Myriad Orioles Thoughts: Stalling in the wild card race; Britton's disappearing act; Simmons' stardom - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Paul Folkemer

Myriad Orioles Thoughts: Stalling in the wild card race; Britton’s disappearing act; Simmons’ stardom

Zach Britton
Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

One step forward and two steps back. So it goes for the struggling 2017 Orioles.

The club had a golden opportunity this weekend to make some noise in the American League Wild Card race, kicking off a homestand against the Los Angeles Angels, who sat three games ahead of them for the second spot.

But just when it seemed the Orioles were building momentum after their dramatic walk-off win in Friday’s opener, they stumbled in the final two games to drop the series. The Orioles not only lost ground to the Angels — who are now four games ahead — but are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for third in the AL East, just one game ahead of the last-place Toronto Blue Jays. Three other teams stand between the Orioles/Rays and Angels/Minnesota Twins for the second wild card spot.

“Any time you’re in a playoff race with one or two teams you’re playing down the stretch, you want to win those games,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get that one [Sunday] and get the series win. But, you know, we’ve got to find ways to score that extra run, make up that ground late in the game and really kind of close out some of these games if we really want a shot at the postseason and if we want to do well in the postseason.”

In each of their last four series, the Orioles have won the opening game. Yet they haven’t managed to win any of those series, and they’re now four games under .500 for the first time since July 30. If the Orioles are going to make a run, they’re long overdue to begin.

“I think it’s kind of been the story of the whole year for us,” Davis said. “I think there’s just been games that we’ve let slip away, some games we really haven’t been able to close out, whether it’s scoring a run, whether it’s tacking on a few runs to give us some breathing room. I think what’s going to define us this year is whether or not we can make that push and start winning some of those games. Obviously, we’re getting down to some pretty crucial times where we need to start winning these games and start making a move.”

The Orioles, at least in theory, will get a reprieve for the next few days. They host the last-place Oakland Athletics in a three-game set starting Monday. If they can’t win that series, it’s tough to see them hanging in the race much longer.

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“The competition is us,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s us playing better regardless of who you’re playing. Our competition is Oakland now, and it’s us. There’s opportunity there for us.”

Britton’s diminishing role

When the Orioles decided not to deal closer Zach Britton at the July 31 trade deadline, players welcomed the non-move. It was a signal that the club intended on keeping its roster together and making a run at a wild card spot. The assumption was that Britton would be a key part of that postseason push.

And he still could be. But, so far, Britton has played very little role for the Orioles since the club elected to keep him.

Britton has had only two appearances that could really be considered game changers. On July 31, hours after the deadline passed, Britton pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a tie game and got the win when the Orioles won on a walk-off. And, on Aug. 5 against the Detroit Tigers, Britton entered the eighth inning with two outs and the possible tying run at second. He escaped the jam and followed with a scoreless ninth for the save.

Beyond that, though, Britton has mostly been used in unimportant situations. Three times, he pitched with the Orioles trailing by three or more runs, just to get some work. On Aug. 10 in Oakland, he came in with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning. He retired the only batter he faced to notch a cheap save, but with a five-run lead and two outs, it wasn’t exactly a high-leverage situation.

Worse than that, Britton has often been left buried in the bullpen in critical situations while other relievers have squandered leads. On Aug. 4, the Orioles held a 2-1 lead over the Tigers in the eighth. Britton, who hadn’t pitched in four days, sat unused while Mychal Givens gave up a grand slam to put the Orioles behind.

One week later, the Orioles again had a one-run, eighth-inning lead in Oakland. Brad Brach surrendered two runs while Britton waited in the bullpen for a save situation that never came.

A similar scenario unfolded Sunday. Brach started the eighth in a tie game and walked two batters. With one out, Showalter turned to Givens, electing to hold back Britton for the ninth. Givens gave up Cameron Maybin’s pinch-hit RBI single that gave the Angels a 5-4 lead and, ultimately, decided the game. Givens was pitching for the second straight day, while Britton hadn’t pitched since Wednesday. By the time Britton worked in the ninth, the Orioles were behind.

“We consider everything,” Showalter said when asked about his reliever usage. “But we had Mychal, who’s very good at that. A lot of people available to do the job real well. We could have brought Brach in in the fifth inning, we could have brought Mychal in in the ninth inning. There’s a lot of options there.”

In fairness, Givens and Brach have both had excellent seasons as setup men. When they’re asked to protect a lead or a tie in the eighth, they’ll come through most of the time. They aren’t bad choices at all.

But the Orioles, in a fight for their lives for a wild card spot, are at a point where every game is critical. It may be time for Showalter to be more aggressive in his use of Britton, the AL’s best relief pitcher in 2016. If that means using Britton an inning earlier than usual to preserve a late-inning lead or tie, so be it. It’s better than keeping him in the bullpen for a save situation that may never come. Every option should be on the table, and Britton shouldn’t be on the sidelines.

Simmons shines

Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons was a thorn in the Orioles’ side throughout the series, none more than in the finale, when he homered and made several excellent defensive plays. He started a slick double play on a sharp grounder in the fourth, then made a diving catch to nab a Trey Mancini liner in the eighth.

“If they had a different shortstop there, we would have [won],” Showalter said. “That’s why there’s nobody better than him. He’s special.”

Quietly, Simmons is putting up a MVP-caliber season. The two-time Gold Glover is perhaps the best fielding shortstop in the game right now, and this year he has put up the offense to match, batting .292 with a .796 OPS, 13 homers and 57 RBIs.

