Orioles: Pitching key to success

Going into Tuesday’s game against the Texas Rangers, the Orioles had the best team earned run average in the American League at 2.99.

Then Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton belted four home runs, drove in eight and set a new single-game American League record with 18 total bases.

Baltimore lost 10-3 along with their lead in the division.

Now tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for first place, the Orioles need to rebound if they want to silence their critics.

And it starts by improving the pitching.

“We’ve given up a lot of runs in a couple nights,” said manager Buck Showalter during his postgame press conference. “You gotta try to minimize the damage with people on base. And that’s hard to do.”

The pitching woes began Sunday when starter Tommy Hunter went just 4.1 innings while surrendering five runs. The bullpen relieved Hunter by going 12.2 innings and giving up only one run.

That effort, capped by an improbable two scoreless inning performance from first baseman Chris Davis, allowed the Orioles to prevail 9-6 over the rival Red Sox. But it came with a price.

The victory left the bullpen depleted heading into a strenuous homestand that includes the American League West division-leading Rangers, the Tampa Bay Rays and finishes with the New York Yankees.

Monday’s game figured to be challenging because of Sunday’s 17-inning contest. Southpaw Brian Matusz didn’t do his team any favors.

He gave up seven earned runs in five innings of work, causing Showalter to use both Stu Pomeranz and Jason Berken, two pitchers that were brought to the big league club Monday to give the other bullpen arms a much-needed rest. The Orioles lost 14-3.

Now back to Tuesday. Two of Hamilton’s four homers were launched off starter Jake Arrieta. Arrieta allowed six runs in just over six innings of work.

It’s an obvious observation, but the Orioles need better starting pitching if they want to remain atop the American League East. In particular, the back end of the rotation needs to perform better.

Matusz is the primary offender. Working to regain the velocity and command that he displayed during his 2010 season, Matusz has been ineffective with an earned run average of 5.91.

Though he is pitching better than 2011, when he owned a 10.69 earned run average, not many teams can win games where their starters are giving up close to six runs.

This also goes for Hunter, whose line shows five earned runs per nine innings. Hunter was sent to the minor leagues to make room for Berken and Pomeranz but he will return to the club soon. When he does, he will need to improve to keep the Orioles in games.

With lefty Zach Britton on the 15-day disabled list due to left shoulder inflammation and free-agent signee Tsuyoshi Wada on the 60-day disabled list, the Orioles don’t have many options to replace Matusz and Hunter.

Former Colorado Rockies pitcher and Dan Duquette acquisition Jason Hammel can’t keep pitching to the clip of a 2.09 earned run average all season. It is just as unlikely that Wei-Yin Chen will maintain the 2.76 earned run average that he is sporting.

Last year, the Orioles had the worst team earned run average in baseball at 4.89 runs per game. This year, they own the league’s second-best earned run average.

Pitching has been the catalyst for the Orioles best start since 2005, when they were eight games over .500 after the first three months of the season. The 2005 squad followed with an epic collapse that left them out of the playoff hunt.

Showalter, who was not with the team in 2005, and the players, don’t want to see another failure like 2005. Pitching has been key to their progression this season and it will remain a significant factor in their ability to compete with teams like the Rangers and Yankees.

Hammel, Chen and Arrieta are doing their part to revive Baltimore’s reputation as a respectable team. Jim Johnson, Luis Ayala and the rest of the bullpen arms are performing at a high level.

It’s time for the back end of the rotation to step up, or Orioles fans will be in for another losing season.

(Feature photo by Larry Luxner)