Buck Showalter 4-0 and Already Making a Difference

A guest post by Yoshito Tsuji, Edited by Susan Shan

It was a 1-1 tied game in the bottom of the eighth inning with the bases loaded and one out on Friday night. Baltimore Orioles Gold Glove center fielder Adam Jones stepped up to the plate, and popped out to third. “I was frustrated and I had a pitch right there to drive, a real good pitch to drive, and I missed it,” he told MASN after the game.

Fortunately for Jones, he would get a second chance. And he didn’t make the same mistake twice. With runners at the corners and two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Jones hit a walkoff single to left field to score Nick Markakis, giving the Orioles a 2-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox (62-47) at home. “I was fortunate to get another opportunity, and came through,” Jones said.

All it took was a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and a walkoff victory over the AL Central-leading White Sox for Buck Showalter to improve to 4-0 as manager of the O’s (36-73). The current four-game winning streak marks just the third time that the O’s have won four or more consecutive games all year.

Orioles Competed for Worst Record
The Orioles have experienced continuous setbacks, such as having three different managers (Dave Trembley, Juan Samuel, and Showalter), numerous injuries (including leadoff man and catalyst Brian Roberts missing over 90 games), regression of several young players (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, and Nolan Reimold), the second worst team ERA in baseball, and the least amount of runs scored after the Pittsburgh Pirates and Seattle Mariners.

In June, things were so bad that the O’s were on pace to challenge the 1962 Mets’ record of 120 losses. Team leader Markakis bluntly stated to The Baltimore Sun, “I don’t know what to say . . . I don’t know what the hell is going on around here. It can’t get worse. It really can’t.”

What has happened to the Orioles this season is completely contrary to what ESPN baseball columnist Buster Olney wrote in November of 2009. Olney spoke with a GM who felt that the Orioles’ core of young talent had a chance to make a 2008 Tampa Bay Rays-like climb in the division in two years. Instead, fans could be witnessing one of the worst teams (by winning percentage) in franchise history, challenging the 1988 Orioles’ record of 54-107.

Young Players Struggling
Part of the Orioles’ struggles stem from Jones’s decline in production. An All-Star last year, he was hitting .303, had a .357 OBP, and an .838 OPS with 12 HRs, 47 RBIs, and 55 runs scored in 80 games before the All-Star break. This year, after 87 games, Jones is batting .276, has a .304 OBP, and a .757 OPS with 14 HRs, 39 RBIs, and 44 runs scored.

Matt Wieters, whom Keith Law of ESPN described as greater than sliced bread, has also performed inconsistently. After a solid April, Wieters struggled in May and June. However, he recently showed why he was so worthy of praise. Since the All-Star break, he has been hitting .265 with an OBP of .390 and an OPS of .890.

The young Oriole pitching corps of Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman (optioned to Triple-A Norfolk), and Jake Arrieta have all struggled with inconsistency throughout the year. At the All-Star break, the O’s had zero starters with more than three wins.

The Turnaround
However, in this four-game stretch, Jeremy Guthrie turned in a solid quality start with seven innings pitched while only allowing three earned runs on Tuesday, followed by Matusz’s six-inning, one earned run gem. Arrieta also threw a great game on Thursday after lasting through seven innings and giving up only two earned runs. Last night, Bergesen was dominant, giving seven strong innings and scattering five hits for one earned run off a Gordon Beckham solo homer in the third inning.

The Orioles know the importance of good pitching. “We feed off the energy of the starting pitcher and there was good energy tonight,” Jones said after Friday’s win.

Their recent surge during Showalter’s first four games may not be just a fluke. However, Showalter refuses to take credit for the team’s play. “I’m not going to sit here and smugly say I knew everything, I know why we’re carrying 13 pitchers . . . I never at ESPN or wherever at home said why don’t they do this,” he said after Friday night’s win.

Many of the players have strongly supported his hiring. Jones was so eager to meet his new manager that he showed up on his day off to introduce himself after Showalter’s press conference.

Showalter’s Powerful Presence
Matt Vensel, a blogger for The Baltimore Sun, noted that perhaps the Orioles have upped their play because they’re terrified of Showalter. Vensel quotes Jones as saying, “I think what’s really going on is everyone knows his reputation as a hard-ass. He’s going to get on you for doing this, he’s going to say something about everything. I think that’s actually worked . . . You don’t want him on you.”

Showalter also says what’s on his mind. In Tuesday’s 6-3 win, he left relief pitcher Michael Gonzalez in to face two hitters in the ninth due to matchups rather than bring in the O’s closer, Alfredo Simon, to start the inning. Gonzalez pitched 1 2/3 of an inning and told Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun, “I have got to commend [Showalter] for the type of man he is. He came up to me straight-up, man-to-man, and let me know what he was thinking.”

Showalter has done a good job working with young players in his past with the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers. He also knows that some young players don’t pan out; for every Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, there are many more Pat Kellys and Roberto Kellys.

Showalter’s arrival in Baltimore may have taken a little while, but he always had an eye on the Orioles. “I feel like I saw them play all year; I always had them on the bottom right screen at ESPN,” he said after the 5-4 win on Thursday. “I came in with a completely open mind. Nothing is as bad or as good as it seems.”

It’s hard to tell if this four-game stretch is a taste of things to come, a result of increased effort in the short-term in order to placate Showalter, or just showcasing the unlikelihood of the Orioles losing the rest of their games this season.

Whatever the cause, Oriole fans can only hope that nights like these four in August become as predictable as singing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at Camden Yards or seeing Fancy Clancy sell beer behind the team’s dugout.

As far as Showalter’s impact as a manager goes, Gonzalez put it best: “That’s all you can ask for – a straight shooter.” And some wins.

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