Sunday, April 3, 2011

Series Review: BAL @ TB, 4/1-4/3

I think this is the format I'm going to use for baseball bloggin' this year, instead of trying to do it by every game or whatever. There are much more popular, better-designed websites for you to get that information from. SB Nation's Camden Chat, for instance, has very nice dailies. This will more be a detailed overview of the series as its own unit of baseball storytelling. Every other sport reserves them for the playoffs (except the occasional home-and-home in hockey), but I like the thin veneer of narrative they bring. Still a pretty useless sample size, of course.

Without further ado...

April 1st, 2011 -- Orioles 4, Tampa Bay 1

Opening Day was kind to the Orioles, as it was the last time Jeremy Guthrie threw it for them -- in 2009, he took the mound against the New York Yankees at home on a dismal April afternoon, drizzly and cold and windy. Orioles fans didn't mind much because Baltimore defeated the Yankees 6-3 and Guthrie got the win. In 2008, he was also the Opening Day pitcher, also in Camden Yards but facing the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and got the loss.

He didn't get the nod last year, which turned out to be another loss to Tampa Bay (ha ha ha Kevin Millwood) but he got his chance for revenge this season and made the most of it: 8 IP, 3H, 6K, 1BB, 0R. David Price for the Rays looked more impressive early, but Guthrie sustained his performance longer and had movement on his pitches that wasn't always there last year. Guthrie has gotten some flak over the past couple years for being the "ace" on a team whose starting pitching was so poor that Steve Trachsel was once a legitimate #3, which is not something he's ever really deserved. He doesn't draft or sign the other guys in the rotation. So it's always good to see him do well.

Price started strong but flagged a bit down the stretch, allowing 4 ER over seven innings, and that was all the Orioles needed. Guthrie wasn't allowed to go for the complete game, which was fine considering his pitch count was over 100 and he'd allowed his first walk the inning before, and bringing in Jim Johnson was the right move to preserve a four run lead. Of course, Ben Zobrist lined his first pitch high over the right field wall to immediately nix the shutout, but it was still the right move. Perhaps Jim wasn't aware that you can't get the save if you're responsible for working into a save situation. Johnson got the next three guys to end the game.

April 2nd, 2011 -- Orioles 3, Tampa Bay 1

Brian Matusz was supposed to start the second game of the year for the Orioles, but over the preceding week he strained the intercostal muscle in his back and was scratched, and now resides on the 15 Day DL. So Chris Tillman got the start and it went about as well as anyone could have possibly imagined; Tillman threw six innings of no-hit ball with three walks and five strikeouts. He spent a lot of pitches doing so, however, and Jeremy Accardo came in to pitch the seventh and promptly gave up a single to Bossman, Jr., Upton. Upton, by the by, was one of two Rays this series who actually put the ball in play with positive results: 4 hits in 11 PA, two doubles and two singles, and two strikeouts. The other guy, Ben Zobrist, has already appeared once and will again...

...but before that, Joe Maddon indulged in matchups. Rays starter James Shields entered the eighth inning working on a shutout, then allowed Mark Reynolds to reach on a single. The next batter was Matt Wieters, and he would ground out to second -- but Reynolds had gone on the pitch to stay out of the double play and the Rays' only play was to first. Incidentally, I think that's the first time I've seen that particular bit of managerial bravado actually work. J.J. Hardy then walked on five pitches, and that was it for Shields; Joe Maddon decided to make a pitching change with the lineup rolling over and Brian Roberts coming up to bat.

Maddon's choice: Jake McGee, a young left-handed relief pitcher. McGee has good stats in a very, very small sample size, and no noticeable platoon split at the MLB level, which means if you're playing matchups, he's not much of a known quantity. So you look at the batters he'll be facing next: Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis. There is no beneficial lefty on lefty matchup here. Roberts is a switch-hitter and, predictably, when he walked up to the plate, he moved from the left side to the right, where he OPS's around .780 over the last couple of years against left-handed pitching. Presumably McGee would be left in to face Markakis, as no one was warming in the pen, which would give Maddon a nice lefty-on-lefty matchup...except Nick Markakis can actually hit lefties. He hit .361/.414/.492 against them last year, in fact. And I suppose Maddon can't be faulted for leaving him in to face Markakis, because Nicky struck out.

A few pitches earlier, however, Roberts had smashed a no-doubter over the left field wall, and the Orioles led 3-0.

The bottom of the eighth was vintage 2010 Orioles bullpen: Mike Gonzalez comes on, throws nine straight balls to put men on 1st and 2nd with none out, induces a pop-up and is yanked. Uehara comes in and retires the side with a strikeout and a weak grounder to first, but not before one of the inherited runner scores on a dribbler past Hardy at short.

