Each time last summer the 108-loss Orioles claimed to be a competitive team that was in contention every game, it was met with amused disbelief. Such proclamations always seemed to come after a tight game in the middle innings ballooned into a lopsided loss, or when they were one swing away, but that swing never came.
This year, they don’t have to pretend. Anyone can tell just by watching these Orioles that they’re competitive, and a quarter of the way through this coronavirus-shortened 60-game season, that’s a massive step in the right direction for manager Brandon Hyde’s club.
Entering Sunday, the Orioles played just three games in which they didn’t have a chance to win it in their last at-bats — the Opening Day defeat at the Boston Red Sox and home series-opening losses against the New York Yankees and Miami Marlins.
The team has been streaky, with winless series against the Yankees and Marlins and winning weekends against the Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and defending champion Washington Nationals.
The consistency to play competitively every night is still to come, though Hyde has never doubted his team’s ability to put the tough ones behind them.
“You’re not going to play a perfect game every night,” he said. “You’re not going to be consistent with having a good start every night or having a good offense every night. You can try for that to happen. We just didn’t play well for a couple days there against Miami. That happens to teams, and I hope that we rebound.
“I thought we pitched really well in the Miami series. Had a tough day the last game. But we played four close games there and were just on the wrong side of them. It just didn’t happen for us that series. But (Saturday) night I thought we threw the ball well, and had some good at-bats late in the game and pulled one out.”
Before Sunday’s game was suspended after some tarp problems at Nationals Park, the Orioles were in the process of pulling another one out. That game will be restarted Friday, and considering the difference in who the Orioles played from one series to the next so far, there’s no guarantee they’ll be in as strong a position to win.
There are far fewer reasons to write off the possibility entirely, though.
Save for a few duds, the starting pitching has held up its end of the deal. Alex Cobb has looked like he did in 2014 with the Rays, two surgeries and seemingly a lifetime ago. Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc have given the team competitive starts more often than not, and served as a stopper when it’s been required. Asher Wojciechowski has been solid as well, and the Orioles haven’t gotten the benefit of John Means’ new hard-throwing repertoire yet.
Any number of bullpen arms are pitching as if their past struggles don’t exist, from Miguel Castro and Tanner Scott to Shawn Armstrong and Paul Fry.
As Hyde noted on Saturday, so many of the players who were fixtures last year are better, including Rio Ruiz, Pedro Severino, Renato Núñez and Hanser Alberto. The team’s defense, with José Iglesias settling the infield and Austin Hays covering center field, has been better.
Even just two-plus weeks of competent baseball, combined with eight teams from each league making the playoffs, have boosted their chances with every opportunity. Their odds of making the postseason at FanGraphs were up to 8.3% entering Sunday from 1.3% entering the season.
It’s all a terribly small sample size, but then again, so is the season.
Hyde said he thinks about the fact that it’s already a quarter of the way into the season only in the context of how much baseball is still left to play.
It’s a lot different,” he said. “It does feel like August, though, in a normal season. But like everybody says, it’s a sprint season. We’re almost a quarter of the way through, and I think it’s going to go by pretty fast. We are trying to take it game-to-game, game by game, series by series, and just trying to keep these guys healthy and stay competitive for the rest of the summer.”
And when he says competitive now, no one has grounds to argue.
The last time the Orioles had a Monday day off after a good weekend series, it took days to get back into form. They’ll hope that won’t happen this week when they resume play for three games at the Philadelphia Phillies starting on Tuesday. Then, a 10-game homestand begins at Camden Yards with a return engagement against these Nationals.
Friday’s resumption of the suspended game from Sunday will make the longest homestand of the year even longer.
What was good?
Again, plenty, though the Marlins series might have disguised it. Núñez, however, continued what could be a breakout year at the plate with three more home runs this week. He entered play Sunday with five, and only Yankees slugger Aaron Judge had more in the American League.
Hyde, asked on Saturday if the at-bats were any different to help him tap into his power better, said it was more just that Núñez wasn’t missing any mistakes. Even so, he’s walked a team-high seven times already and his walk rate of 11.3% is well up from last year’s 7.3%.
A locked-in Núñez is always going to hit the mistakes a mile. A more well-rounded approach at the plate could help him provide more value than just his power, which will be helpful if the Orioles continue to put him out at third base.
Even if the Marlins aren’t as bad as anyone expected them to be before the season, or before they lost half of their roster to a COVID-19 outbreak, getting swept by them in a four-game series just can’t happen.
Just imagine the alternatives. Even a split would have the Orioles as one of a handful of teams with winning records in the American League and give even more clearance to those who want to fully buy into the team’s chances of October baseball to do so.
Simply put, that’s not the type of series these Orioles often lose. Their bats rarely went that cold in 2019, and never when the pitching held up its end of the bargain and presented them with winnable games.
There are going to be twists and turns at every juncture of the season if the first quarter is any indication. No one would have expected that a sweep at the hands of the Marlins under those circumstances could have such an affect on the Orioles’ season.
On the farm
The Orioles claimed right-hander Jorge López from the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, and while he’s past the point of being a prospect, his joining the team is meaningful.
Promoting Keegan Akin to sit in the bullpen for two days without being used this weekend because the Orioles needed pitching depth was understandable, but isn’t often the best way to introduce a prospect to life in the big leagues. They didn’t really have any choice, though, likely because of how things were lining up at the secondary camp and the fact that they don’t have any starters on the 40-man roster.
Nonroster pitchers such as Chandler Shepherd and Cesar Valdez are being stretched out, but the Orioles decided not to add them for a short-term fix. Having pitchers such as López and Thomas Eshelman to serve as swing depth again might delay the need for debuts for Akin and Dean Kremer, but at least it won’t alter expectations if Akin ends up going back down this week without pitching.
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