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It’s all about Leadership: The Orioles Sweep the Rays to Open the Season

Orioles starting Pitcher Chris Tillman (shown in Norfolk 2010) pitched 6 no-hit inning against the Rays before being lifted when his pitch count went over 100

“Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.”  Earl Weaver

Note: This is my first baseball post of the 2011 season which actually deals with what is happening on the field. Last year I wrote almost exclusively about the Baltimore Orioles AAA affiliate the Norfolk Tides. I was a season ticket holder and decided to write on every game.  This year since I am stationed in Camp LeJeune and cannot go to Harbor Park every home game I will focus on the Baltimore Orioles and to a lesser degree the Tides. I do this because I know a lot of the players from their time in Norfolk and have met various scouts and team officials to include Orioles General Manager Andy McPhail. I would like to do this for the team that I grew up with the San Francisco Giants but since they are a West Coast team it is harder to keep up with them the way I can the Orioles.  I will also do some commentary on other teams, especially in the AL East but also try to tell the stories of players that I know from Norfolk who are now in the Major Leagues.

Can you say the word “winner in the same sentence as Orioles?” I knew you couldn’t. Well the Orioles started the season off right sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa with dominant pitching, solid defense and more than enough hitting to get the job done. Orioles starting pitchers Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton allowed just 1 run on 6 hits in 20 innings work. Tillman who pitched a no-hitter as a starter for the AAA Norfolk Tides last year had a no-hitter going after 6 innings but was lifted by Manager Buck Showalter as his pitch count had gone over 100.  Orioles’ relievers were solid and some players picked up in the off-season, particularly J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds.

Are the Orioles for real? I say most definitely yes.

In 2010 the Baltimore Orioles began the season under the direction of Manager Dave Trembley lost 9 of their first 10 and 16 of their first 20 games.  Under Trembley the O’s went 15-39 before he was fired and replaced by Third Base Coach Juan Samuel who went 17-34.  The season was in the tank and it looked like the Orioles were on track to lose well over 100 games.  Then proven winner and leader Buck Showalter was as hired as Manager on August 2nd.  After that the Orioles were a different team, the players were the same but the attitude and performance was as if the team itself had risen like the legendary Phoenix. From the time that Showalter took over the Orioles went 34-23 having the second best record in Major League Baseball between August and the end of the season.  It was an amazing turnaround and it was due to leadership. At the beginning of 2010 I thought that the Orioles had the talent to finally break .500 and turn a winning season for the first time since 1997 when they went 98-64 under Davey Johnson and reach the ALCS.  They didn’t finish anything close to .500 but the turnaround at the end of the season showed that it wasn’t the level of talent it was the on-field leadership that was the difference.

Young veteran Jeremy Guthrie pitched 8 scoreless innings against the Rays on opening day

This season as always the Orioles are getting little respect from the so called experts, most predicting a slightly better year than 2010 but almost all saying that the Orioles will finish at the bottom of the AL East once again. I don’t think that this will be the case at all. I think that the O’s are going to surprise everyone this year and break .500 and finish at least 3rd in the division. They are going to give everyone trouble including the vaunted Red Sox and Yankees.  This is a tough division and though the Red Sox and Yankees have a lot of money to spend a decent number of their stars are beginning to show their age and over the course of the 162 game season injuries will be a factor.

Rookie Zach Britton called up from Norfolk to replace the injured Brian Matusz got his first Major League win on Sunday

As for the Orioles they have excellent pitching that goes deep into their minor league system and they picked up a solid closer in Kevin Gregg.  Pitching is a big deal and the Yankees will struggle in this department. The Red Sox have good pitching but some of their best including ace closer Jonathan Papelbon are showing their age and do not have the same stuff that they had before. In fact the Red Sox were shelled by Texas Rangers hitting this weekend and swept in Arlington by the Rangers who do not seem to have missed a beat coming off of their American League Championship in 2010. The Yankees took 2 of 3 from the Tigers but gave up 18 runs to the Tigers in those three games.

