At the beginning of the season the Baltimore Orioles were taking the baseball world by storm, winning six of their first seven games and sitting atop the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays opened the season at home against the Orioles, and when the dust settled the Rays were 0-3 and the Orioles were 3-0. It is worth noting that during spring training the Rays were swept by the Orioles in three games.
But things are different now, and the Rays owe the Orioles big time.
Baltimore has faltered since their early season start while the Rays have got their groove back, thanks to stellar starting pitching and a bullpen crafted by the shrewd Rays front office. Hitting is still a concern, but neither team is really tearing the cover off the ball. This is a critical series for the Rays, who are one game behind the New York Yankees. Taking this series on the road against the Orioles would set them up nicely as they travel to New York for a two game set and potentially the lead in the AL East on the line.
As I do in these previews, I’ve collaborated with Scott Taylor, Staff Writer at our Baltimore Orioles affiliate, to provide a run down of the teams while we share a six pack — of questions of course, about our respective teams.
Tampa Bay Rays:
2011 Regular Season Record: 17-14, 2nd in the AL East (1 GB)
128 Runs Scored (9th in AL)/ 111 Runs Allowed 3rd in AL)
James Shields has been on fire with only one really bad game, against the Chicago White Sox on April 8th when he allowed five earned runs on eight hits. That is also the only game he didn’t record a strikeout . Since then he has been nothing short of brilliant, pitching two complete games with 32 strikeouts in 33 innings while allowing only four runs, lowering his ERA from 4.73 to 2.14. He’ll face rookie Zach Britton who has quickly become the staff ace. Britton faced the Rays in his first ever pro start, allowing only one run on three hits while striking out six.
Jeremy Hellickson has not been as overpowering as his first start of the season implicated. Since striking out ten batters in his season opener, a loss to the Los Angeles Angels, he’s been a decent middle of the rotation pitcher but not really outstanding. This will be his first time through the Orioles lineup.
Wade Davis is proving to be one of the best back of the rotation starters in baseball. Davis has thrown five consecutive quality starts and while not striking out batters in droves, has done an excellent job of mixing his pitches and keeping opposing hitters off balance. Davis has faced the Orioles three times at Camden Yards, sporting a 2.05 ERA with two wins and no losses.
Tampa Bay Rays
James Shields is the hottest player on the team, with a sparkling 0.69 ERA in his last three starts. Shields has gone 26 out of a possible 27 innings, allowing two runs, including a complete game shut out of the Toronto Blue Jays on April 24th.
The Rays bullpen deserves a mention here as well, combining for a 2.68 ERA. Led by Kyle Farnsworth, who has two wins and six saves in seven tries with a ridiculous 0.84 ERA and 0.84 WHIP, the bullpen has been a strength for a team considered to be in jeopardy after losing seven players from the pen during the off-season.
Zach Britton and Jeremy Guthrie have been pitching extremely well all season long and look to continue their strong starts. Kevin Gregg got off to a shaky start resulting in fans calling for a change at closer, but has since recorded his last 5 save chances and now posts a strong 2.70 ERA.
The Orioles hitting has been terrible all season but recently Luke Scott has been hitting. Scott has always been a streaky hitter and is on one of his hot streaks. However, he has had some shoulder pain that could result in him taking a game or two off this series.
Tampa Bay Rays
Sam Fuld, who was on fire early in the season, is now batting a miserly .073 in his last 10 games. His defense is still on par but his bat will need to wake up quickly or he’ll fall from grace as fast as he rocketed to stardom.
Since striking out 3 batters in 1 1/3 innings in his first appearance, Clay Rapada has been getting rocked. He has allowed runs in every one of his appearances since and now has a 15.75 ERA. He is in danger of getting sent back down to the minors.
In his last 4 1/3 innings (4 appearances) Jim Johnson has allowed 5 earned runs. At times he seems unhittable then he will go into funks where he makes too many mistakes and gets hit hard.
