Orioles making push for AL East pennant

Longtime fans remember the “Orioles Magic” that was the foundation for a string of competitive seasons from the ‘60s through the ‘90s. Now, a new generation of fans may be seeing a reincarnation of that magic.

By Andrew Koch

The Orioles entered their series in Chicago against both the White Sox and Cubs with a seven-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East, and a 7.5 game lead over the New York Yankees. Baltimore is poised to clinch its first division title since 1997, a fact that’s not lost on the team’s staff, as box office representatives began sending out information on purchasing postseason tickets for season ticketholders while the Orioles were on their road trip to Cleveland and Chicago. What makes this season even more magical is the run Baltimore has been on since June.

During the first two-plus months of the season, Baltimore was struggling with consistency from both the offense and the starting rotation. The struggles of the starters to pitch deep into games put a strain on the bullpen. In early June, the Orioles found themselves in second place in the East, six and a half games behind Toronto. Baltimore took over first place in the division on July 4, and has not only stayed atop the division since, but also managed to put some distance between them and Toronto and New York. The Orioles’ surge has been keyed by more consistent starting pitching, and a consistently strong bullpen, even though the offense continues to struggle with consistency.

The Orioles rotation has been led by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen (12-4, 3.76 ERA), and right-hander Bud Norris (11-7, 3.69 ERA) as the most consistent starters. Ace Chris Tillman struggled with consistency in the first half of the season, including starts in Pittsburgh and Texas where he only lasted only one inning. However, in his last 11 starts, Tillman has a record of 4-1 with a 2.35 ERA. In the bullpen, Tommy Hunter was taken out of the closer’s role after blowing two straight saves in April, and has been replaced by Zach Britton, who’s flourished as the stopper. Britton has a record of 3-2 with a 2.08 earned-run average, and has converted 26 saves in 29 chances.

The Orioles have gotten a mixed bag with their offseason acquisitions. On the positive side, Nelson Cruz is leading the league with over 30 home runs after signing a one-year deal as a free agent coming off a 50-game suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs last year with Texas. Outfielder Delmon Young has been solid despite limited playing time, hitting .297 with some flashes of power.

On the downside, outfielder David Lough, who was signed to provide some speed off the bench, has hit only .213, and has only stolen seven bases in 12 attempts. The biggest disappointment has been righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, who was signed to a four-year, $50 million contract at the beginning of spring training. He was 4-9 with a 4.83 ERA in 20 starts before going on the disabled list on July 13 because of a sprained right ankle. After starting in his return from the DL on August 9, manager Buck Showalter has announced that Jiminez will be moved to the bullpen as young righthander Kevin Gausman has proven to be a viable Major League starter. Showalter has also been able to manage productive platoons in left field with Cruz, Young and Lough, and at second base with Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty. Caleb Joseph has gotten regular playing time following Matt Wieters’s season-ending Tommy John surgery, and set a team record for catchers by hitting home runs in five straight games. However, the offense has been led by the steady hand of right fielder Nick Markakis, who’s in the top five in the AL in hits, and has made a habit of getting a hit to lead off games.

The Orioles will wrap up August and start September with an 11-game home stand that will feature four games against Tampa Bay, four games over Labor Day weekend against Minnesota and three against Cincinnati. After that, Baltimore’s final 22 games will be against their AL East rivals. The Orioles’ final home stand will be 10 games: four against New York, including a day- night doubleheader on September 12 to make up the Aug. 12 game that was rained out; three against Toronto; and, following a day off, Fan Appreciation Weekend on Sept. 19 through 21 against Boston. Baltimore will spend the final week of the regular season on the road for four games in New York and three  in Toronto on the final weekend of the season.

Santana Tears Achilles Tendon, Out For Season

Johan Santana will have to wait at least one more season before possibly throwing another pitch in the big leagues.

The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star tore his Achilles tendon during what was supposed to be his final extended spring training start on June 6. Santana was hit in the backside by a line drive, and reportedly suffered the injury when he stumbled while trying to pick up the ball and throw to first base. The torn tendon was revealed by an MRI, and will cause Santana to miss the rest of this season. Santana was scheduled to join the Orioles after the start to continue his rehab before joining the rotation. In his previous start, he struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter. Baltimore General Manager Dan Duquette told reporters that Santana had good velocity on his fastball, and had good command of his slider.

The Orioles had signed Santana to a minor-league contract during the off-season.

Hunter Activated Off DL, Gonzalez Placed On DL

The Orioles’ closer situation may be stabilizing a little bit, but the starting rotation is still in flux due to injury.

Tommy Hunter was activated off the 15-day disabled list prior to the Orioles’ series finale against the Oakland Athletics. He had been on the DL since May 22 with a strained left groin. Hunter pitched for the Class-A Delmarva Shorebirds on a rehab assignment on June 7. He needed just 11 pitches to get through the second inning, during which he hit a batter and struck out two.

To make room for Hunter on the 25-man roster, right-handed reliever Evan Meek was sent down to Triple-A Norfolk.

While Hunter came off the DL, Miguel Gonzalez is now on it. The Orioles placed Gonzalez on the 15-day DL with a strained right oblique prior to the start of the series with the A’s. The move was made retroactive to May 31. Gonzalez was scratched from his last scheduled start in the series finale at Texas. Top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman was called up from Norfolk to take Gonzalez’s spot in the starting rotation, and started the middle game of the series against Oakland.

