With a 14-6 record and a 9-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth against New York on Friday night, the mood within the Orioles fan base was understandably jovial as the O’s surged towards their division-leading 15th win of the young season.
Mark Trumbo’s grand slam in the top of the inning had raised hopes of his bat finally heating up, Manny Machado’s revival at the plate was continuing, and the out-of-form Kevin Gausman had looked very solid through five. Not even the most cautious fan could predict what would transpire over the next 24 hours.
That 9-1 lead was wiped clear after Kevin Gausman, Vidal Nuno, Brad Brach, and Jayson Aquino each imploded – allowing 13 further runs in just 3 1/3 innings combined. The resulting 14-11 loss in 10 innings was arguably the most deflating, and embarrassing of losses suffered by the Orioles in recent memory – certainly since the 2012 revival.
While the loss certainly hurt, it was, after all, just one game of 162, and at 14-7, the O’s could easily have moved beyond the disappointment with a strong showing Saturday. However, as is often the case following such a humiliating capitulation, the fear was just how much the loss would take its toll on the team mentally. Sadly, that fear was all-too evident in what quickly became another blowout loss, 12-4. This time, the major culprit was the curious, yet continually frustrating Ubaldo Jimenez who again lacked command on his way to conceding seven runs (six earned) in just 3 1/2 innings of work. Also at fault were two of Friday night’s villains – Nuno and Aquino, who gave up two and three earned runs respectively.
Compounding the misery was the Yankees knocking the O’s out of first place for the first time in 2017. The loss also ensured the O’s couldn’t avoid their first series loss of the season. It really was bad news all round.
So, what happens next and how will the pitching staff soon look?
Firstly, both Nuno and Aquino were optioned immediately after Saturday’s loss – this is a good start. Nuno had appeared in eight games, working to an ugly 6.55 ERA. His only good period came on the 23/24 April against Boston and Tampa Bay, where combined he tossed four scoreless innings. Everything before and after that has been, quite frankly, putrid. He needed to go. Aquino appeared just three times in his brief stay with the big league team, working to an even uglier 9.00 ERA. His first outing, a six inning start against Boston on 22 April which conceded just two runs, was impressive enough, however his two relief outings since were horrendous. He too needed to go.
Ubaldo Jimenez is still with the team, much to the dismay of many O’s fans, however something needs to change immediately. He had that stellar 7 2/3 scoreless innings outing against the Reds on 19 April, however that aside, he’s yet to pitch more than 4 2/3 innings in each of his other four starts. Through 23 innings, he owns a horrendous 7.43 ERA, and now a month into his final year of a four year deal, the time has come to pull him from the rotation for good. Jimenez is a lovely guy and all of Baltimore has been rooting for him to succeed, however his story since arriving in 2014 has been one full of frustration and disappointment. He’s owed $13.5 million this season and the front office won’t be interested in taking that big of a financial hit, so the only way he stays on this team, I believe, is in a mop-up long relief role. There’s simply no way he can continue to pitch in games in the balance.
Pleasingly, Chris Tillman’s rehab assignment is progressing well and by all reports, he isn’t too far off returning from the disabled list. Assuming all goes well upon return, he’ll slot back into the rotation alongside the impressive duo of Dylan Bundy and Wade Miley. Despite his struggles this season, Kevin Gausman is a far better pitcher than what we’re witnessing and will surely turn things around soon, while Alec Asher is deserving of the final rotation spot.
On the bullpen side of things, there’s some gaps needing to be filled. Richard Bleier, who appeared in 23 games for the Yankees last season, is performing well at Triple-A Norfolk, allowing just one run in nine innings of relief work. As reported on Saturday night by MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko, the Orioles have talked about promoting him and being a lefty, it makes perfect sense.
24-year-old Paul Fry, who briefly spent some time with the big league team this past week without making his MLB debut, is another who has performed reasonably well in relief at Norfolk – allowing just one run in four innings of work thus far. He may be in line for a recall soon. 25-year-old Jimmy Yacabonis is another reliever who’s being talked about after performing exceptionally well at Norfolk. The right-hander hasn’t allowed a run in nine outings (11 2/3 innings) and has allowed just three hits and a walk. Since making his professional debut in 2013, Yacabonis owns a steady 3.32 ERA in 158 relief appearances.
Zach Britton of course is also set to return from the disabled list soon with his rehab assignment progressing well. His reliability at the back end of the bullpen will ensure Brach Brach can return to set-up duties, while it will also ensure his workload can be managed more effectively.
All things considered, here’s how the pitching staff could look in the near future…
Rotation: Chris Tillman*, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Wade Miley & Alec Asher.
Bullpen: Ubaldo Jimenez, Richard Bleier, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart, Brad Brach & Zach Britton*
(* = currently on the disabled list)
While both have performed poorly these past few days, the bullpen is the major concern right now – especially with Tillman returning to solidify the rotation. Combined, the bullpen has worked to a 4.18 ERA through the first month of the season, which is the worst mark since 2011 (also 4.18). With arms like Britton, Brach, and O’Day present, the Orioles bullpen should be one of the strongest in the major leagues, however it’s the less-heralded arms causing much of the concern. Britton’s return will help significantly, and it’s hoped that Bleier can contribute more consistently than the likes of Nuno, Aquino, Stefan Crichton, Oliver Drake, and Tyler Wilson who have each been tried and failed this season.
At 14-8, the O’s are still in a position to push forward and build a lead within the division over the coming weeks. The pitching however needs to be better if this is to occur, and it must commence today in the series finale against the Yankees. With the in-form Wade Miley starting, the opportunity is certainly present.