I know that it is very early in the season but the Orioles made all the right moves in the off season and have improved in every aspect of the game. The young pitchers after having been blooded in 2010 are about to show what they are made of against the AL East and the rest of the American League and the difference will be the pitching.  I think that Orioles will win between 85-and 90 games and make a lot of teams miserable. Of course I could be wrong but I think that I will be more right than the experts when it comes to the 2011 Baltimore Orioles squad under the direction of Buck Showalter.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Finishing Well: The Orioles’ Revival a Portent of things to Come

Luke Scott and the Orioles finally have something to be excited about

The Baltimore Orioles under new manager Buck Showalter have become a force in the American League and the American League East.  On August the 2nd the O’s had the worst record in baseball, even lower than the perpetual dwellers in the Marinas Trench of baseball the Pittsburgh Pirates. In four months of play the O’s had but 32 wins and had gone through two managers.  They were on pace to lose well at least 110 games and maybe more games than any team in Major League Baseball History in a 162 game season.

Outfielders like Felix Pie (above) as well as Nick Markakis, Adam Jones will have Corey Patterson looking for a starting position and Nolan Reimold hoping for redemption

At the end of last season I said that manager Dave Trembley had to go. At the time I suggested Bobby Valentine as a replacement. After Trembley was fired Valentine as well as a number of other candidates was interviewed, shortly after Valentine removed himself from consideration as a possible successor to Trembley. On August the 2nd the Orioles hired Showalter to take the place of Interim Manager Juan Samuel. When Showalter took over the Orioles no-one gave him much of a chance of making any real progress this season, most considered the Orioles a lost cause.  I did not think so. At the beginning of the year I predicted that the Orioles would be a .500 team and that this would be a good year for them.  That prediction did not materialize but it was not a question of talent but of leadership and the ability of the Orioles Coaching staff to get the best out of the team, especially the young talent.  The team is playing to the level that I thought that they could at the beginning of the season.

Jeremy Guthrie as well as stable mates Jake Arietta, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergeson will have competition from others including Zach Britton who is still at Norfolk

It is my belief that finishing a season well is an indicator of the real potential of a team.  If one was to simply look at the Orioles aggregate win and loss totals one might say that the season was a disaster. That is not true. The first 4 months of the season were an unmitigated disaster as the team lost 16 of its first 18 games and never recovered under the management of Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel. The team was obviously demoralized and looked to an outsider that they believed that they would lose when they took the field. Young players, especially the young pitchers either got knocked around or were given no run support.  Veterans acquired in the off-season to provide experience and on field leadership to the youngsters were a bust and the team had numerous injuries to key players. You could not have a worse first two thirds of a season if you tried.

But all of that changed on August 2nd with a simple change in leadership. The Orioles started to win and win frequently. Not only did they win frequently they began to win a lot more series than they lost.If the season began on August 2nd the AL east would look like this:

Orioles            34-23     .596

Blue Jays         30-26   .535

Yankees          30-27    .526

Red Sox          28-27    .509

Rays                28-28     .500

There were turnarounds in hitting as well as starting pitching. Orioles starters went 26-15 with a 3.13 ERA after Showalter.  With that their starters were the 3rd best rotation in majors since August 2nd.  They have the third best record in the Majors since August 2nd with only the Phillies and Twins winning more.

The Orioles have a lot to look forward to. Buck Showalter will not rest in the off season as he gets the O’s ready for next year. There will be changes. I would think that pitchers Kevin Millwood and Mark Hendrickson will be gone; others will have to fight for their jobs. In the off season Showalter will take the raw talent that has been present on the Orioles at the Major League and Minor League levels make prudent trades as well as assignments within the organization to get them ready to challenge the rest of the AL East in 2011.

