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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Orioles Vs. Yankees Preview

Live from New York, it's.....TUESDAY NIGHT BASEBALL!!!

Well, it isn't SNL. Rather, it's the Baltimore Orioles facing the New York Yankees in an early season clash for first place in the AL East. Buck Showalter facing his old team and bringing in his new new troops.

The first-place Orioles (6-3) will most certainly use this early season series to measure where they are against the Bronx Bombers. If they win two out of three, will you consider them to be legit?

What if they take one from the Yanks?

Does a sweep mean they are the class of the division?

In a word: no.

However, it would show how far the franchise has come under Andy MacPhail in four years, and how far they can go with Showalter driving the bus.

Chris Tillman (0-0, 3.38 ERA) takes the hill tonight against AJ Burnett (4-0, 4.09 ERA). Burnett had a horrific 2010, and it was statistically the worst season by a Yankees starter ever. Tillman is just a few days shy of his 23rd birthday and is still trying to figure things out at the major league level. He has had a rocky road so far in his career, but there are signs he is beginning to get more comfortable. He mixes his fastball with a change and a 12-6 curve ball. His main issues have to do with command of the strike zone and fastball location. If he can get that sorted out he can be a solid middle of the rotation pitcher.

The Yankees come in having lost two of three against the Red Sox in Boston over the weekend. Their pitching has been so-so this season, but they can certainly still rake. If the Orioles can hold down Robinson Cano, whom I consider to be one of the best hitters in the game, they have a legit shot to win two of three.

Derek Jeter, one of my all-time favorites, just isn't what he once was. People can talk about intangibles all they want; but it comes down to performance. Jeter is not the same as he once was. Nobody fears his every at-bat the way they did even two seasons ago.

This is a terrific measuring test for the Orioles this early in the season. If they can win the series and gain more momentum heading into Cleveland this weekend it can only help with their already soaring confidence levels. They were shutdown in the final two games against the Rangers at the plate, but they shouldn't have too much of a problem hitting at Yankee Stadium this week against the Yankee pitchers. They lucked out in not having to face Sabathia, too.

The quicker the O's can get back Brian Matusz and Justin Duchsherer the better, too.

Check back tomorrow for a game recap and a post on Zach Britton.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Orioles Magic (Almost)

Ever since Buck Showalter took over on August 3, 2010, the Baltimore Orioles are 40-26. Before that, they were 32-73. 41 painful games under .500. A beaten team, a beaten fanbase, and a totally beaten city. How has he restored so much confidence and energy into a team and city that was lacking?

Simple: He reminded them that they were good major league players.

Ok, it isn't that simple. But instilling confidence in somebody can go a long way. It helps to get your second basemen and leadoff batter (Brian Roberts) back in the fold, too. But Showalter reminded the team that they were good, young major league players who were more or less just playing for the paycheck instead of the name on the front of their uniform. The end result? Well, so far they are 40-26 in just over two months of baseball.

The pitchers were skiddish before Buck took over. They nibbled around the plate and refused to challenge hitters in the vaunted American League East division. Suddenly, pitchers like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta weren't nibbling anymore. Instead they were using their best stuff against the hitters. In baseball, that's the only way to pitch. Showalter's confidence in the young arms went a long way.

Showalter has gone out of his way to boost the confidence of young catcher Matt Wieters. Wieters, who arrived to the majors with an immense amount of fanfare and expectations, was quickly starting to crumble under the weight of his own success in college and the minors. However, Showalter wanted everyone to see just how great the young catcher could be. Wieters has begun to take control of the pitching staff and is the clear leader on the field. His hitting is still lacking, but being a top-notch major league catcher is a terrific thing for a young team to have. He controls the entire game and controls the running game. 28 of the 30 teams would kill to have him.

In the coming days I'll continue blogging and talking about the Orioles, major leagues, and other Ravens news as we get close to the draft. I took a few months off from this blog as I was looking for work; but I'll continue writing in this space. Hope you all enjoy it.