Nobody said the Orioles’ 2019 season was going to be pretty. And it didn’t get any prettier in Cleveland over the weekend.
The Orioles lost three of four games, and none of their losses was particularly competitive. The club was outscored 28-8 in those defeats.
The series got off to an inauspicious start with a dreadful Orioles performance on Thursday, lowlighted by a pitching implosion and shoddy defense. The Orioles attracted unwanted national attention with one of the most atrocious fielding plays in recent memory, a complete fundamental breakdown on a routine ground ball that Sports Illustrated said might be “the worst play in MLB history.”
The Orioles regained their composure and took Friday’s contest by a 5-1 score. But they couldn’t sustain any momentum. On Saturday, they managed only one hit — a Trey Mancini home run — in a 4-1 loss. A day later, the offense and pitching both disappeared in a 10-0 shutout. Indians right-hander Shane Bieber threw his first career shutout, racking up 15 strikeouts in a five-hit masterpiece. Meanwhile, the Indians, who hadn’t scored double-digit runs in a game all season entering the series, did so for the second time against the Orioles.
The Orioles’ lack of pitching depth became painfully clear in Sunday’s finale. Needing a spot starter because of last Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Orioles turned to Yefry Ramirez, who had the best ERA of any starter (1.50) at Triple-A Norfolk before he was promoted to Baltimore on April 29. His outing was a dud. Ramirez didn’t make it through the fourth inning, giving up five runs and six hits. He threw 37 balls to 36 strikes. Ramirez was optioned back to Norfolk after the game.
Orioles starters are carrying a 5.20 ERA, and their rotation includes the struggling Dan Straily (8.51) and David Hess (5.58). But for those wondering why the Orioles don’t give someone else a shot, the simple fact is that they don’t have many good options. Long reliever Gabriel Ynoa has given up 11 runs in his last three outings, including eight to the Indians in this series, and now has a 5.87 ERA. At Norfolk, prospect Keegan Akin is 2-1 with a 3.60 ERA, though he struggled to begin the year before stringing together two strong outings in a row. No other Tides starters look like clear improvements over Straily, Hess or Ramirez.
Sunday’s defeat was the Orioles’ 31st of the season. They’re now tied with the Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals for the most losses in the majors. The Marlins, who swept the New York Mets at home, are the only team with a worse record than the Orioles. They’ve won 13 games to the Orioles’ 15. The Royals notched their 16th win with a victory over the Los Angeles Angels, pulling a half-game ahead of Baltimore.
Wilkerson and Armstrong shine
It’s not all bad news in Baltimore. Two recent additions to the Orioles’ roster have been pleasant surprises: Stevie Wilkerson and Shawn Armstrong.
Wilkerson has taken over everyday duty in center field, an idea that would’ve seemed unfathomable entering the season — especially when Wilkerson was designated for assignment March 23, removing him from the 40-man roster. The 27-year-old Wilkerson, who’d struggled to a .174 average and .464 OPS in a 16-game major league tryout last season, didn’t appear to be a part of the club’s future plans. And certainly not in center field, a position he’d never played at any professional level.
But if there’s one thing the 2019 Orioles can afford to do, it’s experiment.
With the club in dire straits in center field, where neither Cedric Mullins nor Joey Rickard could hit enough to stay in the lineup, they’ve found an immediate offensive upgrade in Wilkerson. Wilkerson, who hit his fourth home run of the season Friday in the Orioles’ lone win of the series, is batting .282 with an .800 OPS and 10 RBIs. He’s keeping up his hot pace from Norfolk, where he hit .316 with an .806 OPS in 15 games this year.
The real surprise is how solidly Wilkerson has fared defensively despite being thrown into the fire at an unfamiliar position.
Wilkerson got his first taste of center field only days before his call-up, starting two of his last three games with Norfolk at the position before debuting there for the Orioles. Yet he’s impressed with a few flashy plays, including Sunday’s first inning in Cleveland, where he ranged far into the right-center field gap to make a leaping catch on the warning track. His speed has allowed him to make up for poor reads and bad routes, such as an eighth-inning catch Friday, when he got turned around on a deep fly ball but recovered to make a running, over-the-shoulder catch.
Wilkerson is likely only a temporary solution in center field. The Orioles’ system features a number of touted outfield prospects, including Austin Hays, who’s rehabbing at Single-A Frederick while working his way back from a sprained left thumb. Mullins, now at Norfolk, is still on the radar as well, and Double-A Bowie’s Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna could arrive in the majors by next year despite slow starts to 2019.
However long he holds on to the job, Wilkerson has done a commendable job of plugging a hole.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Armstrong has stabilized the bullpen since the Orioles claimed him on waivers from Seattle on April 28. His 1.29 ERA leads the club, and he’s been scored upon in only one of his six appearances. In seven innings, the right-hander has racked up more strikeouts (eight) than baserunners allowed (six).
Armstrong has already become one of manager Brandon Hyde’s most trusted relievers. Other than his Orioles debut, all of Armstrong’s appearances have come in the seventh inning or later in close games. In three cases, he’s preceded closer Mychal Givens to the mound.
The hard-throwing Armstrong, an 18th-round pick by Cleveland in 2011, was once a promising prospect in the Indians’ system. He compiled a 2.57 ERA and 12.3 strikeout rate in his 302-game minor league career, and marks of 3.65 and 8.2 in 57 games in the majors with the Indians (2015-17) and Mariners (2018-19).
So how did Armstrong become available on the waiver wire for the Orioles? The Mariners jettisoned him to make room in their bullpen for ex-Oriole Mike Wright, Armstrong’s good friend, after they acquired him from Baltimore on April 24. The Mariners designated Wright for assignment Sunday after he coughed up 13 runs (11 earned) and 18 hits in seven games.
The Orioles seem to have emerged as the clear winners of that exchange.
Hyde’s long leash for Bundy
Early in the season, Hyde had a tendency to give his starting pitchers an early hook. He rarely let Oriole pitchers face an opposing lineup a third time through, usually opting to turn to a fresh reliever even if the starter didn’t seem fatigued.
That conservative approach with starters, though, isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Hyde demonstrated that on Friday when he let Dylan Bundy throw 118 pitches, the second most of his career, in the Orioles’ 5-1 victory.
Bundy had already reached the 100-pitch mark when the sixth inning began, and he was facing the Indians’ lineup for a third time. But Hyde stuck with his right-hander, even after a two-out walk increased that pitch count to 108. Bundy had to throw another 10 pitches to Jordan Luplow, who reached on a Jonathan Villar error that finally forced a pitching change.
The April version of Hyde might have pulled Bundy before the start of the sixth, or at least after the walk. Hyde, though, has now had nearly two months to get acclimated with his roster, and he’s seen the toll that short outings by his starters has taken on the Orioles’ overworked middle relief corps. Hyde told reporters after the game that he pushed Bundy as far as he could because the bullpen was short-handed.
In an ideal world, Hyde probably would’ve liked to avoid overextending Bundy in the sixth inning, especially after concerns about the right-hander’s velocity drop in his previous outing. The 100-pitch zone is where pitchers often lose their effectiveness, and a team with the right personnel on its pitching staff would’ve turned to a fresh arm in that situation. But the Orioles’ roster challenges mean the analytically sound approach isn’t always possible to pull off.