The Orioles want to win every series. And if they could have been victorious Saturday or Sunday, they would have taken three of four from the Chicago White Sox, currently the team with the best record in the American League.
They lost both and split the four-game series, which is a bit of a disappointment given how the series started. But, when we think back to this weekend in a month or so from now, the losses we remember may have little to do with the result on the field.
On Saturday, closer Zach Britton hobbled to the dugout in the ninth inning after spraining his left ankle while chasing after a slow grounder. He is expected to have a MRI on Monday with the hope that he’ll be sidelined for a few days and won’t have to go on the disabled list.
On Sunday, shortstop J.J Hardy left the game shortly after fouling a ball off his left foot. The initial diagnosis is a contusion, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters after the game that the club wants to examine the foot further after the initial X-Ray showed something that could be more serious than a bruise. A CT scan is scheduled for Monday.
It’s possible the Orioles could escape bad news here, but we all know injuries occur in baseball, and good teams have to adjust. Dodging both of these bullets seems unlikely, and the addendum to the Hardy news doesn’t seem particularly encouraging.
Losing the anchor of the defense and (or) the team’s best reliever qualify as major blows. However, the Orioles under executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have been so much more adept at handling key injuries than previous incarnations.
We all snicker at Duquette’s constant “inventory” moves, but when the club has had to dip into Triple-A Norfolk or even Double-A Bowie in recent years, they have found contributors. That ability was a primary the difference in the late 1990s and early 2000s between the struggling Orioles and perennial contenders such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
The Orioles of those years were about 20 quality big leaguers deep each season; the Yankees went about 30 to 35.
So, now, if the Orioles can’t use Britton for 15 days, Darren O’Day, a set-up man that some clubs viewed as a closer this winter, can move into the role. And, though it would shake up the bullpen’s carefully planned order, right-handers Brad Brach and Mychal Givens could become solid eighth inning guys or even slide into the ninth if necessary, while Dylan Bundy and Vance Worley could be used in more high leverage situations as well. Hard to argue that any of those guys aren’t big leaguers.
Replacing Hardy for a significant amount of time is a little trickier. For one, the Orioles currently have no reserve middle infielders on the 25-man roster because utility man Ryan Flaherty was sent to the minors on April 25 when Kevin Gausman was activated from the DL.
Flaherty can’t come back until Thursday unless he replaces someone who goes on the disabled list. The club is currently playing with a three-man bench and so that may push the Orioles to make a decision quickly on whether Hardy has to be disabled. They can’t play with a two-man bench or a six-man bullpen (if they were to wait on Britton and send a reliever down to make room for Flaherty while waiting on Hardy). So something has to give.
The good news is Flaherty could come back and play third base while Manny Machado slides over to shortstop and the defense would continue to be strong. Or the Orioles could promote defensive specialist Paul Janish from Triple-A Norfolk to play shortstop. In a pinch, Pedro Alvarez or Chris Davis could play third.
That would weaken the defensive alignment, but is a stop-gap that could be used if needed.
The point is the Orioles have options now – or later this season – if the inevitable injury bug continues to bite.
You don’t ever like to lose key personnel, but the Orioles are in better position to handle it than they were several years ago.