Orioles Go Heavy on Pitching in 2014 Draft

If Baltimore’s front-office and scouting department’s plans pan out, there will be a flood of good pitching coming to Camden Yards from the Orioles’ farm system.

The team went into the draft with a plan of building up pitching depth within its farm system. The Orioles did just that in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, selecting 27 pitchers. 20 of them were college pitchers. Baltimore selected pitchers with each of its first five picks.

However, the Orioles were in the recently unfamiliar position of not having picks in the first two rounds because of free-agent signings. Baltimore didn’t make its first pick until the third round, when it selected right-handed pitcher Brian Gonzales from Archbishop Edward McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida. He was named the Broward County Player of the Year by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Gonzales is committed to play next season at the University of Miami.

In the fourth round, the Orioles selected right-hander Pat Connaughton from the University of Notre Dame. Connaughton also played basketball for the Fighting Irish, and he found out that he was selected by Baltimore via a text message from his basketball coach, Mike Brey (a native of Bethesda, Maryland, and an Orioles fan). Connaughton has said that baseball isn’t his primary focus, and that he plans to play his final season of basketball. However, prior to the draft, he said he’d skip his last season of baseball and sign with whichever team drafted him.

Connaughton wasn’t the only two-sport athlete the Orioles drafted. In the seventh round, Baltimore picked left-hander Max Schuh from UCLA. Schuh was a quarterback for the Bruins football team during the 2010 season, but didn’t see any playing time, and was cut following his sophomore season. He then joined the baseball team as a walk-on.

Baltimore also drafted one player with major-league bloodlines. The Orioles took left-hander Brandon Bonilla, the son of slugger Bobby Bonilla and the godson of Barry Bonds, with their 25th-round pick. The younger Bonilla played his freshman season at Arizona State, and then transferred to Division 2 Grand Canyon University. He’s described as a hard-throwing pitcher.

Speaking of players with major league bloodlines being drafted, Cal Ripken, Jr’s son Ryan was taken by the Washington Nationals in the 15th round. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s brother (also named Joe) was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 32nd round.

Orioles Purchase Contract of Johan Santana

By Andrew R. Koch

With the Baltimore Orioles struggling to stay above .500 and make some headway in the American League East thanks in large part to inconsistent starting pitching, the team has purchased the minor-league contract of a veteran pitcher in the hopes of aiding the starting rotation.

On June 2, the Orioles announced that they’d purchased left-handed pitcher Johan Santana’s contract from Triple-A Norfolk and added him to the 40-man roster. Santana was then placed on the 15-day disabled list. He hasn’t pitched at all since undergoing surgery on a torn capsule in his left shoulder in April 2013. It was the second time in three years that he’s had shoulder capsule surgery. He last pitched in August 2012 with the New York Mets.

Santana is scheduled to make rehab starts at both Double-A Bowie and then Norfolk, and could join the Orioles by the middle of this month. Manager Buck Showalter has left open the possibility that when Santana comes off the DL, the Orioles could move to a six-man rotation. Showalter says he’s been thinking about adding an extra starter to the rotation anyway.

Hunter, Wieters Making Progress in Recovery From Injuries

Two key pieces of the Orioles roster—closer Tommy Hunter and catcher Matt Wieters—remain on the disabled list, but are both making good progress in their recoveries.

Hunter, who’s been on the DL since May 22 with a strained left groin, threw a bullpen session prior to the start of the Orioles three-game series at the Texas Rangers. He also took pitchers fielding practice. Showalter said the bullpen and fielding sessions both went very well. The Orioles have been using a closer-by-committee to finish off games in Hunter’s absence.

Also prior to the start of the series against the Rangers, Wieters threw for just the third time since going on the DL with a sore right elbow on May 11. Wieters made 30 throws, including throws from as far as 100 feet. Wieters says he’s encouraged with the progress he’s making in his rehab as he tries to avoid season-ending surgery. He says he’s been getting stronger each day he’s thrown, and has been able to make more throws before getting fatigued. Wieters will now extend his throwing to 120 feet.

Bundy Nearly Done With Extended Spring Training

Right-handed pitcher and top Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy will soon take a major step forward in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Bundy pitched four-plus innings in an extended spring training game in Sarasota, Florida. Showalter says Bundy will make one more appearance in Sarasota, and then join the Aberdeen Ironbirds (short-season Class A New York-Penn League), whose season will begin on June 13.

Orioles Place Closer Hunter on DL

By Andrew R. Koch

The Orioles gained a split of their series in Pittsburgh earlier this week, but that split came at a price that will create additional flux in Baltimore’s bullpen.

Prior to the start of their four-game holiday weekend series at home against the Cleveland Indians, the Orioles have placed closer Tommy Hunter on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left groin. The move was made retroactive to May 21. Hunter last pitched on May 20 in the first game of the short series in Pittsburgh, allowing two hits and striking out one in one inning. It was only his second appearance after blowing back-to-back saves at home against Houston and Detroit earlier this month. Hunter is 1-1 with a 9.39 earned-run average and 11 saves in 14 opportunities this season.

Hunter will be eligible to come off the DL on June 5. Baltimore has recalled right-handed pitcher Preston Guilmet from the Triple-A Norfolk Tides to take Hunter’s spot on the 25-man roster until then.