On a team that has Mike Trout, Simmons may be the Angels’ most valuable player this year. And that’s saying something.

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Boog Robinson Robinson

    August 21, 2017 at 7:53 am

    I don’t think Britton’s role has been diminished. Since becoming the closer, save a few games, Buck has pretty much stuck to using him in the 9th inning only and only when a save was on the line. Witness last year’s playoff loss. Saves situations have been few and far between this year. Britton is pretty much a one trick (inning?) pony.

    • Dan Connolly

      August 21, 2017 at 9:51 am

      True. But there are times when the game is hanging in the balance before the ninth. And if he hasn’t pitched for a while, why not use him then?

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        August 21, 2017 at 10:53 am

        Hey, you’re preaching to the choir. I’ve never understood Buck’s (or any manager) hesitancy to use a closer unless a save was on the line. However … that seems to be the MO in today’s game?

        • Paul Folkemer

          August 21, 2017 at 11:20 am

          You’re right, Boog, that saving the closer for the ninth seems to be the MO in today’s game. And like you, I think that’s a mistake.

          I think a lot of managers, not just Buck, should be more flexible in the use of their closers. I’d like to see them in more of a “fireman” role, pitching in situations where the game is on the line — whether it’s the ninth, the eighth, or even the seventh inning. After all, if your closer is your best reliever, why hold him back and let a lesser reliever blow the game before you get to use him? That’s the situation that has played out with Britton several times the last few weeks.

  2. Bancells Moustache

    August 21, 2017 at 8:58 am

    me·di·o·cre. [ˌmēdēˈōkər]

    ADJECTIVE

    of only moderate quality; not very good:

    “a mediocre actor”

    synonyms: ordinary · average · middling · middle-of-the-road · uninspired · undistinguished · indifferent · unexceptional · unexciting · unremarkable · run-of-the-mill · pedestrian · prosaic ·

    • Boog Robinson Robinson

      August 21, 2017 at 9:01 am

      So you’re saying this team isn’t really that good?

  3. Bancells Moustache

    August 21, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Britton is paid to close out wins. You gotta win in order for him close them out.

    • Dan Connolly

      August 21, 2017 at 9:50 am

      But sometimes you have to win the game a little earlier than the ninth.

  4. Osfan73

    August 21, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Don’t think Britton has been disappearing by choice, it’s more that the close 9th inning leads seem fewer & farther between lately due to an uneven, all or nothing offense…theres either a big non-save lead or no lead in the 9th. Also have had the periodic blown lead by the bullpen before the 9th of late.
    All that said you still have one of the best late inning guys to use so maybe use him earlier say in a tie game situation knowing that Brach has demonstrated the ability to save games.
    I get saving your best for last but if you have a solid plan B that can close and the late inning leads hard to come by lately, use the closer a little sooner. Just think it a better option than not using Britton at all.

    • Dan Connolly

      August 21, 2017 at 9:50 am

      Yeah. I think that’s the point Paul was making, too.

    • Paul Folkemer

      August 21, 2017 at 11:23 am

      Exactly, Osfan. This is now the third game the Orioles have lost in the eighth inning this month, and Britton never made an appearance in any of them. I think you have to go with your best pitcher in those situations, and that’s Britton. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be used for more 4-out, 5-out, or 6-out appearances on occasion.

  5. Os_Skins

    August 21, 2017 at 10:21 am

    I find the last four series especially frustrating because the Orioles will win the first game of the series, either convincingly (Oakland and Seattle) or in dramatic fashion (the two Angels series with Machado’s salamis) and then they fall flat over the rest of the series. Whether it’s losing the next two, or losing 2 out of the next 3, it’s deflating each time.

    • Dan Connolly

      August 21, 2017 at 11:43 am

      It’s hard to pinpoint one stretch more frustrating than the other since it has all been step up, step back. But you make a good case here.

  6. pedro

    August 21, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    I’m sorry for bringing up the playoff game last year, but Buck does get stuck in his ways. You can call it “guys knowing their roles” or you can call it “lack of adaptability”. I prefer the latter.

    • Boog Robinson Robinson

      August 21, 2017 at 1:19 pm

      You have my vote!

  7. Bancells Moustache

    August 21, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    This is where I get angry and tell Showalter how to do his job. I don’t believe in such things, as his baseball acumen is obviously light years ahead of my own, but on this I know I am smarter than he: when Caleb Joseph very obviously foul tioped a ball which replay showed conclusively, but was called out, I know that is not reviewable. BUT, rather than shout at the umpire, why doesn’t he point to the 50 foot high video screen in Centerfield that is repeatedly showing the obvious foul tip and say “Look!”

  8. woody

    August 22, 2017 at 11:54 am

    I’ve always wondered this when you know a guy hasn’t pitched in a week and needs to pitch. Why not get him in early. Hell why not give him the first damn inning?! At least you know then he’s going to contribute something meaningful – so daft when you add up all the low leverage appearances of the season by our good relievers, when on the flip side you use them regularly over a fortnight and then they’re unavailable.

  9. ubetonit

    August 23, 2017 at 4:47 am

    “I think it’s kind of been the story of the whole year for us,” Davis said.

    Does anyone else find it ironic that “Leave the bat on-the-shoulder” Clueless Chris Davis continues to be the team spokesman??

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