The first 6 innings of Sunday’s game between the Orioles and the Yankees were pretty tough to swallow. After rough losses Friday & Saturday, my hope was that Wei-Yin Chen would bounce back from his last outing and stymie the Yankees the way he did in game 2 of the ALDS last year. From the beginning though, it was clear his command wasn’t there and the team would have to rely on the bullpen, the bats, and hope that Yankees pitching might make a mistake.
There were a few bright spots, double plays, strikeouts of Robinson Cano (who finished the day 0-4), and a 2nd inning single by new Oriole Michael Morse, but, for awhile, it looked like the shutout from yesterday’s 2-0 loss would be continuing against Andy Pettite, who hasn’t lost a start at home against Baltimore since 1999.
Then, in the 7th inning, something changed. Morse started the inning with an innocent single, followed by a single from Danny Valencia, continuing his strong hitting of late. Morse scored from 2nd on a single by Matt Wieters, with Valencia heading to 3rd. J.J. Hardy, who will freely admit that he almost never hits balls the other way, hit one of the stranger 3-run home runs you’ll ever see. The ball hit the top of the wall in right field, just out of the reach of Curtis Granderson; the ball rolled across the top of the wall before being snatched by a Yankee fan. What struck me most about the whole scene wasn’t the play itself, it was a huge grin on the face of J.J. Hardy as he crossed home plate.
The guys on WBAL radio have often referred to Hardy as the “captain of the infield,” like the middle linebacker of an NFL defense or the point guard in the NBA. Hardy may not be as flashy as Manny Machado or Adam Jones, but he makes just as many important plays. I think that’s why I was so happy to see him smile as he crossed home plate. During his pre-game interview, MASN’s Roch Kobatko noted that there was an air of frustration in the clubhouse, like the team felt they should have won on Friday & Saturday. He thought they might play angry in Sunday’s game, and I think that’s exactly what they did. The players have spoken at length about knowing they are a much better team than the one they’ve been, especially on this current roadtrip.
After Hardy’s home run, it was as if the rest of the team finally had permission to stop pressing at the plate, relax and let the balls come to them. Brian Roberts reached on a bunt single to Alex Rodriguez, Nick Markakis had an extremely “Nick Markakis-like” 9-pitch walk, and Adam Jones tattooed a ball 424 feet to straightaway center field, building a 7-3 lead that the bullpen wouldn’t relinquish.
Good things: Michael Morse 2-4 with a run scored in his first game as an Oriole–a healthy Morse batting with Chris Davis is a scary thought, in a good way. Only 5 men left on base. Multiple hits from Morse, Jones, Hardy, Valencia & Brian Roberts. The INCREDIBLE play made by Manny Machado & Chris Davis, each guy went full out, knowing Alfonso Soriano can still run at 37. Five innings of scoreless relief by the bullpen, including two big innings with three strikeouts from rookie Kevin Gausman.
Not so good things: Wei-Yin Chen had a 2nd consecutive poor outing, only lasting four innings while giving up three runs and five walks. The strikeout count of Matt Wieters against any team not named the Tampa Bay Rays continues to rise. The offense & the starting pitching can’t seem to be in sync at the same time: when the pitching is great, the offense disappears, and the offense is strong when the starting pitching falters.
The Orioles start an important 3-game series tonight agains the Cleveland Indians, currently 1/2 a game behind the Orioles and 3 1/2 games behind Tampa Bay for the 2nd Wild Card spot. The matchups are Bud Norris vs. Justin Masterson, Chris Tillman vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (this should be a dandy, I saw Jimenez pitch as a member of the Rockies, he has good stuff), and Miguel Gonzalez vs. Zach McAllister. The team will then head back to Baltimore for eight big-time games against Chicago (I know the team stinks but the O’s had trouble with them in July) and the Yankees. The ability of the offense and the starting pitching to get on the same page will go a long way in determining whether the Orioles will be playing meaningful, smile-worthy games into October.