While the Orioles are definitely on the way up one has to take a look at how others are doing not just in the East but in the Majors. In the AL East the Rays Owner says that payroll will be significantly reduced and with numerous key players in contract negotiations and declaring free agency they will not be the same team that they have been the past three years. The Yankees and Red Sox are both showing signs of age with the Sox being in worse shape in the long run because they have little to speak of in their minor league system are saddled with a good number of older players and have key players entering the free agent market.  The Yankees can always spend money but as the core of the team, Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera get older they will lose something. Since the organization will be unlikely to trade such favorites at some point they will spend more time on the DL and not perform as well as in previous years. It is simple; the older guys get the more that they wear out.  This may prove problematic for the Yankees in the coming years.  The Blue Jays finished strong but one does not know what will happen with them with the exit of long time manager Cito Gaston.

Outside of the AL East only the Twins performed really well.  Almost every team in the AL was just above .500 or below during the last two months of the season. This includes teams that have a history of doing well and some that are playoff bound.  Finishing well matters and with the exception of the Orioles and Twins in the AL no teams finished strong, many stumbled and the proof is in their records.

All of this bodes well for the Orioles especially if Showalter is able to continue what he started this year.  I expect the Orioles to be competitive in the AL East. I do not think that they will necessarily win the division but they will not be the door-mat that they have been for so many years.  There is work to do in Birdland but for the first time in years there is real hope based on their performance the last two months of the season.  The team believes that it can win every time it takes the field. When there is leadership and talent there is no limit to where the O’s can go.

Over the off-season I will continue my reporting and commentary on the Orioles and their organization, particularly the Triple-A affiliate the Norfolk Tides. Over the next month I will be commenting of the MLB playoffs and begin to publish articles on the young talent in the Orioles organization and what I think might happen as Buck Showalter and Andy McPhail makes the changes to the organization to make the team a force in the American League for years to come.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Orioles Take Flight: The Showalter Era Takes Hold

Buck Showalter, a New Sheriff is in Town (Reuters Photo)

On August 3rd the Baltimore Orioles had a record of 32 and 73 and appeared to be heading not only for a 100 loss season but very possibly 110 or more losses.  Under Manager Dave Trembley and Interim Manager Juan Samuel they had lost 52 games before they had won 20.  It was a dismal record for a team that was demoralized and without real leadership.  Trembley and Samuel were both gentlemen and loyal organization people.  They were both popular with players but could not inspire them to win.

The organization was not only a losing organization of the field but in all departments except the minor league system. Unfortunately the promising prospects coming out of the minors entered a clubhouse where losing was accepted as a way of life presided over by an owner who did nothing to promote winning and spent no money to get All-Star caliber veterans to help provide leadership to the team. Instead of hiring top quality managers they settled for second and third tier managers for years, men who were good guys but terribly lackluster leaders and not Major League caliber managers.

The Orioles at that point seemed to be a franchise on the brink of an unrecoverable death spiral. In my times at Harbor Park last season and this season Elliott the Usher and I would spend much time together and muse about how if we ran the Orioles that things would be different.  As we talked about how to solve the problems of the world, in particular those of the Orioles I finally said that it was not the talent. I felt last season and this season that with the talent available at the Major League level as well as what the Orioles had in their farm system that they should at least be a .500 team this year.  But for the first two thirds of the season that was not the case and I told Elliott at the end of April that it was not the players but on field leadership that was the problem. I thought the Dave Trembley was a nice guy and a good minor league manager but that I felt that he had not been able to step up his game to the Major League level.  In fact I commented back on September 29th 2009 that I thought that Trembley needed to go.

“The one spot that I think that the team needs a change is the Field Manager Dave Trembley.  Trembley seems to be a good teacher but is not terribly inspirational.  Admittedly he began the year with a weak squad but something is not working and I do like his calm, but I wonder if the teams needs fire rather than calm right now.” See Oh, Oh, Oh, O’s….The Orioles Skid Continues But there are Some Bright Spots

I repeated this when the O’s had lost 9 of their first 10 games this season. Last year I was looking at Bobby Valentine as a potential manager having forgotten that Showalter was available. At the time that Trembley was fired the Orioles had a 15 and 39 record, the word by far in the majors with a pitiful .278 winning percentage. This did not improve much under Samuel who had served under Trembley as the Third Base Coach.  Samuel had a 17 and 24 record as the Orioles interim skipper with a cumulative .305 winning percentage. Most people doubted that Showalter do much with this year’s team but they were wrong. Drew Forrester wrote: As I wrote earlier this week, if I had to place a bet, I’d bet AGAINST you because history has shown that no one can turn this thing around in Baltimore…because management and ownership don’t want to do what it takes to win. But I’m really pulling for you, because I think you’re exactly what we need in Baltimore.”

