Even if 7, 8 and 9 hit, pitching is priority 1


Ryan Flaherty singles in the fourth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field Saturday. Photo: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

All the recent weeping and wailing over the mediocrity of the Baltimore Orioles’ 7-8-9 hitters has left me somewhat amused. It’s not that I’m happy the Ryan Flaherty/Alexi Casilla platoon, along with JJ Hardy and Nolan Reimold, has gotten more exercise than hits since the season started. The average fan may be patient considering the team’s winning record.

With the notable recent exception being last night’s home run by Flaherty, life has been perplexing for the bottom three. As if to add insult to injury, the Orioles’ collective DH’s are last in the American League in hitting with a sub-.200 average, and last in runs, which would be logical if they’re hardly ever getting on base.

But all this lamenting points us to a history lesson. Students of Orioles lore surely remember that in the dynasty years of 1969-’71, there was, of course, no Designated Hitter, and the 7-8-9 hitters were either Andy Etchebarren or Elrod Hendricks, Mark Belanger, and the pitcher. The pitcher either bunted the runner to second or struck out the majority of the time.

In 1969, Belanger hit .287, a career high under the tutelage of hitting coach Charlie Lau; Hendricks hit .244; and Etchebarren .249 in 73 games backing up Hendricks. In 1970, Belanger dipped closer to his career norm at .218; Hendricks .242; and Etchebarren .243 in 78 games as Hendricks’ backup, but the team still won 108 games. In 1971, Belanger hit .266; Hendricks .250; and Etchebarren .270 in 70 games as backup.

With that catching platoon and Belanger hitting either 7th or 8th and the pitcher 9th, the team was the best in baseball. In the World Championship year of 1966, Etchebarren hit .221 in 121 games as starting catcher. The Orioles’ run production came from spots one through five in the lineup, as it does now.

Those batting averages show that sooner or later, the bottom three still need to hit, but that low offensive numbers are the norm. Those previous teams won so much and played at such a high level because in addition to the offensive talents of hitters 1-5, the pitching was chock full of 20-game winners with sub-3.00 ERAs and several complete games a year. It is bemusing that no matter how much baseball has done to add offense to the game – lower the mound, add the DH, and juice the ball as well as the players – it still takes starting pitching to win.

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