Last October, the Orioles and their 96 regular season wins stood between the Royals and the first Kansas City pennant in 29 years. Some observers predicted Orioles manager Buck Showalter would manage circles around the simple-minded Ned Yost, but somehow Ned managed to press the right buttons and lead the Royals to a 4-0 sweep.
I never tire of watching that.
For much of the season, the Orioles and Royals were playing like we might see a re-match of the two clubs this October. On August 19 Baltimore was right in the mix for a Wild Card spot, just a half game out of the final post-season position. They then dropped 14 of 17 and sunk out of the playoff picture. Now they stand 67-72, 6.5 games out of a post-season spot, and a game from being in last place. Buck Showalter, the chessmaster, has run out of moves.
The Orioles have suffered injuries this year, losing catcher Matt Wieters and shortstop J.J. Hardy for extended periods of time. Pitcher Miguel Gonzalez recently landed on the disabled list with a groin injury. Adam Jones is nursing a sore shoulder and wrist so he may see limited action this weekend. Despite the injuries, the Orioles are sixth in the league in runs scored. Even without slugger Nelson Cruz, who bolted to Seattle, the Orioles are fourth in the league in home runs, although 57% of those dingers have come at Camden Yards.
The Orioles have power, but they sacrifice contact, striking out 22.4% of the time, second in the league. The Orioles have attempted the fewest steals in the league this year, and have a success rate of just 63.3%. They are fifth-worst in the league in Baserunning Runs at -8.1. Defensively, the Orioles are pretty good, especially with J.J. Hardy back at shortstop. Manny Machado is tied for ninth in all of baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, and Hardy, Adam Jones, and Gerardo Parra are all plus defenders as well.
Mike Wright makes his eighth Major League start against the Royals this weekend. The right-hander had a nice season at AAA Norfolk with a 2.22 ERA, but is 25 years old and was pretty bad at the same level last year. He is your prototypical organizational guy teams call up to get a look at late in the year when the team is out of it. His fastball sits at 93 mph and he throws a decent slider but can have trouble throwing strikes. Wright tossed 14 1/3 shutout innings to begin his career, but since then has given up nearly a run per inning.
Chris Tillman has regressed this year after a pair of decent seasons. The right-hander looked to be getting back on track in July, but since then he has a 8.19 ERA over his last six starts, including a loss at Kauffman Stadium in August. Tillman has added a sinker to his repertoire, but has had trouble locating pitches, leading to a spike in his walk rate. The Orioles have not yet announced a starter for the nationally televised game on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.
The Orioles bullpen has been quite good this year with the second-best ERA at 2.93. They strike out nearly a hitter per inning, third-best in the league, and despite pitching at Camden Yards they give up the second-fewest amount of home runs. Closer Zack Britton has converted 32-of-35 save opportunities this year with a 1.89 ERA and a 5.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Submariner Darren O'Day has allowed right-handers to hit just .203/.237/.278 against him this year. Rookie reliever Mychal Givens has been a nice success story, converting from shortstop, and looking impressive in 19 innings with the Orioles, posting a 1.42 ERA with 22 strikeouts and just two walks.
The Royals took three of four from the Orioles back in Kansas City, and including the playoffs, have won 11 of their last 15 against Baltimore over the last two seasons. The Orioles are likely playing out the string, but with much of their core team healthy now, they could still pose a risk, particularly in the cozy confines of Camden Yards. Perhaps being back where the Royals played post-season ball last year will wake the team up and get them back into playoff mode. Whatever it takes, the Royals need to get back to their winning ways if they want to hold onto home field advantage.