Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two for two

Two games against the Red Sox and Yankees.

Two heartbreaking losses.

Read my last post to get the rundown on what happened in Boston. But what happened last night was just as painful to watch, even though you could argue that the Orioles should have never been in the opportunity to win the game in the first place.

Remember Bartolo Colon? 2005 Cy Young Award Winner? I'll always be partial to him since he was an Expo for a brief period of time -- and that trade crippled the Expos/Nationals since they gave up Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore to get him for three months in which they weren't going to get to the post-season anyway. Thanks, Omar Minaya.

Anyway, Colon pitched 8 innings of 3 hit baseball opposite Zach Britton, who pitched 7 innings of 1 run baseball (and that run was unearned, BTW). So Joe Girardi pulls Colon after 8 innings and 85 pitches to get his future hall of fame closer Mariano Rivera into the game. Just as Mike Flanagan and Jim Thorne are going over the worse-than-expected career numbers Rivera has against the Orioles, he blows the save, allowing a sac fly to Vlad Guerrero which ties the game 1-1.

It was an exciting comeback after a devastating loss in Boston. But they hadn't won the game just yet.

The O's went quietly in the bottom of the 10th, and the 11th is where it got interesting. Luis Ayala was on the mound of the Yankees, and Felix Pie lead off the inning with a single. Adam Jones sacrificed him over. Nick Markakis was walked. Guerrero hits a hard grounder to Alex Rodriguez, who fields the ball but is unable to make the throw. Bases loaded, 1 out.

What happens next will go down in infamy. Luke Scott has one of the worst at bats of his career, striking out on a slider down and away. I think it actually bounced into the catcher's glove. And then Matt Wieters flied out to end the inning.

After Jim Johnson retired the Yankees for the second straight inning, the O's had another chance to win the game, facing a Yankees relief pitcher who was making his MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT. This game was prime for the taking.

JJ Hardy and Mark Reynolds both struck out. Noesi was dealing. But wait. Robert Andino walks. Pie singles. Andino moves to third. During Adam Jones' at-bat, Pie nabs second although it's defensive indifference. Jones then walks to load the bases. Nick Markakis comes to bat. Nick, who's had a slow start to the season (even though you could say it's not even the start of the season anymore, being May 18th and all, Nick is having what is called a "down year") has a chance to come up big and win the game.

Nick takes the first pitch for a ball. Wait. You mean that pitch ten inches off home plate was a strike? Are you kidding me? Now that Nick's head is all messed up, he weakly swings at the next pitch in the dirt. If ever there was a sound effect to accompany a swing, that one would deserve a big juicy fart. Down 0-2, Nick takes the next pitch for a ball and then grounds out weakly.

So if you're counting, that's two, TWO chances blown to win the game with bases loaded. At this point I am headed to bed. If the O's hadn't won the game yet, then they're not going to win the game plain and simple. So I head to bed, but turn the game back on. Jeremy Accardo luckily gets out of the inning with the bases loaded and Vlad Guerrero leads off with a base hit to start the bottom of the 13th inning. Luke Scott flies out. Wieters grounds out. Hardy is walked intentionally. And here comes Mark Reynolds.

What does he do? Strikes out looking at a ball thrown right down the middle of the plate.

And with that, I turn the TV off and drift off to what is actually a pleasant night's sleep.

The O's went on to lose 4-1. I hear Brandon Snyder made a blunder and got doubled up at first base on a line drive out and Mike Gonzalez beaned a Yankee in the head after he let up a game winning double.

Well hey, he might be worth keeping after all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Well, that figures

After the Orioles swept the Mariners and took two out of three from the first place Rays in Tampa, they headed to Boston 19-20, just a game away from that elusive .500 mark.

In the last 13 years, the Orioles have struggled mightily to get above .500. They've typically either reached it, or a game within it, and then promptly gone on a losing streak to blow any chances of getting back there for the season. The best example of this was 2002, when the Orioles were 61-61 on August 23rd. They finished the season 4-32, good for the worst 36 game stretch in modern baseball history.

