Early trips to bullpen signal trouble ahead

April 10, 2009|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,rick.maese@baltsun.com

It took three days, but it appears the Orioles have unlocked the formula. Funny how teams can learn more in a defeat than they ever can in victory.

Those first two games of the season? We learned the Orioles have the ability to score some runs. (We also learned that Mark Teixeira is evil incarnate, hates cute babies and probably parks in handicap spaces without the state-approved placard. But that horse has been beaten into submission and won't likely be walking again. At least not until the Yankees return to town next month.)

And in Thursday's 11-2 loss to the Yankees? We learned the Orioles have an even greater ability to give up some runs.

You won't find much piling on here. The Orioles opened the season winning two of three, gave their fans something to cheer about and provided several hints that they could be fun to watch for at least a couple of months.

"When you take two out of three against them and it's the opening series of the year, you've got to be happy about it," manager Dave Trembley said. "You know there's room for improvement, but you've got to like the start."

Stated well. Especially since Trembley mentioned the team's room for improvement.

Winning two of three was great and all, but the way each game played out is cause for concern. The Orioles successfully illustrated their shortcomings. Unfortunately, it's a problem area that will only become more glaring as the season progresses.

After Jeremy Guthrie lasted six innings in the opener, Koji Uehara and Alfredo Simon couldn't get past the fifth in the final two games of the series. That meant the Orioles had to burn through five relievers Monday, four Wednesday and three Thursday. That's not the recipe for winning two out of every three over a long stretch of time; it's a recipe for disaster.

And it's not like we're talking about a bullpen that makes hitters scared to step in the box. In three games, the bullpen has given up more runs than its starters: 11 runs in 11 innings. If your calculator isn't nearby, that's an ERA of 9.00.

We'll soon see why it makes sense for a team like this one to carry 13 pitchers, instead of 12. Uehara's win Wednesday was an important one, but it's not a good sign when your second-best pitcher can't get past the fifth inning. And it's an even worse sign when the team enters the ninth inning two days in a row with a five-run lead and the manager has to bring his closer in both days for mop-up duty.

That's how bullpens fall apart. And that's how teams implode. For most, though, it's a midseason phenomenon. With the Orioles, it's something you've got to look out for in late April.

"The thing you don't want to see, you don't want to see the walks," Trembley said. "That's the thing you don't want to see."

Let's also add hits and runs and three-ball counts to that list, just so the bases are all covered.

And, keep in mind, the Orioles haven't even sent Mark Hendrickson or Adam Eaton to the hill yet. The next two games against the Tampa Bay Rays could tell fans a lot about what to expect this season. Even Trembley isn't sure what he'll get out of those two. It's not exactly the makings of a fantasy-league rotation. A nightmare league, perhaps.

For the Orioles, the season is young, and their manager is among the league's most optimistic.

"We feel like the way we are offensively, if we can keep it close, we'll find a way," Trembley said.

He's right on that point. Offensively, the Orioles look solid coming out of the gate. With a lineup that's especially top-heavy, they'll have very little room for error.

In their first two games, the Orioles' 1-2-3 hitters - Brian Roberts, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis - were a combined 13-for-21 with 11 runs. In Thursday's loss, they were 1-for-11 with zero runs.

So the formula is simple, and it's been reinforced each day. It isn't always easy to execute, but it's also no secret. The Orioles are going to have to outslug teams early and then hope and pray their bullpen can protect the difference on the scoreboard.

Inside the clubhouse, next to pitching coach Rick Kranitz is bullpen coach Alan Dunn and then a row of lockers: Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Matt Albers, Brian Bass, George Sherrill.

A murderers' row it's not. It's a lineup of pitchers to be scared for, not scared of.

All things considered, the Orioles showed a lot of promise in their first series. But they also didn't do a very good job hiding the warning signs of things to come.

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