By Andrew R. Koch
A full month of Major League Baseball is in the books, and the Baltimore Orioles are in the thick of a wide-open American League East race. While the Orioles are one percentage point ahead of the rival Yankees in the division, starting pitching is proving to be an Achilles’ heel, much like it has been for the last couple of seasons.
The Orioles went 12-12 in April, playing without Manny Machado and losing first baseman Chris Davis due to a strained oblique. Heading into the start of their second series with the Tampa Bay Rays, Orioles starting pitchers have gone less than five and a third innings in four of the last five games. The lone exception was Ubaldo Jimenez, who struck out 10 in 7 and a third shutout innings in the May 2 series opener at Minnesota. It was his first win of the season after signing a four-year, $50 million contract. Chris Tillman (3-1) and Wei-Yin Chen (3-2) are the only starters who are above .500. Baltimore has among the fewest starts of at least seven innings of any team in Major League Baseball. Six relievers have already appeared in 12 or more games, and the bullpen has already thrown a total of 93 innings. Following the Orioles’ 5-2 loss on May 4 in the rubber game of the series in Minnesota, in which Miguel Gonzalez fell apart and failed to get out of the fifth inning, manager Buck Showalter said in his post-game press conference of the starting rotation, “We’ve just got to be better.” Showalter went on to say that he’ll do what he can to avoid overusing the relievers, saying he wasn’t “going to put those guys in harm’s way.”
The Orioles’ regular sluggers haven’t been producing the power numbers fans are used to seeing. Davis only had six extra-base hits (four doubles, two home runs) before going on the DL. Center fielder Adam Jones has 10 extra-base hits (six doubles, one triple, three home runs, including two on May 7 at Tampa Bay), and J.J. Hardy–while he’s hitting more line drives and is bringing his batting average up–has just four doubles and is still looking for his first long ball of the season. Meanwhile, Matt Wieters and outfielder Nelson Cruz are picking up the slack in the power department. Wieters is leading the team in batting average, hitting .341 to go with five homers and 18 RBI. He’s hitting .370 left-handed as he looks to bounce back from a poor 2013 season. Cruz is leading the team in slugging with nine homers, six doubles, 29 RBI and a .568 slugging percentage.
Manny Machado returned to the roster on May 1 for the second game of the Orioles’ doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was scheduled to be activated from the disabled list for the start of the series on April 29, but the games both that day and the following day were rained out. Reliever Troy Patton was also activated from the restricted list after serving a 25-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. To make room for Machado and Patton, the Orioles sent infielder Steve Lombardozzi to Triple-A Norfolk along with relievers Evan Meek and Josh Stinson, who was outrighted. Baltimore recalled reliever Brad Brach from Norfolk. Another roster move may be necessary when Davis comes off the 15-day DL, which is scheduled to be May 11.
Wieters traveled to Pensacola, Florida on May 7 to meet with renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews (of Tommy John surgery fame.) Wieters has been dealing with soreness in his right elbow since the Orioles’ series in Boston in April. He says he first felt what was initially diagnosed as a sore forearm when he made a throw to second base on a cold night in Boston. He underwent an MRI exam on May 5, and surgery has been ruled out following his visit with Dr. Andrews. Caleb Joseph has been recalled from Norfolk to share the catching duties with Steve Clevenger.
UPDATED MAY 12: Davis was activated from the 15-day DL after appearing in a game with the Double-A Bowie Baysox on a rehab assignment. He played for the Orioles in the series finale at home against Houston. Wieters was placed on the DL to rest his sore elbow. The Orioles also optioned T.J. McFarland to Norfolk following the game. McFarland struck out four and allowed two runs on seven hits in three innings, including a two-run home run to the Astros’ Marc Krauss that gave Houston some insurance to salvage the series finale.