Saturday, May 5, 2012

Aiming For A Series Win

With a win this afternoon, the Orioles can move 9 games over .500 for the first time since July 18th of 2005. Anybody remember what was special about that week? Rafael Palmeiro got his 3,000th hit. Anybody remember what happened two weeks later? Palmeiro tested positive for steroids and the season (and franchise) floundered. But hey, let's hope that sort of bizarre twist of fate doesn't happen here.

The O's beat the Red Sox in 13 innings last night. It was a game they most likely end up losing in past years, but thanks to a much improved bullpen and pitching staff they were able to hold the Sox down and come away with a much needed victory. Anytime you can win at Fenway you take it and run with it. They now just need to win one of the next two game to assure themselves of back to back winning road trips.

The bullpen hasn't been the only resurgence of the club. Even without Nolan Reimold and Brian Roberts, the team is playing well and winning. One of the biggest surprises has to be first basemen Chris Davis. Davis was acquired via trade last July in the Koji Uehara deal with the Texas Rangers. He came with a rep for hitting home runs and striking out. In fact, he struck out nearly 25% of his career at-bats. With a newfound confidence and a commitment by Buck Showalter to play him everyday, Davis has paid huge dividends. He's hitting .318 and has a .942 OPS (on-base plus slugging pct) with 5 home runs and 14 RBI's. He has also fanned at a much lower rate than in previous years.

With shrewd trades and better depth, the O's have been able to stay above ground for the past month. Whether they can keep it up and continue to play well has yet to be seen; but I can see this team playing very well into the summer. When you can pitch, hit home runs and play solid defense you will be in 95% of the games you play. If they can continue to pitch well, who knows how good they can be when they get two of their best hitters back.

Friday, May 4, 2012

I'm Back!!!

It's been a year since I've written in this space. It's a space I conceived talking to a few people outside of Gordon Bierch in Rockville, MD, while trying to figure out how I could best break into the sports writing world. I figured I'd write my own blog, do my internship with Comcast SportsNet and soon be a sports writing machine at a well-known publication. Well, I was wrong!!! I decided sometime after graduating from Maryland in 2010 that maybe being a sports writer wasn't all it's cracked up to be. It has some flaws, and frankly I didn't care to be covering games of teams I had a rooting interest for. It was a big-time conflict of interest. So in the spring of 2011, I decided to help coach my high school alma mater (Wootton High) and spent the spring there. After that I enjoyed the summer and started seriously considering a career in sales. I wasn't really sure what that would entail, but it sounded fun and more interesting than blogging and asking some garbage questions to athletes who wanted no part of them. I ended up getting a job as an inside sales rep at a company called Motionsoft. I sell club membership management and scheduling software to (among others) gyms, hotels, spas and medical wellness centers. I've found a niche doing it and I really enjoy the industry. The fast pace nature of sales and the competitiveness of it really gets me going and makes me feel like I'm playing sports again; albeit in a much different way. But enough about what I've been up to-HOW ABOUT THOSE O'S!!! I'll write a separate article on a more in-depth look at why they're succeeding; but this story starts and ends with Buck Showalter. Showalter has given this organization the leader it's needed for more than a decade. His confidence, preparedness and desire to succeed at a high level isn't lost on this blogger. Remember Matt Wieters pre-Buck? I do. He was a bust. Why? Because he was wandering aimlessly trying to exceed impossibly expectations. Showalter came in and let him know from day one that as the catcher it was his team. Wieters hasn't been the same since. He's become the best catcher in the game. Adam Jones has taken his game to a higher level and on and on. The pitching has been a huge factor as well. Gone are the days when Orioles pitchers would be knocked out of the game in the 3rd inning. Gone are the days when the Orioles will be dead last in starters ERA. The depth that the organization has built has brought competition, fire and a commitment to holding the other team to less runs. I refuse to bore people with my blogs, so I will not continue going tonight. But check back in the next few days for a new article in this space. It will probably have something to do with the Orioles resurgence. Here's to keeping it going at Fenway this weekend!!!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Here's To You, Matt Stover

Here’s to you, Matt Stover.

Here’s to one of the greatest---and most underrated---place kickers in NFL history.

Here’s to you being able to retire a Baltimore Raven.

Here’s to you being the third most accurate kicker in NFL history.

Here’s to you single-handedly providing the offense for the 2000 Ravens team that won the Super Bowl in Tampa on January 28, 2001.

Here’s to you for all the memories you provided us Ravens fans. For sticking it out with us for so long, and last but not least…

You left us after the 2008 season in nothing but a class way. You took your release and demotion with the professionalism that not many guys of your caliber can handle.