I remember when Showalter was hired and I took a look at his track record. He has been successful at every team that he has managed. In fact he was in large part responsible for building the Yankees team that Joe Torre would lead to 4 World Series Championships. He did the same foundation laying work in Arizona with the Diamondbacks.  I would dare say that without Showalter building the foundation that Joe Torre might have been about as successful in New York as he was with Mets, Braves, Cardinals or Dodgers.  All of Torre’s championships came with the Yankees. I believe that this was in large part due to the acumen of Showalter and the willingness of George Steinbrenner for big name player as well as building up an excellent Minor League system to spend the money needed to produce a winner. When I saw Showalter begin to manage the O’s I knew that he would change things and that the team would start producing.  Since he took over the Orioles have won 25 and lost 15 and for the first time since 2008 had two consecutive winning road trips.  They have the second best record in the American League during this time period behind the Minnesota Twins.  The Orioles are now beating the teams of the AL East and in the past week have taken 2 of three each from the Rays, Yankees and as of tonight the Blue Jays who they will play again tomorrow.

The Orioles hitting has come alive and their starting pitchers who had been beaten about by about everyone in baseball made a turn as well.  It is interesting to look at Orioles player’s reactions after Showalter took over. Center Fielder Adam Jones said: “I think what’s really going on is everyone knows his reputation as a hard-ass. He’s going to get on you for doing this; he’s going to say something about everything. I think that’s actually worked. Hey, let’s get it done. You might as well. You don’t want him on you. I think that’s the approach a lot of guys are taking. Hey, let him sit in there with that scowl. If it works, it works.”

“It’s just that his presence, well, you can just feel the change coming. He’s been on some winning ballclubs, he knows what it takes. Everybody knows his reputation around here. They know it as someone who’s going to get on you, and it’s working for us.”

Showalter and his hard driving style, ability to get the most out of players and develop young talent is already remaking the Orioles. Any observe can sense that this team, which before Showalter’s arrival was described by Forrester as “a lot of people — players, coaches and management — who have done nothing but LOSE in their respective careers in Baltimore…  Pick a player on the team.  I don’t care what his name is or what his stats show, I can guarantee you this:  He’s contributed to LOSING during his time here.  Guys who won elsewhere in their career – like Tejada and Millwood – show up here…and start losing.  It’s the “Oriole Way”.

That has changed. As of tonight they have won 4 consecutive series for the first time since 2004.  The Orioles have made one of the most dramatic end of season turnarounds in recent memory.  Players universally talk about Showalter’s tough expectations and the difference in the clubhouse. They now believe that they can win any game against any team that they play.

The starting pitching is one department where things have changed When Showalter arrived; the rotation of Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Matusz, Brad Bergesen and Jake Arrieta had a combined record of 15-45 with a 5.50 earned run average. As of September 7th under Showalter, those pitchers are 15-11 with a 3.23 E.R.A.

The expectations are high. Ty Wigginton commented ”This is our manager….You’ve got his track record, and everybody knows that Buck knows how to win. That speaks for itself with a lot of guys. Let’s wait and see, but I think for some of the younger players, it kind of opened their eyes to realize: I’ve got to start getting this right.”

Brian Matusz commented: ”You can’t just walk over us….We’re playing good baseball right now. We’re doing all the little things right. It’s fun to come out and beat teams in our division and continue this streak that we have.”