And so yesterday, the Orioles held a 6-0 lead over the Red Sox heading into the bottom of the 6th inning. Chris Tillman had walked a tightrope the entire game, but hadn't allowed a run through five. He was pulled from the game with back tightness after just 88 pitches. And so it was up to the bullpen to hold onto a 6-run lead for 4 innings.

As soon as I saw Mike Gonzalez enter the game, I had that knot in my stomach, similar to the feeling you get during bad turbulence after just having eaten Chinese food in the terminal. And it didn't take long for my fears to be realized, as Gonzalez promptly allowed a single to JD Drew. Next batter? Jed Lowrie, double off the monster. 6-1. Carl Crawford hit a dribbler that ate up Mark Reynolds at third. Runners at first and third with no outs. Yeah, here comes the pain.

Jason Varitek, who entered the game hitting .151 looped a single into left field, scoring Lowrie. 6-2, no outs, runners on first and second. And finally, Gonzalez records an out, getting Jacoby Ellisbury to line out. And then came Buck Showalter to relieve Gonzalez, wanting to end on a high note, I guess.

In short, Gonzalez should have never entered the game. A 6-0 lead in Fenway is a 2 or 3 run lead anywhere else. And with it being the 6th inning, it was way too soon to play lefty match-ups. It was a risky move because of Gonzalez's up and down nature as a reliever and he's mostly been down so far this year. So Buck got what he asked for.

Jeremy Accardo relieved Gonzalez, but kept the fire burning. Even though he got Dustin Pedroia to fly out, he gave up a single to Adrian Gonzalez (scoring Crawford) and a double to Kevin Youkilis, scoring Varitek and Gonzalez. Accardo was replaced by Clay Rapada who walked David Ortiz before getting JD Drew, who lead off the inning, to ground out.

And with the score 6-5 after six inning, the writing was on the wall. The Red Sox had three remaining at bats to score just two runs. The Orioles could have forfeited the game at that point and I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow.

But wait. Mark Reynolds hit a home run to lead off the seventh inning. So now we're up 7-5. But that didn't last long, because Jim Johnson allowed a base hit to Jason Varitek in the bottom of the inning, which scored that pesky Jed Lowrie who lead off the inning with a triple. But JJ was able to minimize the damage, keeping the O's lead at 7-6.

The 8th inning was uneventful. Vlad Guerrero hit a double with 1 out but of course they couldn't get him in. And so Kevin Gregg was called on to close the game out. Here's how his masterful 9th inning went:

Varitek - flied out
Ellisbury - walk (Flanagan: Gregg doesn't give in. Translation: he walks a lot of batters)
Pedroia - walk (Gregg still not giving in)
Gonzalez - double off the monster. Ballgame.

Red Sox win, 8-7.

Now, it was a brutal loss. No bones about it. But it was at least lessened by the sixth inning, where the Red Sox scored 5 runs. At that point in the game, I knew the lead would not be held. No way. Our bullpen sucks. And Buck Showalter lied in his commercial about "the win rule". He clearly believes in the "save rule" which is why he keeps crowbaring Kevin Gregg into save situations. Now I know Koji Uehara is not the poster child for stamina, but he sailed through the 8th inning. So why would you bring him back out for the 9th when you can bring in your closer, with his 7 walks per 9 innings ratio, to face the top of the Red Sox line-up in a 1-run game?

I don't know.

Kevin Gregg is not closer material. The way he has been pitching this year he doesn't deserve to be in the majors, actually. And Mike Gonzalez, it was nice know you, pal. The next time you pitch and make that drastic falling motion toward third base, just keep going. Like, completely out of Baltimore. At this point, it's for your own safety.

People can say "it's just one loss" all they want. This was not just one loss. This is the kind of loss that sends this team into tailspins. Not to mention they were trying to reach .500.

My prediction? Here comes another massive losing streak. Book it.

These are the same old Orioles.

They can't hold down leads on the Yankees and Red Sox.

They still can't build a decent bullpen.

And they still can't get above .500.

Same old crappy Orioles.

Friday, May 13, 2011

O's Sweep Mariners

Easy there, fellas. That's JJ Hardy.

