Optimistic Through the First 11 Games

I’ve been tied up at work for most of the past week which has kept me away from the blog, so I want to touch on a few things that have transpired during that time.  The O’s left Baltimore on April 12th to begin a 3 city, 10 game road trip.  Ten game road trips are pretty difficult no matter what the circumstance.  This particular trip has several scheduling quirks that make the trip even more daunting.  For starters, most extended road trips send teams to a certain part of the country for the entire duration.  Maybe the team plays Seattle, Oakland, and the Angels on the west coast or the Twins, Tigers, and Royals in the central United States.  Even if that doesn’t happen, maybe the team starts off by playing the Yankees in New York, then heading out to the Midwest or West Coast for two additional series.  Not the case here – the O’s traveled North (and a little west) to take on the Blue Jays in Toronto.  The team then went a little further west to Chicago, where they are currently in the middle of a four game series.  Then they hike over to LA for a three game series with the Angels before coming back to Baltimore this upcoming Monday.  That’s three fairly scattered cities to make up a single road trip.  The other factor is that there are no days off during the trip, meaning the O’s will play 10 games in a row.  Most MLB teams fare worse on the road (the Orioles are no exception), so taking all that into consideration, it is a tough stretch of games to encounter in only the second week of the season. 

When they left Baltimore on April 12th, the Orioles had just been swept by the Yankees and saw their record fall to 3-3.  I started writing up a blog post last Wednesday - the last day of the Yankee’s series -  that I never was able to finish.  The gist of the entry was that the O’s were at an early-season crossroads.  No one game or one series defines an entire 162-game season, but this road trip is clearly an important one for the O’s.  The team had handled the woeful Twins, but then were swept by the Yankees, including blowing leads into two very winnable games.  A lot of people – and it is hard to blame them – were already starting with the cries of “here we go again”.  We’ve seen this before.  The O’s look like world beaters against teams having mediocre or poor seasons and come crashing down to earth against the better teams.  It looked like the O’s season might be coming off the tracks already. 

The O’s have played poorly in Toronto in recent years and the Angels are a powerhouse team.  There was every reason to fear that the Twins series would be the highpoint of the year and that the Yankee series was just going to be the start of the team’s descent back down to earth.  A poor showing in Toronto and those fears would be all but confirmed.  A bad road trip and any small hope that remained for the 2012 season would be all but gone.  I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but we are dealing with the O’s here.  You come to expect disappointment and it seemed like disappointment was right around the corner. 

I was going to write in that un-posted blog entry about how the O’s needed to win the final game against New York, take one from the Blue Jays, split the four games with the White Sox, and take one from the Angels.  If they did that, they would return home from the tough road trip at 8-8, a solid .500.  I thought that was a realistic, yet also a bit optimistic at the same time.  The O’s dropped the final game of the series to the Yankees, which meant that returning to Baltimore at 7-9 looked like the “best case scenario”. 

That hasn’t happened, of course.  The O’s came from behind on both Friday and Saturday to beat the Blue Jays, using key 9th inning homeruns from Nolan Reimold to get the victory both nights.  The starting pitching was good, if unspectacular.  Both Tommy Hunter and Jason Hammel struggled, but still gave the team 5+ innings a piece and kept the offense within striking distance.  The O’s dropped the series finale on Sunday, but still left Toronto in a better position than I had previously hoped.  Plus, they effectively “made up” the deficit caused by losing the final game of the New York series.  The O’s have continued to take advantage of solid starting pitching to take the first two games from the White Sox in Chicago.  Their record stands at 7-4.  On the road trip thus far, they are 3-1.  So far, it is hard not to be encouraged by the results. Eleven games into the 2012 season, two areas have been key for the Orioles.  The first, is pitching.  The starters haven’t been great the second time through the rotation, but they have been solid.  The starters are generally going 5+ innings and keeping the runs allowed down.  That seems like faint praise, but given our pitching woes in recent years, it is a good start.  The bullpen has seen a tad more action than one might prefer, but they haven’t been overworked.  With the exception of Kevin Gregg, they have also been very good.  If the O’s are going to flirt with a winning record, the starting pitching is going to have to keep the team in most games.  So far, so good on that front.  The other story has been the power hitting.  The O’s have hit 20 homeruns in the first 11 games of the season and currently are tied for second in all of MLB in that category (and would have been first had the Rangers not hit SIX homeruns against the Red Sox last night).  Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones all have 4 homeruns, putting them just behind Matt Kemp (with six) and three others tied with five.  This is not unexpected.  Most assumed the power would be there.  The question was whether the OBP would also be there to compliment the power.  The book is still open on that, but it is nice to see that the O’s can win games with their power and not much else, as long as the starting pitchers old up their end of the bargain.  It’s also a good sign that Mark Reynolds, who will almost surely end the season near the top in homeruns on the team, has yet to hit his first one this season. 

I am anxious to see how the rest of the road trip plays out.  By the time the trip ends on Sunday in LA, we will be starting the fourth time through the rotation.  From that point forward, we should start to get a better sense on how the pitching is going to hold up longer term.  We should also have a better idea if the power run is semi-sustainable or simply a well-timed hot streak.  On the bottom line, the O’s only need to win one more game to match my 8-8 post-road trip prediction.  I would expect and hope that they do more than that, but the team has already put themselves in a nice position. 

It is still early, of course.  Buck Showalter commented late in the 2010 season that things are never as good as they seem and they are never as bad as they seem.  It’s an obvious, yet important, point to remember throughout the long baseball season.  Just a week ago, a lot of us were fearing that the wheels were coming off the O’s season.  Now, a four wins to one lose later, the optimism is starting to creep in.  Things weren’t as bad as they seemed a week ago and they probably aren’t as good as they seem now.  Still, there are concrete signs of hope, even in the loses to the Yankees (none of which were real blowouts).  Personally, I’ll enjoy it while it lasts and dream of what “might be” at the same time. 

Think of it like this – the O’s have played good, but not great baseball through the first 11 games of the season.  I think most everyone can agree on this.  There is certainly still a lot of room for improvement and not a single player is necessarily playing over his head.  The teams own a 7-4 record through those first 11 games.  They have played about 6.8% of their games thus far.  If the O’s continue on this base, they would win 103 games and lose 59.  That is almost certainly not going to happen.  However, based on the way they’ve played so far and managed a 7-4 record, is a win total north of 80 really that insane?  I’m starting to think not.  We’ve said for years that it is about the starting pitching giving the team a chance to win every night that really makes the difference.  So far, the starters have done that and a 7-4 record has been the result.  If they can keep that up maybe, just maybe, it will be a more exciting summer in Baltimore than a lot of imagined. 

And if the O’s lose their next 6 games and fall off the face of the earth?  Well, at least I will have enjoyed dreaming big while it lasted.