The top of the ninth was quick and forgettable, and then Kevin Gregg took the mound. This season I'll be keeping track of something I call the Kevin Gregg Hat Trick: 1 hit, 1 walk, and 1 strikeout recorded in a three-out save situation. He can get the other two outs however he desires, and can allow more than the above (he can in fact theoretically record 3 Kevin Gregg Hat Tricks in 1 save appearance; the Ovechtrick of high-maintenance closing, if you will).

Gregg came in and immediately gave up a hit to BJ Upton, then got Joyce to ground into a fielder's choice to erase Upton and leave Joyce on first. Then he walked Kelly Shoppach and struck out Elliot Johnson, giving Gregg his first KGHT of the season...but leaving men on first and second with two away.

Which brings us back to Ben Zobrist. Entering the batter's box, Zobrist had two hits and two walks in nine appearances at the plate. One of those hits was the home run from the previous night's ballgame; his first at-bat this go-round was a pop-up, and his second a fly ball to Markakis in right. The last time he was seen in the bottom of the seventh, he walked. Not so this time. On Gregg's 17th pitch of the inning, Zobrist turns on a tepid fastball over the middle of the plate and sends it screaming towards the high wall in right field. Off the bat it looks like a home run, but it sinks quickly as Markakis retreats at a full run to the point where it seems like it will be 'merely' a game-tying double -- until Markakis jumps up and catches it cleanly as he slams full-on into the right field wall. The MASN feed cuts to the mound, where Kevin Gregg jubilantly fist-pumps at having technically retired the side.

April 3rd, 2011 -- Orioles 5, Tampa Bay 1

The Orioles had already won the series going into Sunday's game, but due to Matusz's injury, Orioles pitching prospect Zach Britton had been called up to make his MLB debut. Britton, the organization's top prospect, had by all rights deserved to make the team out of camp but for service time reasons was slated to spend the first month of the season at AAA Norfolk. The Orioles elected to promote him rather than have a bullpen day or bring in a spot starter, and while it may have cost them a year of team control, Britton delivered: 6 IP, 0R, 3H, 3BB, 6K. His fastball sat 91-92 with wicked late movement down and away and his breaking stuff was essentially unhittable. Most of the time that was because hitters didn't offer at it -- he had problems with location in the middle innings and couldn't get much of his offspeed stuff over for strikes -- but when they did, they didn't make contact.

Wade Davis started for the Rays and had a good game, but the Orioles abused the left field line in the top of the seventh -- after Wieters led off with a single to right, Adam Jones hit a hard single down the left field line, moving Wieters up to second. Mark Reynolds followed with a sinking liner that also skipped fair, bringing Wieters home, moving Jones to third and allowing Reynolds to reach second with a double. Felix Pie grounded out to short, holding the runners, but then J.J Hardy came up and pulled another ball about the same place as Jones and Reynolds, bringing both of them in and giving the Orioles a 3-0 lead. Then the O's pushed their luck, as Markakis hit a fourth base hit to left but Hardy was sent home and gunned down easily at the plate.

The game was never really in question after that; Berken came in and struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh, and Jim Johnson and Josh Rupe handled the eighth and ninth as the Orioles added a pair of insurance runs to secure a 5-1 victory and a series sweep.

Bird Notes

- J.J. Hardy has been the Orioles' starting shortstop for three games and he's already the best at the position since Tejada's first season in Baltimore. He's got pop, he can take a walk, he can field, he can throw -- if he can stay healthy, I have a feeling MacPhail is going to lock him down long-term. And probably overpay, but let's be honest, he was just going to use that money on another Type A reliever anyway.

- Orioles starting pitching in the series: 20.0 IP, 1R, 6H, 7BB, 17K. I doubt anyone was expecting that.

- Lost in the overall remarkable play of the team is that Vladimir Guerrero looks absolutely lost at the plate; he's got two weak singles in 12 PA, no walks, and three strikeouts. He's chasing even more than usual and looks puzzled he's not connecting. Hopefully he turns it around soon.

- With Josh Rupe starting the ninth on the mound, Kevin Gregg started to warm in the pen. There have been some complaints about how this contradicts the mantra Showalter keeps repeating on his MASN spots about how he doesn't much care for saves, but I'm of the mind that if you're asking Kevin Gregg to get you three or fewer outs without giving up two or more runs, statistically you'll get your positive outcome at least 95% of the time, and any meaningless counting stat that pads that man's trade value is fine with me. As long as Uehara or whoever's pitching well in the pen is used in actual high leverage situations, I don't care what's happening with the closer job.

The Throughline

The Orioles are off to their first 3-0 start since 1997 -- the last year the Orioles had a winning season, the last year the Orioles made the playoffs, and the Year of Maier. The Rays start 0-3 for the first time in their franchise history. The takeaway? Three games in April still don't mean much. More interesting is how the Orioles handle the somewhat higher-powered offense but less impressive pitching of the Detroit Tigers in their first season series at Camden Yards. They currently sit alone in first place atop the American League East.

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