Sorting through a few Orioles surprises

The stubborn streak in me isn’t as long as the Orioles’ winning streak, which has reached eight games. However, I can't always admit when I’m wrong.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but that’s another subject. Let’s stick to baseball.

I didn’t think the 2022 Orioles would be one game under .500 on July 12, that I’d wake up yesterday morning and they’d be only two out of the final wild card spot.

I predicted an improved record over last season. I said they’d be more entertaining, more enjoyable for fans based on the promotions of some top prospects.

Catcher Adley Rutschman finally made it. Outfielder Kyle Stowers had a cup of Tim Hortons coffee in Toronto as a replacement player for Anthony Santander. Grayson Rodriguez would be entrenched in the rotation and attracting larger non-giveaway crowds at Camden Yards except for a strained lat.

DL Hall is going to make his major league debut this summer.  Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias didn’t slam the door on the idea that some combination of Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Terrin Vavra could arrive in Baltimore later this year.

The arrivals don’t guarantee more wins. Perhaps the opposite. Inexperience, growing paints, etc. Throwing rookies at the division wolves. But watching and writing about top prospects making their debuts is a good time.

So is a team that hasn’t posted a winning record since 2016 climbing within one game of .500, with a chance to win its ninth in a row for the first time since September 1999.

Did not see that happening.

What else?

Here are a few other first-half developments that froze me like a 12-6 curveball:

* Félix Bautista deserved to be on the opening day roster.

I had my doubts. He was on the bubble for inclusion on the 40-man roster prior to a Rule 5 draft that didn’t happen. I expected him to begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk and work on his command.

A 100 mph fastball impresses less when it’s never in the strike zone.

Bautista averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors, but also 5.1 walks. Any manager will tell you that high walk rates don’t suddenly disappear against major league hitters.

In 38 appearances with the Orioles, Bautista has registered a 1.77 ERA and 1.009 WHIP in 35 2/3 innings. He’s averaging 3.3 walks and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s a huge reason why the bullpen is so much better this season, which is a huge reason why the Orioles are one game below .500.

The Orioles head to Wrigley Field tonight with a 3.25 bullpen ERA that ranked fifth in the majors last night. They were last in 2021 with a 5.70 ERA and in 2019 at 5.79.

Also a shocker.

The unit was supposed to be worse without Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott. Remember?

* Jordan Lyles’ contract makes sense.

The Orioles weren’t expected to spend much on starting pitching. They were supposed to go on the hunt again for veterans willing to take minor league deals. Maybe with $1 million guaranteed in the majors, maybe a little more.

Lyles received the largest contract under Elias, with $8 million guaranteed and a $11 million option for 2023. Right before the sport shut down with the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

Lyles owns a career 5.15 ERA in 12 seasons, the exact figure he registered last season in 32 games with the Rangers. But he was good in September, the Orioles knew why – and thought they could get more out of him under their instruction – and needed someone who could take the ball every five days and give them innings.

And this was before they’d lose John Means for the season.

The positive influence on the staff goes beyond the innings and how he grinds through starts to save the bullpen, or “the boys.” Lyles is a true leader in the clubhouse, to the point that T-shirts began circulating with his face on them and the words “Best Dad Ever.”

I’ll always remember the veteran starter many years ago who instructed a rookie pitcher how to avoid signing autographs in spring training by keeping his head down and running to the dugout while fans hollered his name. Pretend you don’t hear them. This was back in Fort Lauderdale.

That same veteran told another rookie to ignore the media waiting at his locker following his first major league win and eat his meal first, back when the tables were set up in the middle of the clubhouse. Which, as you’d imagine, was a really awkward setup.

Lyles is the kind of leader who makes sure that the younger guys understand everything that goes into being a major leaguer. All of the obligations. And then he demonstrates how to get into and through the middle innings on nights when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

Yes, he’s also a trade chip.

* Keegan Akin is an effective long reliever in the bullpen.

I didn’t even know if he’d be on the staff.

Prospects were passing Akin as if he were doing 30 mph on the freeway. He couldn’t hold his spot in the rotation and couldn’t reduce the lapses in control.

Akin posted a 6.63 ERA and 1.579 WHIP last summer in 24 games and averaged 3.8 walks per nine innings. He allowed five runs and seven hits in 5 1/3 innings in spring training and walked six batters, but he made the opening day roster.

I can’t say that I was confident in his longevity, but he’s made 22 appearances and registered a 2.31 ERA and 0.868 WHIP in 50 2/3 innings. He’s averaging 2.3 walks.

And no reliever in major league history before Akin began a season with 19 outings of two or more innings. Chuck Crim held the record with 14.

I’m still waiting for the pregame ceremony.

Akin had a 1.23 ERA on May 24. He’s been scored upon in five of his last 10 outings, with six home runs surrendered to leave him with seven this season. But he’s been much better than I anticipated, more aggressive and confident. Better suited, it seems, in this role.

The shuttle doesn't have a seat for him. I just assumed it would.

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