The entire Orioles offense as a whole has been cold since the start of the season.
+ INJURY UPDATE
J.P. Howell is on the 15-day DL but on rehab assignment and could return to the club as early as May 16th.
Jeff Neimann had an MRI on his back and is considered day-to-day
3 on 3 Questions
Three Questions for the Tampa Bay Rays
Scott – The Rays have some players who have really stepped up (Farnsworth, Fuld, Joyce, etc.) and taken over for the former Rays who left via free agency. Which player has been the most pleasant surprise for Rays fans this season?
Ben – Fuld is unquestionably the biggest surprise of the season. Thanks to his massive popularity in social media there are numerous campaigns to “get out the vote” for him. Farnsworth with his sub 1.0 ERA and WHIP to go with 6 saves in 7 tries has to be a close second.
Scott – Fans tend to panic if their team gets off to a slow start. The Rays were swept by the Orioles to begin the season and started the season with a 1-8 record. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most worried) how panicked were you over the teams slow start?
Ben – I was honestly a bit shocked. I feel like I’m a pretty good judge of how teams are put together, and while the blog name Rays Colored Glasses is meant to mirror my homerism, I didn’t understand how they could play so poorly. However, in a discussion with some Rays fans one of observations I made has rung true…had they gone on a six game losing streak in the middle of the season we’d be talking about how the team is scuffling. Having one at the beginning of the season, well, the media was already throwing dirt on them.
Scott – The Rays have played much better since Manny Ramirez decided to retire. Do you think him retiring had anything to do with the Rays turnaround?
Ben - Absolutely. I wrote just the other day that Manny retiring was the defibrillator the team needed to jumpstart then, and Fuld was the power source. Once they stopped waiting for Manny to lead the way (and Johnny Damon really stepped up at that point as well) the team shook the dust off and started playing like I expected them to play.
Three Questions for the Orioles
Ben – After a 6-1 start the Orioles have struggled, going 8-13 since. Realistically where do you expect them to be when the season is over?
Scott – Realistically I expect the Orioles to win around 75 games. I think they are a greatly improved team with the moves they made in the offseason in addition to the overall attitude under new manager Buck Showalter. Since 2007 the Orioles haven’t won 70 games and they only won 66 games last season after a major turnaround under Showalter. Despite the additions in the offseason and Showalter’s presence the Orioles still have to compete in the toughest division in baseball and that will end up costing them games. I still hold out hope the Orioles can break 80 wins this season, but that is the fan in me talking. Realistically, I expect the Orioles to win 70 to 75 wins this season.
Ben – The Orioles starting rotation is young and inexperienced but with some very talented arms. Do you expect them to bolster the squad around the break or sit pat with what they have? Who do they have in the minors that might be called upon if needed?
Scott – I would be surprised if the Orioles made any trades to acquire talent this season. I expect them to either stay pat and try to put together a competitive season or trade some of their veterans at the trade deadline. There has been some talk about adding Kevin Millwood to their rotation, but in my opinion that is a waste. Brian Matusz will be coming back along with Alfredo Simon and Justin Duchscherer providing the team with enough pitching depth to get through the season. As far as what they have in the minors there isn’t much in the way of pitching. The Orioles best pitching talent is at the major league level right now. The Orioles do have a few bats down at Triple A that may be called up midseason like Josh Bell, Brandon Snyder, and Nolan Reimold but after them the majority of the team’s young talent is already on the major league roster.
Ben – The Orioles made several big splashes during free agency, bringing in Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, Kevin Gregg, Derek Lee and Mark Reynolds. How has this turnover changed the attitude of the team?
Scott – The biggest change with the Orioles team as a result of the offseason additions they made is the lack of panic. To be honest, their hitting has been horrendous. It was supposed to be a strength going into the season with all the additions they made, but no one on the team has been hitting. However, since they brought in veteran hitters with proven track records the team doesn’t seem to be panicking like they would in the past. Their busy offseason has definitely brought the team more confidence in themselves this season.