I’ll always remember Stover as the steady yet unnoticed kicker from the 2000 season. It was then that we all really realized just how sensational and steady you were. You won two games for us during a five game stretch where the offense couldn’t score a single touchdown. Was there pressure on you? Absolutely. But you handled it all in stride and made the kicks you were asked to make. We cannot thank you enough.

For the games where you missed multiple field goals (and I cant remember more than two) and yet pointed to the sky whether you were successful or unsuccessful. You were a man who stuck to his beliefs.

Here’s to you, Matt Stover. You will always be the most popular kicker in Raven history no matter what.

Finally, here’s to the day when you are introduced into the Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium during halftime. That’s the moment you become immortal in Ravens lore---and stay the true legend you have been in this town.

Congratulations on a sensation career. I wish you the best of luck in the future.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ravens Hope This Jimmy Smith Doesn't Haunt Them

10 years ago, I witnessed All-Pro wide receiver Jimmy Smith of the Jacksonville Jaguars terrorize Ravens cornerbacks for over 200 yards receiving. Now, The Ravens have their own Jimmy Smith. His job? To make sure receivers don't get passed the line of scrimmage.

The Baltimore Ravens used the 27th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith. The 6'2" corner specializes in press coverage and blanketing receivers. What did the team need? A player who could do just that.

Smith comes with a lot of baggage, but if history is any indicator for the Ravens, he won't be much of a problem. Cornerback Chris McAlister had a lot of baggage coming out of Arizona in 1999, but he proved to be an all-pro type cornerback and was with the team until 2008 when injuries and disagreements with the coaching staff caught up with him. If the Ravens can keep Smith in line for the next nine years, all the while playing like a top-flight corner, I don't think anybody will be too unhappy. Afterall, who was Smith compared most to? Chris McAlister.

Smith will be an immediate contributor. His competition includes Domonique Foxworth (coming off of a torn ACL), Lardarius Webb, and Cary Williams. Those are smallish corners who have trouble jamming receivers at the line. Smith will be a player who can not only jam receivers like McAlister, but run with them as well.

Let's be honest. There are two things that stop the Ravens from the Super Bowl: Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Cameron.

Roethlisberger is able to hit receivers who run freely because they get off of the line easily and can run with him while he moves around in the pocket. Cameron, offensive coordinator, doesn't allow the Ravens offense to open up as much as he should. I believe those two things are about to change for the better. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been furious and adament that he should have been able to open up the passing game in 2010. He was right. They wasted a great effort in Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Round and came up short.

Can Smith be one of the final pieces of the puzzle? I believe he can be. But will he be able to stay on the field and be McAlister 2.0?

Time will tell.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Momentum Building Win

Let me first start off by saying this: If Josh Beckett complains one more time about a batter "showing him up" by hitting a home run and flipping the bat I'm going to freak out. This coming from a guy whose team, the Boston Red Sox, have had two guys notoriously watch their home runs and take 30 seconds to round the bases for years in Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. If you get that upset about it, then don't give up a 426-foot BOMB that one hops the warehouse to Luke Scott. It's that simple.

Now to the game.

The Orioles did everything right in the first few innings off of Beckett. They worked the count and stayed within themselves before finally getting the break they needed when Derrek Lee's pop up fell in in front of Jacoby Ellsbury in right center field. Scott came up and homered right after to give them a lead. Adam Jones then followed with a homer to left field to make the score 3-0 in the 4th inning.

The momentum began shifting in the top of the same inning when Nick Markakis threw out Ortiz at the plate to keep it a 0-0 game. Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie threw six scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.53. It's important to realize that Guthrie got out of a few jams by making quality pitches and kept his team in the game when it could have easily been two or three to nothing Sox after the first inning.

The Orioles added a run in the fifth to make it 4-0 and kept it that way until the eighth inning when the bullpen began falling apart. Unable to use dominant reliever Jim Johnson for a second consecutive night, Jeremy Accardo gave up a hit to Ellsbury and a walk to Pedroia before ceding to LHP Clay Rapada to face Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez lined a hit to left-center to put the Red Sox on the board. RHP Koji Uehara was brought in to face Kevin Youkilis, and promptly gave up a game-tying three-run homer. Uehara bounced back to keep the score at 4-4.

Markakis opened the bottom of the eighth with a single to right and Lee singled to left afterwards. A passed ball from catcher Jason Varitek allowed the runners to move up to 2nd and 3rd. Another passed ball resulted in Markakis being thrown out at the plate, but Vladimir Guerrero picked him up with the go-ahead single to center.

Closer Kevin Gregg came in for a 1-2-3 ninth inning to give the Orioles a big win. If they had ended up losing this game entirely it could have sent them on another tailspin like the game against the Yankees a few weeks back where they were up 5-0 and lost.