The Orioles management has stated that the off season will be very busy. There will be a lot of moves and hard evaluation of talent. There is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Buck. I expect that the Orioles will now be a factor in the AL East.  I do not expect them to be the “Washington Generals” of the division and they will make the East a very interesting division next year as teams that were used to getting 10-15 wins at their expense will have to fight the Orioles at every step of the way. It will be fun to watch the Orioles the rest of this season and next year as they take flight as they have not in the last 14 years.

This could well be the start of something good.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Tides shut out by Bats 6-0; Gabino Called up by O’s…O’s Sweep Angels

Armando Gabino pitched his way to the Orioles roster

The Norfolk Tides travelled west to Louisville where they began a four game series with the Louisville Bats at Louisville Slugger Park.   It was not a night top remember as the Tides were shut out by Cincinnati’s AAA affiliate by a score of 6-0.  Chris George started from the Tides and had no trouble in the first inning but the Bats torched Chris in the second for 5 runs.  In that inning Todd Frazier homered to lead of the inning on a 1-1 count from then on it was downhill for George who gave up a total of 5 runs on 7 hits including 2 doubles while facing 9 Louisville batters.    In the 4th inning George walked the bases loaded and was pulled from the game in favor of Jim Miller, just reactivated off of the inactive roster.  Miller gave up a wild pitch which scored a run prior to striking out the final batter.  Miller would pitch 2 innings allowing no runs on 2 hits while striking out 4 batters.  Tides relievers Cla Meredith and Kam Mickolio would also have good nights each allowing no runs or hits and striking out two men apiece but the damage was done.  For Mickolio it was his first appearance since June 11th when he went on the DL for a strained oblique. Tides hitters would scatter 9 hits but plated no one and the game ended with the Tides losing 6-0.

In personnel news the Orioles called up the gem of the Tides pitching staff this year, right hander Armando Gabino.  Gabino was 7-0 with 2 saves and had a 2.18 ERA with the Tides when called up by the O’s yesterday.  Jim Miller was reactivated from the inactive list and Kam Mickolio as noted above came off the DL.

In Baltimore the Orioles under the leadership of new Manager Buck Showalter completed a 3 game sweep of the Angels.  In last night’s game Jake Arietta pitched well enough to win but had the bullpen blow the save.  The Orioles would win 5-4 in on a walk off single but the game should have been won before then. It is funny I have said a long time that what Baltimore needed was leadership. I believe that the Orioles have the raw talent to be competitive with most teams in the league.  After the dismal 2 and 16 start to the season under Dave Trembley never got off the ground and Juan Samuel though liked and respected by the players was serving in an interim role.  I think that players sensed that Trembley was not going to survive and that Samuel was a temp and as a result did not perform as well as they could have, not intentionally, but there is a psychology that affects losing teams that kind of contributes to their losing. It may be because they believe that the manager will make the wrong moves or that something will happen to cause them to lose the game.  Just like the military, baseball players respond to leaders that they not only know and respect, but know who have the ability to lead.  When I was watching the Orioles this week I saw a different team than was on the field just a week ago.  Will the O’s contend this season or even have a winning record? No.  However they may be able to play spoiler while they evaluate talent, make changes and plan for a better 2011 season.

Peace,

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Yankees down Tides 7-1 Thursday and 2-1 Friday

Chris George pitched an excellent game but lost on Friday

After winning on Wednesday to even their series with the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees the Norfolk Tides looked to more success sending Chris Tillman to the mound in Thursday night’s game.  Instead the Tides and Tillman went down to defeat 7-1 at the hands of a very good Yankee team. Tillman allowed a run in each of the first three innings and pitched into the 5th inning when after retiring Kevin Russo on a strikeout he gave up a double to Eric Bruntlett and a single to Eduardo Nunez was taken out of the game after having thrown 92 pitches allowing 5 runs, 4 of which were earned on 7 hits, allowing 2 walks while striking out 3 Yankees. Mike Hinckley then entered the game for the Tides and did not get the job done. Hinckley gave up a single to Chad Tracy that scored Bruntlett. The next batter was leading Yankees prospect catcher Jesus Montero and Montero belted a home run over the right field wall to clear the bases and give the Yankees a 7-0 lead.