The Orioles appear to be alternating between hot and cold this season with no cool setting on the clubhouse thermostat. After losing 6 of their last 7, including suffering a home sweep at the hands of the Rays, the Orioles swept the Mariners in a wacky series that featured two come-from-behind wins in extra innings and another win coming from a David and Goliath situation.

On Tuesday night, the O's won a crazy game in 14 innings, which involved so many outs at the plate they should put a swinging guillotine in front of it. The most memorable out was JJ Hardy, who was waved around third by O's 3B coach John Russell and thrown out by at least 45 feet. Hardy didn't bother sliding or colliding with the Mariner's catcher, and that's probably a good thing since he probably would have injured himself again. Leads changed at the drop of a dime. But the Orioles pulled it out, thanks to Matt Wieters blooping a base hit into shallow center field with two outs, scoring a very animated Felix Pie who nearly cold-cocked the home plate umpire with a pumped fist.

On Wednesday, the Orioles faced a tough task with 2010 Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez on the mound. Meanwhile, Chris Tillman, fresh off his horrendous start in Kansas City where he lasted 3.2 innings, giving up 10 hits and 8 runs, was pitching for the O's. That's a game the O's lose 9 times out of 10. But they battled Hernandez, making him throw a lot of pitching and getting him out of the game pretty early. And Tillman bounced back in a big way, allowing 1 run in 6 IP in the win, despite throwing his normal 100 pitches to get through 6 innings.

And last night, the Orioles won an exciting pitcher's duel featuring both Jason Vargas and Zach Britton pitching 9 innings of shutout baseball. Britton allowed just 3 hits, all singles, in his 9 innings of work. The Mariners got the game's first run in the 12th, but the Orioles were able to take advantage of Mariners' closer Brandon League for the second time in the series. Derrek Lee started off the inning with a single. Then League drilled Guerrero in the middle of the back. Then League's fastball clipped Jones' leg loading the bases. The next batter, Matt Wieters (looking to earn the second game winning hit of the series), lined out on a play that could have very well doubled up Jake Fox at second, who was running for Guerrero. The next batter was JJ Hardy, who was red hot since coming back from injury, and he lined a ball straight up the middle that was able to score Lee and Fox for the winning runs.

The post game celebration was fun to watch, as the players stormed Hardy on the infield while Buck Showalter stood by the dugout and looked on like a proud father, unable to hold back a smile. The image was reminiscent to the end of a sports movie. It's a shame that the season is filled with so many ups and downs and that image of Buck standing there, proud of his team, is bound to get lost in the remainder of the season.

But will the Orioles be able to continue the celebration? Was that win and celebration the turning point for the 2011 season?

The O's travel back to Tampa to face the Rays again, just three games since they last played. So which Orioles team will show up? The one that was swept? Or the one that does the sweeping?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The shortest (and most true) blog article I will ever write...

To answer the question I posed at the end of my last blog post...Yes.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Al Pacino said it best...

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."

That's the Orioles for you. Just when you thought they were headed for another 100-loss season after losing 10 of 12, they started playing better baseball, taking 2 of 3 from the Red Sox and 3 of 4 from the White Sox.

5 of their last 7 ain't bad. And they now sit at 14-15, 3rd in the AL East, 4.5 games back of the Yankees.

The pitching has been solid. The bats are starting to wake up. And the Orioles actually resembled a good team, taking advantage of the many mistakes the White Sox made in this last series. And they made a lot.

The O's now head to Kansas City to face the upstart Royals who are 15-13 behind a powerful line-up that's 3rd in the AL in scoring. Their team ERA, however, is 10th, and their starting pitchers have a collective ERA of 5.11. So the Orioles may not want to get into the Royals bullpen. Just string the Royals starters along like a cat with a mouse, letting them live just...long...enough.

And while the Orioles are currently 11th in runs and 12th in pitching, they've been playing a lot better lately: getting good starts out of their rotation (3.98 ERA) and getting some great clutch hitting (.885 OPS with RISP), and look to ride some momentum into KC.

But that's the O's for you. Setting you up just to disappoint you.

Will it happen again?