Cumberland Times-News

July 10, 2013

Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds, or see Norfolk

Mike Burke
Cumberland Times-News

— Odd, when you follow a baseball team with a winning record, the games are harder to enjoy than when your team was canal water. Kind of like Maryland basketball when the most enjoyable part of the game is halftime, or afterwards if the Terps have won.

Orioles and Pirates fans have regained the taste of this misery the past two seasons, as both clubs have regained the winning touch. We hope, anyway.

Even though the Orioles have yet to get red hot this season, the Pirates had been ablaze for much of the season, thanks to baseball’s best pitching, so, actually, both teams likely had a lull due on their dance cards. The Orioles, a season-high 11 games over .500 had lost four of six entering Wednesday night’s game with Texas. The Pirates, at one point 20 games over, had also lost four of six. However, dropping a pair of close games to the Oakland A’s is no crime, but rather commonplace.

Pirates fans will not be happy to read this, but this is unquestionably the season the Bucs will finish over .500 — well over .500, in fact. There is just too much pitching, versatility and experience in place for it not to be. Lessons from the previous summers’ collapses have been learned, from the top of the organization to the bottom.

The Orioles, on the other hand, are at a dicey gut-it-out juncture of their season, with their next seven games being with Texas and Toronto. The Orioles have the best defense in baseball, yet their pitchers stubbornly refuse to pitch to it. Every pitcher — starter and reliever, it seems — with the possible exception of Darren O’Day, whose arm is scheduled to fall off in something like three days, is a nibbler — nibbling, nibbling, nibbling and increasing their pitch count, walking hitters and setting themselves up for the big innings that break open games and regulate seasons to .500. If you’re lucky.

Because it seems there is not an efficient pitcher on the staff (I said efficient, not good), it would appear high pitch counts and bases on balls might be a matter of philosophy, even though nothing could be further from the truth. However, high pitch counts, bases on balls, and starts that fizzle into the fifth and sixth innings are what they are getting, and that must change if this team wants more than .500, much less a return to the postseason.

Consider this message received by Zach Britton and Kevin Gausman, both of whom were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk following Tuesday’s 8-4 loss to Texas. The moves became necessary because the Orioles were once again short a long reliever. Plus, Gausman will stay busy in the Norfolk rotation over the All-Star break.

Offensively, the Orioles were bound to cool off a bit. What is bothersome, though, is the way they have done it, as opposing pitchers currently don’t appear to be working too hard against Orioles hitters the way they were the first three months. Yes, the Orioles offense is based on home runs and doubles, but that doesn’t mean hitters are not allowed to show a little patience and work counts. Particularly at this the most humid period of the summer, it would behoove Orioles hitters to keep opposing pitchers toiling through the thick Chesapeake air for as long and for as many pitches as possible. It seems to work against the Orioles ...

Then there is 21-year-old third baseman Manny Machado, who — offensively and defensively — is just downright scary. Each night you see him do something you’ve never seen anybody do before, making it impossible to fathom how good he can be. Defensively, he’s set, while playing out of position no less. Offensively, let’s just hope the Orioles don’t do to him what Earl Weaver did to Cal Ripken Jr. and cajole him into becoming a pull hitter.

Ripken, as Machado will, grew so much into his frame that natural power was bound to come. However, his best years as a hitter came in 1982-84 and in 1991 when he used the entire field. Machado is a classic all-fields hitter and, hopefully, will stay that way.

Conversely, it would be wonderful if Adam Jones would use more of the field himself, particularly with runners in scoring position. But then hitting the lottery would be a wonderful thing as well.

Then, of course, there is slugger Chris Davis, who is experiencing the breakout season of all breakout seasons. What hasn’t this guy hit this season, and how far hasn’t he hit it?

He also seems to be handling his newfound celebrity quite well, telling reporters that yes, he thinks about Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 and, yes, he still considers Roger Maris the record holder. Saying that, of course, was a nice gesture on Crush’s part, but then so, too, was Gary Hart saying, “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.”

Davis has handled that part of it very well, too, saying no, he has not, is not and never will take performance enhancing drugs, yet understands why people might suspect that he has or is.

“I know, I know,” Davis told ESPN. “I have to take the heat for other people’s mistakes. I guess it’s kind of a backhanded compliment. If people accuse me of steroids, I must be doing something right.”

He is that, and though ask is a much nicer word than accuse, Davis’ understanding will be put to the test in the coming week as he will be front and center at the All-Star Game a night after he takes part in the annual Chris Berman waterboarding session, once known as the Home Run Derby.

Of course, all Davis has to do is dial up the home runs. We’re the ones who will be forced to dial down the volume.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com