The hitting-challenged Baltimore Orioles squared off against one of the few American League offenses worse than their own … and the results weren't too surprising.
During the first three games of the Orioles' four-game series at Kansas City May 15-18, the O's and Royals combined to bat .195, scoring eight runs. The teams were 4-for-31 (.129) with runners in scoring position. The fourth game of the series was the one with the most offensive action, with the Orioles ending up on the wrong end of an 8-6 final May 18, settling for a split.
Some credit must go to the pitchers, as five of the eight starters during the series delivered a quality start. The Orioles' Chris Tillman threw a shutout May 16, and the Royals' Danny Duffy carried a perfect game into the seventh inning May 17. But the series also shined a spotlight on two of the worst offenses in the American League.
Entering the series May 15, the Royals and Orioles ranked 13th and 14th in the AL, respectively, in runs scored. Only the Astros ranked lower. The two teams also lagged near the back of the pack in on-base percentage, ranking behind everyone but the Astros and Mariners. And neither the Orioles nor Royals were able to move the needle, offensively, during the four-game set.
A FLAWED APPROACH
No team in baseball has a more aggressive plate approach than the Orioles; they've drawn the fewest walks in the major leagues, with 92 as of May 18. That's less than half as many as the league-leading Athletics (192).
The O's have been a free-swinging team for the past several years. And if they were hitting home runs -- as they did last year, with a league-leading 212 -- then they might be able to get away with their lack of patience at the plate. But this year, the Birds rank in the lower half of the majors in home runs, hitting 36 through 42 games as of May 18. The Orioles' power outage, combined with their inability to put runners on base, has contributed to a team-wide offensive slumber.
The Orioles' free-swinging ways cost them during their 1-0 loss May 17. Duffy retired the first 20 batters of the game, and the Orioles at times made it easy on him. In the fourth inning, Manny Machado got ahead, 3-0, in the count, but hacked at the next pitch, popping out to third base. MASN broadcaster Jim Palmer criticized the decision to let Machado swing away on a 3-0 count, as Machado entered the game batting .203, and the Orioles (down, 1-0, at the time) needed base runners. Plus, Duffy has struggled with his control this year, walking 10 batters in 18.1 innings entering the game. Drawing a free pass might have been the Birds' best opportunity to get a base runner.
Later during the game, still trailing, 1-0, in the ninth, the O's put runners at the corners with one out against closer Greg Holland. Adam Jones came up with a chance to tie the game by hitting a fly ball or a well-placed grounder. But Holland exploited Jones' weakness for chasing breaking pitches out of the strike zone. Holland fed Jones a steady diet of breaking balls, and Jones couldn't stop himself from swinging at them, ultimately fanning on a slider in the dirt. The O's didn't score and were shut out for the third time this year.
Do the Orioles need a teamwide shift in their hitting philosophy? Opposing pitchers seem to have discovered that they don't need to throw strikes to get O's hitters out. Thus far, the Birds haven't made the needed adjustments, and they continue to chase pitches out of the zone. Asking hitters to be more patient at the plate is easier said than done -- some hitters don't do well with a passive approach -- but the Birds need to find a way to make pitchers work and force them to throw the ball over the plate.
The Orioles' rotation has been red-hot in May, and the starters continued that string of success against a struggling Royals lineup.
A notable effort belonged to Tillman, who pitched the Orioles' first complete game -- and shutout -- of the season during a 4-0 victory May 16. Tillman threw 77 of his 117 pitches for strikes, holding the Royals to five hits and one walk. His curveball had a ton of movement, locking up Royals hitters on numerous occasions. The outing marked a return to form for Tillman, who -- after pitching eight or more innings twice in a row earlier this year -- hadn't gone past the sixth during his five subsequent outings.
Not to be forgotten was Bud Norris' outing May 17. Norris pitched into the eighth inning, allowing a first-inning run, but keeping the Royals off the scoreboard after that. Unfortunately for Norris, that one run proved to be his undoing, as the Birds gave him zero runs of support. Norris' 7.1-inning, four-hit effort resulted in a tough-luck loss, but lowered his season ERA to 3.58.
Wei-Yin Chen also limited the Royals to one run May 15, albeit in a 5.1-inning performance. Ubaldo Jimenez couldn't keep the string of good starts going, though, serving up five runs in five innings May 18. Alex Gordon's go-ahead three-run homer in the fifth was the backbreaker for Jimenez.
A CLOSER CHANGE
Tommy Hunter's constant tightrope walking and two blown saves in a row caught up to him. When a save situation came along May 15, it was not Hunter, but Zach Britton who got the call to save the game.
Making his first career appearance in a save situation, Britton did something Hunter hadn't done all season -- he pitched a perfect inning to record the save. Britton used his sharp sinker to retire all three batters on groundouts, securing a 2-1 Birds win.
The switch to Britton as the Birds' closer will no doubt excite many Orioles fans, given his early success. At the same time, though, it could weaken the Birds' late-inning bullpen. Britton will no longer be available to get big outs in the seventh and eighth innings, which are often just as important as getting outs in the ninth. Britton could excel as closer, but will the rest of the bullpen be able to pick up the slack ahead of him?