Some random thoughts after a very satisfying 2-1 Opening Day victory in Baltimore . . .
- The loudest reactions during the “orange carpet” introductions (in rough order of loudness): Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Manny Machado, and Buck Showalter.
- I don’t put much stock into the first outing (maybe first few outings) of the season for the starters in terms of innings pitched. They are still easing into the season and building up pitch counts. I’ll take a performance like today’s from Chris Tillman where he largely kept the opposition off the board even if he could only go five innings.
Tillman specifically I am not worried about in that regard since he has shown capable of going well past the 100 pitch mark and maintaining some level of effectiveness. That will enable him to get more than his share of 6+ inning starts later in the season. I am not sure Buck would have let any other starter even go 104 pitches the first time out, but Tillman has a track record of being able to do that. In 2013, Tillman made 12 starts where he threw 110 or more pitches in and 26 starts with 101 or more pitches thrown.
- It was said many times during spring training, but Zach Britton is a real weapon on the mound right now. Groundball pitchers are an irregular bunch. They are not all created equal. Some are simply pitchers that get more groundballs than fly balls but do not necessarily consistently induce weak contact. Then there are the ground ball pitchers with legitimately heavy sinkers who get hitters to routinely hit weak groundballs and/or pound the ball right into the ground. Right now, Britton falls into the latter group. Most – if not all – of the six groundball outs Zach got yesterday were pitches that the hitters did not make solid contact on at all. If he can do that on a consistent basis while getting some of the swings & misses he was getting in the Grapefruit League, he will be a huge contributing factor to this year’s club.
- Staying on Britton for a second, I found the decision to not have him pitch multiple innings even once over the last few weeks of Grapefruit League play to be curious. I understand the team was trying to get him used to the different role of the one-inning reliever but he was throwing so well and throwing so few pitches that it seemed like it would have been beneficial to get him two ups at least once given that he will almost surely pitch more than one inning at times during the season. I wasn’t worried per say, but simply curious how Britton would fare the first time he was asked to go two innings during the season.
Well, it didn’t take long to find out and the results were very good. With Josh Stinson and Ryan Webb also capable of throwing multiple innings, I hope Buck uses Britton for multiple innings whenever appropriate. With his groundball ways, he can get a lot of quick outs and give the team 2-3 quality innings in one game when things are going well. That is a great weapon to have.
- Britton’s ability to eat up two innings allowed Buck to not go *too* deep into the bullpen despite a five inning start from Tillman. Had the Orioles played a game today, Webb, Stinson, and Darren O’Day would all be fresh, Brian Matusz would be available after only facing one batter, and really only Britton would likely be “unavailable”. That’s the benefit of having quality two-inning pitchers in the pen.
- Buck chose not to lift Nelson Cruz in the 9th inning for David Lough for defensive purposes which I thought was interesting. Maybe Buck believes more in Cruz’s defense than most. Maybe he was “rewarding” him for his nice (if not necessarily pretty) catch. Or perhaps in a 1-run game with Cruz due up in the potential bottom of the 9th, Buck wanted to keep his bat in the lineup. If the third possibility reflects Buck’s actual thought process, I think it was less the result of not being confident in Tommy Hunter and more a case of appropriately playing the odds.
If true, the benefit of allowing Cruz to bat in the bottom of the 9th of a tied game (or a game where the Orioles are behind) outweighed the benefit of having Lough in LF in a case a ball was hit that way in Buck’s mind. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that line of thought if it indeed was what Buck was thinking. It was a risk – maybe a ball is hit Cruz’s way that he didn’t get to but Lough would have – but I like that it was an unconventional move that had some sound (although perhaps not bulletproof) logic behind it.
- I was pretty surprised to see that some people are using Tommy Hunter’s performance yesterday as support for the notion that he is going to struggle as closer. Not only do I not see that, if anything his performance yesterday made me more optimistic about his chances of succeeding as closer (and I was pretty optimistic on that already).
To recap his inning, Hunter hit Will Middlebrooks to start things off after getting ahead of him. Hunter does not hit many batters. He has very good command and it stands to reason he was amped up and/or trying too hard to pitch to a guy that has given him some fits in the past. He got Daniel Nava (lefty) to pop up weakly on a fastball after falling behind. It would be the only batter that inning that Hunter fell behind on and in fact, he went 0-2 on the next three batters. Pedoria is Pedroia and he is a hard out even when you do a lot of things right as a pitcher (including getting ahead 0-2 on him). Hunter got David Ortiz (lefty and someone he has struggled against) to fly out and then retired Jackie Bradley Jr. (lefty) with a very smart pitch sequence that saw him get ahead 0-2, try to get Bradley to chase a couple of pitches low, and then change his eye level with a high heater.
One of the more difficult aspects of being a closer is the low margin for error. Hunter didn’t make a huge mistake – relatively speaking – when he hit Middlebrooks with a pitch. He also did nothing truly poor in giving up a single to Pedroia. Yet the reality of being a closer is that two relatively little things like that led to first and second, one out, and a dangerous hitter at the plate in a one-run game. Hunter was able to bear down and fight out of what quickly turned into a tight jam. He made smart quality, pitches in getting out of the inning. The pitch that Ortiz flew out on was a 93 MPH that caught the plate so it was a bit of a mistake pitch. Yet Hunter’s stuff was good enough that Ortiz was unable to really drive it which is also a positive sign. Hunter has the stuff where he can get away with some mistakes – even with the odds stacked against him – like he did with Ortiz.
Hunter will blow some leads. He will blow some leads because of his struggles versus left-handed batters. However, I still remain very confident that when all is said and done he will be an average or above average closer for the 2014 Orioles.
- There were not a lot of Red Sox fans at OPACY yesterday afternoon (relatively speaking) but still far too many for Opening Day. I saw too many blue and red glad fans showing off their newly bought World Series Champions t-shirts and unfortunately, it is going to be far worse this Wednesday and Thursday. One game means very little. Three games mean only slightly more. However, as anyone that goes to most of the Red Sox/Orioles home games will attest, wins versus Boston always feel extra special. At the very least, it would do this fan’s heart well to see the Orioles take at least two out of three from Boston and start their “title defense” season off on a sour note for their fans.