Opposite dugout: Struggling Orioles are looking for answers

orioles-logo-small.pngManager: Buck Showalter (9th year)

Record: 20-50

Last 10 games: 1-9

Who to watch: SS Manny Machado (.310/.377/.567 with 18 HR, 53 RBIs ), 3B Danny Valencia (.283/.350/.462), CF Adam Jones (16 doubles, 10 HR, .293/.313/.457), RF Mark Trumbo (.261/.320/.420), RHP David Hess (4.13 ERA), RHP Brad Brach (10 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: 0-3

Pitching probables:

June 19: RHP David Hess (2-3) vs. RHP Jefry Rodriguez, 7:05 p.m., MASN
June 20: RHP Andrew Cashner (2-8) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez, 7:05 p.m., MASN
June 21: RHP Kevin Gausman (3-6) vs. RHP Max Scherzer, 7:05 p.m., MASN

Inside the Orioles:

There’s no way to put this diplomatically: The Orioles own the major leagues’ worst record and have endured meltdowns in every phase of the game. The team’s bullpen, once as solid as any, has struggled with injury and inconsistency. Their defense, which had always been among the big leagues’ best (even in the team’s down years), has collapsed on numerous occasions in 2018. The O’s starting rotation - their most worrisome component coming into the season - has actually started to look like the most stable unit they’ve got, but many of its finest efforts have been in vain for lack of run support. The biggest surprise and disappointment for the Orioles this year has been that their once powerful offense has become anemic, dead last in the American League in runs, hits, batting average and on-base percentage. The bats finally showed some signs of life on Sunday as the Birds snapped a nine-game losing streak, but the 10 runs they scored while salvaging the series finale against the Marlins were more than they’d amassed in their previous five games combined. The contracts of several of the team’s stars (as well as those of manager Buck Showalter and vice president for baseball operations Dan Duquette) expire at season’s end, and trades with contenders for prospects almost certainly are imminent.

The two Orioles who have enjoyed the most success at the plate this season are each in a walk year. Manny Machado appears to be headed for an especially large payday. The 25-year-old got a long-desired move from third base to shortstop after the O’s parted ways with J.J. Hardy, and has been giving potential future employers a lot to consider. Despite the Orioles’ travails, Machado has put himself among the American League’s top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, and in the top five for home runs while trailing only J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox in RBIs. As he heads into free agency, longtime Orioles center fielder Adam Jones isn’t putting up the same sort of RBI and home run totals as Machado, but has nearly as many hits and a slash line that defies the dismal state of the Birds’ offense. The Orioles initially pegged journeyman Danny Valencia as strictly a platoon guy who would get nearly all of his at-bats against lefties. But with Tim Beckham languishing on the 60-day disabled list with a groin strain and neither Pedro Álvarez nor waiver-wire pickup Jace Peterson cutting it at the plate, Valencia has seen more time at third base than anticipated, and has actually hit righties better than he has southpaws. Mark Trumbo spent the first month of the season on the disabled list, and has never possessed stellar defensive skills. But as the Orioles won’t be able to use a designated hitter in this series, skipper Showalter will likely put Trumbo in right field to get his bat into the lineup. The Orioles have never done much in the running game, but do have a legitimate stolen base threat in Craig Gentry, who has been seeing more time in the outfield of late. Showalter will probably work Gentry and Joey Rickard in for pinch-running and/or late-inning outfield defense. Coming off the first All-Star season of his five-year career in the bigs, second baseman Jonathan Schoop has become a non-factor this year. First baseman Chris Davis, meanwhile, has become persona non grata while in the third year of a seven-year contract reportedly worth $161 million, having struck out 86 times in 207 at-bats as his batting average has plummeted to .150.

The Orioles called 24-year-old David Hess up from Triple-A Norfolk last month to fill the rotation spot of veteran Chris Tillman, who had gone to the disabled list with a back problem and had performed unsatisfactorily to that point. Hess, who starts tonight’s series opener, has impressed with his poise and command, but has been rocked by the Red Sox in two starts, including his last one. He surrendered multiple homers in each of them. Hess took a hard-luck loss against the Nats at Camden Yards on May 30, giving up just one run on a solo homer over six innings while the O’s failed to push a single run across. Andrew Cashner returns to the Orioles rotation tomorrow after skipping his last turn due to a lower back strain that pushed him to the DL. Cashner has failed to get through at least five innings only twice in his 13 starts this season, but he’s given up at least eight hits in each of his last four. Kevin Gausman, a home-grown product now in his sixth year with the Orioles, takes the hill for Thursday’s finale. He last tasted victory May 11, and has taken the loss in four of his last six starts (the Orioles lost all six of those games). Paltry run support has plagued Gausman in his last two starts. He went 6 2/3 innings June 9 in Toronto, striking out six while scattering nine hits to surrender three runs in a 4-3 Blue Jays win. On June 15, Gausman took a loss after striking out seven and giving up just two runs on five hits over 5 2/3 innings at home against the Marlins.

Until just last week, the Orioles had been missing bullpen stalwarts Darren O’Day and Zach Britton. Submariner O’Day spent a month on the disabled list after suffering an injury that might just be the perfect illustration of how this year is going for the Birds. O’Day was stretching in the Orioles bullpen when a teammate ran into him, hyperextending his pitching elbow. In his three appearances since his return, O’Day has allowed just one hit and no walks while striking out five over three innings. Sinkerballing lefty Britton, who in 2016 earned 47 saves in as many chances, spent much of 2017 on the disabled list and then had surgery on his Achilles tendon last February. He finally came off the DL on June 11, and got into a game the following night, walking three while pitching the seventh inning of the O’s 6-4 loss to the Red Sox. He threw a spotless inning in each of his two subsequent appearances, and finally pitched in the ninth inning - albeit in a non-save situation - on Sunday against the Marlins, and looks ready to resume closing. When the bullpen is at full strength and the Orioles are clinging to a lead, O’Day has normally pitched the seventh inning and Brad Brach the eighth, leaving Britton to close. During Britton’s long absence, Brach took over the closing duty, saving 18 in 24 chances last year and 10 of 12 in 2018. Brach and Britton both will be free agents after this season. Sidearmer Mychal Givens gets plenty of movement on his mid-90s fastball and has been projected by many observers as Britton’s heir apparent as closer. With reliable lefty Richard Bleier down with a lat injury, the Orioles have become very thin in the middle innings. But lanky, rubber-armed Miguel Castro has done yeoman’s work as a long man.

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