
But the former is still taking some time.
“It’s very hard because you’re seeing pitchers you haven’t faced before, but that’s what videos and scouting reports are for,” Pujols said. “It’s not the same thing as facing pitchers, but you have to make your adjustments. I know this is going to be a learning year, a time to find out what the league is doing against you, although I’m not going to wait a year. I’m making my adjustments now and feeling better. The second time around has been better.’’
Through 45 games, Pujols was hitting .225 with five homers and 22 RBIs. His slugging percentage is down some 250 points from his career average. He’s also never had a season with fewer than 32 homers.
Pujols certainly sounds like a guy who believes he has turned the corner.
“I just try to relax and know I can play at this level, and also prepare,” he said. “Those are the things I’ve done this month. It took me some time to adjust in April, I don’t know why. Things like that happen and you try to learn from them.’’
WRIGHT NOT READY TO FOCUS ON .400
Every baseball fan with an imagination loves the dream of a .400 season.
It hasn’t been done since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. So, it’s really no surprise that the Mets’ David Wright is fielding questions about it, even though we’re just more than a quarter of the way through the season.
Wright bumped his average to .405 with a 3-for-5 night against the Padres on Thursday.
“It’s May,” Wright reminded reporters after the game. “It’s really, really early, so you can’t get caught up in looking up at the (scoreboard).
“The important categories are I wanna be able to drive runs in and score runs,” he said. “Those are things that don’t fluctuate. Once you drive in a run and score a run, that never goes away. Batting average is gonna fluctuate, go up and down depending on whether you’re a little lucky that night or not.”
Right now, Wright is having all kinds of luck.
RED SOX FINALLY FIND RELIEF
Not a lot has gone right for the Boston Red Sox this season, but they do seem to have figured out the back end of the bullpen.
When the season began there was much hand wringing among Red Sox nation over the injury to Andrew Bailey, the closer brought in to replace Jonathan Papelbon who jumped to the Phillies in the off-season.
The Sox appeared to have a ready solution in Daniel Bard who had been setting up for Papelbon, but chose to make him a starter.
Enter Alfredo Aceves who got off to a shaky start but has since warmed to the new role.
The shaky start was a blown save in his first opportunity of the season. It came in Detroit and even manager Bobby Valentine was starting to wonder if he might need to rethink the plan.
“I can guarantee that a lesser man would have been shaken by that game in Detroit,’’ Valentine told the Boston Globe. “The next day he was kind of testing me if I was going to stay with him. When I told him yes, I believed he wasn’t shaken. Plenty of guys would run away. He didn’t.’’
Aceves went on to save 11 of his next 12 chances. He has allowed just two runs over his past 18.2 innings while striking out 19.
The problem for Aceves was that he needed a little time to adjust to the role. He spent all of spring training auditioning as a starter only to move to the pen when Bailey went down.
“He hadn’t pitched in relief all spring and then he had to come in and face that lineup,” Bard told the Globe of that first game in Detroit. “If it had been me, I wouldn’t have been ready. He was in a tough spot.’’
EX-YANKEE IN HOT WATER
One time New York Yankees outfielder Chad Curtis has been charged with sexual misconduct after accusations of inappropriate touching by two teenage girls at a Woodland, Mich., high school.
The 43-year-old would-be football coach was arraigned Thursday on five counts of criminal sexual conduct and was freed after posting bail.
Through his lawyers, Curtis denied any criminal wrongdoing.
Curtis was volunteering at Lakewood High School in Woodland (50 miles from Grand Rapids) and had been in line to take over as a coach with the school’s football team before the accusations were made.
In his 10-year major-league career, Curtis played for the Yankees, the Texas Rangers, the Cleveland Indians, the then Calfornia Angels, and the Detroit Tigers winning two World Series with the Yanks.