Return to fundamentals has O's making noise
NEW YORK -- Pitching, defense and three runs on homers. It's not quite the famous Earl Weaver formula, but that's OK, since these aren't quite the Earl Weaver Orioles. The idea, however, is at least pretty close.
The 2012 Baltimore Orioles, under Buck Showalter, have done the big things en route to their best start in seven years. They're getting strong starting pitching, hitting for power and protecting leads in the late innings. It may not last -- the schedule gets a lot tougher, very soon -- but so far it's a treat for what was once one of the game's proudest franchises.
"It's always fun to come to a Major League park," said center fielder Adam Jones, "but it's better when you come and you've got a group of guys with the same goal, same mindset."
With a 7-1 win at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, the Orioles improved to 15-9, good for second place in the relentless American League East. They've allowed the fewest runs in the division and third fewest in the league. And while they're last in the East in runs scored, only the Rangers have scored more runs among non-East AL teams.
Tuesday's win exemplified how the O's are doing it. Starter Brian Matusz didn't dominate but pitched effectively into the seventh inning against a dangerous lineup. His offense staked him to a lead via the long ball, with early homers from Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy. And the impressive O's bullpen took it for the last eight outs, protecting a lead as it has done all season.
The O's also caught the ball, especially Jones, who caught everything hit his way in center. The Orioles aren't a patient team -- they showed that on Tuesday -- and they haven't showed enough lineup depth. But this was exactly the kind of game that shows the blueprint for how Baltimore could enjoy a better-than-expected year in 2012.
"They play defense, they have speed -- they're a very balanced team," said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who has seen his share of subpar O's teams from across the field over the years. "The biggest question has been their pitching, and it's stepped up this year."
More specifically, the starting pitching has stepped up. Baltimore's starters had the worst ERA and fewest innings pitched of any team in the Majors last year, and it wasn't even close in either category. The bullpen wasn't all that much better, but it was nowhere near the disaster the rotation was. This year, they're in the middle of the pack in starters' ERA and innings.
That has value in itself, of course. You can't win if you don't keep the other team from scoring. But good starting pitching does more than that. It makes things easier on a bullpen, for one thing. The O's lead the Majors in bullpen ERA in 2012, in part because they have some quality arms, but also because they aren't being asked to go four and five innings on a regular basis.
"That's what allows a club to be consistent, is the depth that their starting pitcher takes them in ballgames," Showalter said. "You're looking to bullpen help in the fourth for fifth inning every night, third inning, everybody's going to have issues."
The question is whether it can continue. This is not a rotation consisting of big names, though Matusz and Jake Arrieta were both highly regarded prospects not that long ago. The O's don't rank particularly high in starters' strikeout rate or strikeout-to-walk ratio, and those are key indicators for future success. It's likely that the starters will regress at least a bit.
If it's going to happen, it's likely to start happening in the next few weeks. After seeing lots of offensively challenged teams in April, the O's are starting a sequence against nothing but big-boy teams. After the Yankees, they face the Red Sox, Rangers, Rays and Yankees again. That's a much tougher slate, and expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
The offense, though, could actually get better as the year goes on. The stars have been players like Jones, Matt Wieters and Davis, young veterans who were always expected to hit -- especially Jones and Wieters. A star-level full season from either of those two would be no shock at all.
Meanwhile, some anticipated key contributors have offered next to nothing. Mark Reynolds and Hardy have underperformed drastically and are all but certain to offer more as the year goes on.
They'll need to, of course. The odds are heavily against the O's, and any reasonable assessment still has them fighting a seriously uphill battle in baseball's best division. They've got the blueprint, though, and that's better than nothing.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.