The Orioles are setting themselves up to go on a nice run this next week with the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals coming up next. They should get SP Brian Matusz back soon, which is going to make a big difference, too. With Wieters starting to hit line drives and Jones getting his swing back, the offense should get better, as well. Once Markakis starts hitting (and he will) this team can certainly put a few games together.

Check back today or tomorrow for a look at Matt Wieters newfound swing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

End of the Line?

Chris Tillman got shelled. No, he got shellacked last night in the Bronx.

There's no other way around what the Orioles might have to start considering. Tillman, once considered the Orioles top pitching prospect, may not have the stuff to be a big league rotation member. He was knocked out of last nights game in the second inning after giving up six earned runs on nine hits.

When your fastball sits between 86-89 MPH, you better have some great off speed pitches or terrific "out" pitches if you want to survive. Unfortunately for Tillman, he has no success using anything other than the fastball that he can't command for strikes. He keeps the ball belt high and above, which is no way to make a living in the show.

The Orioles appeared to have lost patience with Tillman last season when his velocity started dipping and his command got worse. However, with Brian Matusz and Justin Duchscherer on the DL, there aren't too many other options for the club.

Tillman going back to triple-A ball may be a waste of time, too. He has thoroughly dominated that level and has shown he is too good to be in the minor leagues. It would be hard to put him in the bullpen because he doesn't throw hard enough to be a bullpen arm.

The question is simple: Can the Orioles continue to run Tillman out to the mound every fifth day knowing they are probably going to put themselves in an early hole and their bullpen will get taxed?

My take:

Yes, the Orioles will continue to run him out there until a better option exists. Tillman is only 23 and has been considered a bright prospect for the past four years. Teams rarely give up on their top pitchers until all avenues are exhausted with them. It is getting very difficult for fans and the organization to continue watching him though. They say organizations hit on about 40-50% of their pitching prospects; well, it appears they missed on Tillman.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Zach To The Future

In the spring of 2009, former Orioles manager Dave Trembley declared "...the cavalry is coming." To whom was he referring to?

To the stable of young arms general manager Andy MacPhail had been putting together since he took over in June of 2007. The arms included Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez, and Brian Matusz. One arm not included in 2009?

Zachary Britton.

As we begin the 2011 season, two years since the declaration made by Trembley, many things have changed. For one, Trembley is no longer the teams skipper. That distinction belongs to current manager Buck Showalter. Tillman has had a tough go of his first two major elague seasons, Matusz has proven (though he is currently on the DL) to be a front-line starter, Arrieta is a steady starter, Bergesen is caught between being a 6th starter and a AAAA-type player, and Hernandez was shipped to Arizona in a deal for current third basemen Mark Reynolds.

As of 2011, Britton may be the teams best starter. Two seasons ago, Britton wasn't considered part of the cavalry. But during that 2009 season, he opened some eyes with a 2.70 ERA at High-A Frederick that showed a power sinker and a developing change-up. His rise had begun.

Britton, a third-round pick out of high school in 2006, struggled at the start of his professional career. He went 0-4 at Bluefield (Orioles rookie ball) and didn't make it to low-A Delmarva until 2008. Scouts have said that he had no secondary pitches to go along with his low-90's fastball. He then worked hard to develop his change-up and slider to go along with the fastball that began hitting the mid-90's with sink action. In 2010, Britton posted a 2.48 ERA in Bowie.

The Orioles weren't worried anymore whether Britton was or wasn't part of the cavalry. They had to begin to realize that he may be their best pitcher at any level.

Britton dominated the Grapefruit league during spring training of 2011. The only reason he wouldn't begin the 2011 season in Baltimore was because the team wanted to delay his arbitration status making him a free agent after 2017 instead of 2016. But when Matusz went on the DL the day before his first start of the season, the baseball gods shone on Britton.

Britton dominated the Tampa Bay Rays in his first start posting a three hit shutout in seven innings. What would he do for an encore?

Britton, making his first career home start against the defending American League champion Texas Rangers, threw a five-hit shutout. Only two Rangers made it past first base. With his power sinker, at one point reaching 96 MPH, was too much for the Rangers lineup. It had to be the culmination of Britton's career that started out in Bluefield, WV. A struggling lefty who made the most of his opportunities and worked hard to develop devastating plus pitches.

Suddenly, Britton is the best pitcher in the Orioles rotation, and it looks like he will be in Baltimore for the foreseeable future. He'll be a good one for years because of his power sinker and devastating changeup and slider. In two starts he is 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA.

Maybe Britton wasn't part of the cavalry; but he sure looks like the King in Baltimore now.