Through nine games, there has been very little separation of the pretenders from the contenders in the American League East (OK, Yankees fans, consider yourselves separated). The Boston Red Sox sit atop the division at 6-3, while the Baltimore Orioles are only a game back at 5-4. Both teams have had their issues through the first three series of the year.
The Orioles’ starting rotation and bullpen were a strength during last year’s run to the ALCS, but both have struggled this year. Orioles’ relievers have given up at least one run in each game so far this season. Monday’s 6-5 loss to the Yankees saw the Orioles squander a very solid start from Wei-Yin Chen when Tommy Hunter gave up a pinch-hit grand slam to Stephen Drew. Overall, the Orioles’ bullpen has a 5.23 ERA.
Offense has not been a problem for the Orioles as they rank fourth in the league with a .270 batting average. Their .813 OPS ranks third and they lead the league with 15 home runs. Adam Jones has been on fire, hitting .406 with four home runs in the early going. New additions to the outfield, Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider have both produced well in their first nine games in Baltimore. Jonathan Schoop and Caleb Joseph have also hit well out of the bottom third of the Orioles’ lineup.
Boston has had the same problems as the Orioles. The Red Sox rotation was expected to be the Achilles Heel of the team, and so far this season that is exactly what it has been. Red Sox starters have pitched to a 6.16 ERA this season. Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley, and Justin Masterson have all struggled in particular.
Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, and Pablo Sandoval have all gotten off to hot starts this season for Boston, with batting averages over .300. Hanley Ramirez has hit four home runs. Mookie Betts has grabbed the headlines, but Red Sox fans should pump the brakes just a bit, as Betts is hitting only .225. Mike Napoli and Orioles killer David Ortiz have struggled, with batting averages below the Mendoza Line.
This series will be a big chance for the Orioles to show that all of the doubters this season are wrong. The Orioles do not need to sweep or even win this series; a split of the four games would be nice. Anything else is icing on the cake. Baltimore beat up on Boston last season, to the tune of a +23 run differential. The 2015 season will be a different story as the Red Sox lineup is much improved.
Here are four keys to the series as the Orioles make their first trip to Fenway for the 2015 season.
1. Ubaldo Jimenez gets things going in the right direction.
The much maligned 2014 free agent signing got his 2015 season off to an excellent start last week against the Blue Jays. Jimenez pitched seven innings of one-hit, shutout ball and walked only one. His fastball had outstanding late movement and he struck out eight. This was the type of start the Orioles thought they could get used to after signing Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract before the start of the 2014 season.
Jimenez was outstanding to close out Spring Training after a rocky start that had many Orioles fans needing to be talked off a ledge. He made the necessary adjustments to improve his performance, and it appears to be paying off — so far. There are still many Ubaldo-doubters in Baltimore. A solid start in the series opener will do more to quiet those who are still waiting for the wheels to fall off for Jimenez and will set the tone for the rest of the series.
2. Jonathan Schoop and Caleb Joseph continue to produce from the bottom of the order.
Both Schoop and Joseph starred in the past series against the Yankees. Both struggled to keep their averages above .200 last season but are hitting the ball well to start the 2015 season. Schoop has continued to flash the power he showed at times in 2014, with three home runs on the young season. Joseph has also been very hot, with a .375 batting average and three extra base hits.
The bottom of the Orioles order was a lead anchor at times last season, but in 2015, the contributions of Schoop and Joseph have made the Orioles’ lineup fearsome from one-to-nine. If these two continue to hit, the Orioles may have arguably the best lineup in the league. The emergence of Joseph has helped to ease the loss of Matt Wieters.
3. Don’t let Betts beat you.
Mookie Betts took the baseball world by storm on Opening Day in Boston with a three-run homer, two stolen bases, and a leaping catch to rob another homer in center field. Despite what you may have heard out of Beantown, Betts is not the greatest player on the face of the Earth right now. He is still hitting only .225 and has as many strikeouts as hits. He is an exciting player and certainly has a bright future, but if the Orioles can shut him down like teams have for most of the season, Orioles’ pitchers will make their lives a little easier when the heart of the order comes up.
4. Settle down the bullpen.
The bullpen cost the Orioles one game against the Yankees this week, and nearly cost them the two games they were able to hold on to win. Tommy Hunter has been absolutely terrible out of the ‘pen and Kevin Gausman has struggled to replicate the playoff success he had as a reliever last season. Orioles starters have not been great so far this season, but delivered three decent starts against the Yankees.
Zach Britton has been outstanding as the closer, while Darren O’Day has also pitched very well. The Orioles’ rotation is good enough to keep the team in most games, but there is not a pitcher on the staff capable of pitching into the seventh or eighth inning every time out. The bullpen must get itself back on track, and that needs to start in this series. The Orioles cannot afford too many crushing late inning losses like the one on Monday where Chen pitched a brilliant game only to see it all go up in flames. Winning close games has been a forte of the Orioles under Buck Showalter, and the team must have the bullpen pitching effectively for that trend to continue.