The Tides bats remained silent until the top of the 9th inning.  They had a chance in the top of the 4th when Robert Andino and Nolan Reimold occupied 2nd and 3rd with 2 outs before Rhyne Hughes popped out to end the inning.  They also got 2 base runners in the top of the 8th but left both aboard.  The Tides final got a run across in the top of the 9th inning.  Nolan Reimold doubled with one out and both Brandon Snyder and Craig Tatum drew walks with two outs. This loaded the bases for Paco Figueroa to single and drive in Reimold and keep the bases loaded. This was Figueroa’s third hit of the evening.  With the bases loaded Matt Angle grounded out to end the inning and the game.

Tillman (8-6 3.40 ERA) got the loss and Jason Hirsch (6-7 4.22 ERA) picked up the win. The Tides had 1 run on 6 hits with no errors and left 9 men on base. The Yankees 7 runs on 12 hits with no errors leaving 6 men stranded.

On Friday it was a pitcher’s duel as Chris George battled Ivan Nova.  George allowed just 2 runs on 5 hits striking out 7 in 7.2 innings work.  The runs came in the 2nd inning when George struck out Jesus Montero but the pitch was wild and Montero took first.  This brought Jorge Vazquez to the plate and Vazquez homered scoring both of the Yankees runs. The Tides got 9 hits of Nova and left the bases loaded twice scoring only once when Michael Aubrey singled in the 5th inning to score Matt Angle.  Jonathan Albaladejo came in for the 9th inning and picked up his 34th save of the year. Chris George (5-5 3.88 ERA) got the loss while Nova (10-2 0.89 ERA) got the win.  The Tides had 1 run on 10 hits with no errors leaving 7 aboard and the Yankees 2 runs on 6 hits with 1 error leaving 3 men on base.  The Tides return to Norfolk on Saturday for a 4 game home stand against Indianapolis.

It was a pity that George had to lose, he pitched an excellent game apart from two pitches allowing few hits that hte Yankees starter and striking out more.

In Baltimore the news was that Buck Showalter has been hired by the O’s and will take the helm Tuesday at Camden Yards. Juan Samuel will resume his 3rd base coach job should he desire and Gary Allenson will return to the Tides. In trade news the O’s traded Miguel Tejada to the Padres for minor league pitcher Wynn Pelzer.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Whole Lot of Shaking Going On: O’s Fire Dave Trembley, Samuels to Manage O’s; Allenson promoted to Baltimore as Coach, Dickerson to Manage Tides

Gone: Dave Trembley Fired by Orioles

The axe finally came down on Dave Trembley in Baltimore following a sweep by the Yankees and an 8th straight loss.  The 15-39 Orioles decided that it was time for a change firing Trembley and promoting Third Base Coach Juan Samuel as to Interim Manager.  In the ripple effect that followed Norfolk Tides Manager Gary Allenson was promoted to the Orioles to assume the 3rd Base Coach position and Orioles Minor League Infield Coordinator/Latin America Field Coordinator Bobby Dickerson named as the Tides Interim Manager.  Last year Dickerson Managed the AAA Iowa Cubs to a 72-72 record.  He has an extensive Minor League career and has a 525-462 record as a Minor League Manager in which he led the AA Southern League West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx to the post season on two occasions.

It is now time for Andy McPhail and the Orioles to get the kind of big name franchise kind of manager that is also a good teacher for young talent to show Orioles fans that they are serious about winning.  Of course if you have ready me since the close of the 2009 campaign, that man is Bobby Valentine.  In the mean time it is important for the O’s to really start scrutinizing their roster and making changes to the 25 and 40 man roster and focus on performance as well as potential.

Dickerson will manage his first game against the Buffalo Bisons tonight at Harbor Park.  See you there and may God help the Orioles and Tides. Armando Gabino (2-0 1.80 ERA) will pitch for the Tides and face Tobi Stoner (3-5 5.13 ERA). The game will see the return of a number of familiar faces to Harbor Park including Justin Turner, J R House and Mike Cervenak.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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