The Orioles opened their season with a series victory, taking two of three games from the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg. Now, the Birds return to Baltimore for their first home series of the season which pits them against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Orioles went 11-8 against Toronto last season, and will need to build upon that solid record if they hope to keep their hold on the top of the American League East.
The Orioles downed the Rays by scores of 6-2 and 6-5 in the first two games of the series before falling 2-0 in the finale after being stifled by Jake Odorizzi. In the series, the Orioles hit four home runs, led by Steve Pearce‘s two. Alejandro De Aza and Ryan Flaherty also went yard for Baltimore. New acquisition Travis Snider also played a big role in the two Orioles’ victories, driving in three runs and drawing three walks in the series. Chris Tillman recorded the victory on Opening Day, while Kevin Gausman picked up the win in relief the following day. Miguel Gonzalez was tagged for the Orioles’ first loss of the season as the Orioles failed to close out the sweep.
Toronto comes to Baltimore fresh off a 2-1 series win over the New York Yankees. The Jays roughed up Masahiro Tanaka in the season opener and won 6-1 before losing the middle game of the series 4-3. Closer Brett Cecil‘s eighth inning meltodwn allowed the Yankees to climb out of a 3-1 hole. Cecil has since been stripped of his closer’s role. The Jays took the rubber match of the series by a 6-3 count. Rookie Daniel Norris earned his first Major League victory while Edwin Encarnacion hit his second home run of the season. Miguel Castro handled the ninth inning in the first game since Cecil’s demotion.
This series pits two of the American League’s most prolific home run hitting lineups against each other in an early season division showdown. There are no unimportant divisional games for the Orioles this year. Here are three keys to look for as the Orioles look to claim their second consecutive series to open the 2015 season.
1. Can the starters limit walks?
Chris Tillman struggled with efficiency early in his Opening Day start, but battled to give the Orioles 6 2/3 solid innings, allowing only one earned run. Wei-Yin Chen could not make it through five innings in the second game of the season. The Orioles were forced to turn to the bullpen early in the final game of the series as well, with Miguel Gonzalez struggling with his command and lasting only 5 2/3 innings. All three of the Orioles’ starters in the Tampa Bay series were hurt by the walk. In total, Orioles starters walked ten in only 16 2/3 innings.
That will not fly against a tough Blue Jays lineup.
The Orioles could afford to dodge walks against the Rays thanks to the many holes in their lineup. There are no such holes in the Blue Jays lineup. Every player in the Blue Jays lineup is capable of changing the game with a single swing. To beat them, those game changing swings cannot come with men on base. Preventing the free pass is a must.
Bud Norris will start the home opener on Friday, and is coming off a 2014 season that was the best of his career. Norris walked only 2.8 per nine, but struggled mightily this Spring with a 9.25 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez had one of the worst walk rates in all of baseball last year, but was exceptional down the stretch during Spring Training, and won the fifth starter’s spot. He cannot afford to lose his command again this season, or he will find his spot taken by Kevin Gausman. Tillman will start the final game of the series. During his career, the Orioles’ ace has been a better second half pitcher, struggling with command in the first half of the season. Toronto knocked him around last season, and the Orioles need him to show he can pitch effectively against the Blue Jays.
The hear of the Orioles order, Jones and Davis, went a combined one-for-17 against Tampa Bay. This is clearly a small sample size, as the Orioles have played only three games this season. With Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy out for the series, the Orioles cannot continue to rely on Travis Snider and Steve Pearce. They need production out of their best all-around player, Jones, and their rebounding slugger, Davis.
Jones has batted .327 with 16 home runs against Toronto the past three years, while Davis has a .312 average with 21 home runs. Clearly these two like hitting against Blue Jays pitching. If Jones and Davis have a big series, the Orioles should pull out their second consecutive series victory to start the season, a very solid start as they look to make the playoffs again.
3. Keep it clean in the field.
The Orioles did not make a single error in the Tampa Bay series. Even without the Gold Gloves of Hardy and Wieters, this is still a very good defensive ball club. As the Orioles’ starters look to go deeper into games, they cannot afford to give away outs, especially against a power hitting lineup like Toronto’s.
Manager Buck Showalter is very adept at making the right decisions when it comes to defensive substitutions and lineups. Ryan Flaherty is a very capable middle infielder who has a career .990 fielding percentage as a second baseman and a .972 fielding percentage at shortstop. Manny Machado is good as ever at third, and Chris Davis and Steve Pearce handle first base very well for two players known more for their bat. Fill-in catcher Caleb Joseph was one of the best in the league last year in throwing out base runners, and has come a long way defensively since the minor leagues. Jones is another Gold Glover in centerfield, and Travis Snider and Alejandro De Aza are very underrated corner outfielders. The Orioles’ outfield depth all but assures that fans will not have to cover their eyes as Delmon Young mans a position in the field.
Defense was clearly a point of emphasis when the Orioles roster was constructed. The Orioles starting staff is solid, but not good enough to get away with the defense giving away extra outs. Flashing the leather will help the Orioles limit the damage against Toronto. Baltimore has been one of the best defensive teams in the league since their arrival back on the scene in 2012, and it looks like that trend will continue in 2015.