There are two important things that can be gleaned from this weekend’s sweep of the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards.
One: Good teams are resilient. They battle when things don’t look particularly promising. And they do it in a convincing way. This is a good Orioles team.
Two: Don’t be fooled. The Orioles still need starting pitching reinforcements, no matter how well the rotation has pitched recently. Because this game’s outcome is so often decided by quality pitching.
Let’s get to the first point.
Last week, the Orioles lost three of four in New York, couldn’t hit and, well, couldn’t sleep. A nasty flu virus ripped through the roster and even manager Buck Showalter fell victim to it.
Matt Wieters was hurt, Joey Rickard was hurt, Hyun Soo Kim was forced to the disabled list, and the Orioles dropped out of first for the first time since June 4.
They left Yankee Stadium with a needed win Thursday afternoon and limped back to Camden Yards to face the American League-best Indians. Sudden doom was sure to follow.
And then the Orioles realized – again – there was no place like home. They swept the Indians, improved to an incredible 36-14 at Camden Yards and suddenly have the best record in the AL and a 1 ½ game lead over the Boston Red Sox.
It was an impressive rebound – capped off with Nolan Reimold’s walkoff homer on Sunday afternoon. Winning those kinds of games, and sweeping an excellent club after getting beat up by the Yankees, is the kind of integral stretch you point to in a playoff season.
Showalter likes to downplay momentum in baseball, but no question the club can draw on this run when the inevitable downturn comes again. The Orioles have proven a few times this year – the swing-and-miss disaster in Houston, the four-game sweep in Seattle and now the escape from New York – that they can bounce back in impressive fashion.
And, now, the Orioles are getting healthy. Reliever Darren O’Day has returned from the DL, where he has been shelved since June 3 with a hamstring strain. After a week absence with a foot injury, Wieters is expected back in the lineup Monday or Tuesday. Kim is on rehab assignment from his hamstring injury and could return as early as Tuesday.
So, in theory anyway, this Orioles team should be in a better spot than it was last week. Especially now that the starting pitching has suddenly looked formidable – going from one of the worst ERAs in the majors to a 2.90 in its last dozen starts.
That brings us to Point No. 2. This is not a time to think that this fine starting trend will continue. Maybe it will. But Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who has never been scared about making a push for the stretch run, has to acquire at least one – and maybe two – starting pitchers in the next week.
Yes, Chris Tillman continues to look like a top-of-the-rotation starter. Yes, Kevin Gausman shows glimpses of the ace he was predicted to be. Yes, rookie Dylan Bundy has given the club a lift in his two starts. Yes, Vance Worley continues to answer any challenge the club presents. And, yes, Yovani Gallardo has been serviceable now that he appears to be over shoulder woes.
But Tillman is the only one that’s been consistent and healthy all season. Adding another proven starter gives the rotation depth in case one of the “what ifs?” isn’t answered in the affirmative. Of course, the tricky part is what kind of pitcher can the Orioles land with a farm system devoid of blue-chip prospects in a weak starting pitching market?
Duquette’s probably going to have to overpay for a marginal starter, something that has bitten the club in the past. But, frankly, this team’s resiliency is showing that it can reach the playoffs, assuming contingencies are made in case injury or ineffectiveness occur again. When you have that opportunity in Major League Baseball, you have to seize it.
Adding an additional starter likely pushes Bundy or Worley back to a long relief role, further strengthening the stout bullpen – another plus.
Personally, I’d stick with Worley over Bundy for now – I’m still concerned about Bundy’s long-term health in the rotation after not pitching for most of three seasons. And Worley can handle fifth starter responsibilities adequately; that’s really why the club signed him initially anyway. If he can’t, then you revisit the Bundy Experiment.
But those specifics can be worked out later.
The pressing issue is that the Orioles need to understand what this late July sweep of the Indians represents. That they can play with anyone in the American League when all facets of their game – pitching, hitting and defense – is on.
And, because of that potential for the postseason, they can’t rely on blind hope that the rotation will continue its strong run, even though that is tempting (and so much easier). Because baseball, a game of peaks and valleys, doesn’t work that way.
Duquette has never been afraid of striking while the iron is hot, even if the results end up as lukewarm.
Based on what we just witnessed, that has to be the strategy before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline arrives.