Getting away from the Yankees offers the kind of relief to the Orioles that the bullpen has struggled to provide this season.
Sixteen losses in a row to them. Seventeen total out of 19 games. Some ugly, some competitive. They count just the same.
Among the lessons learned is the wisdom in walking Gleyber Torres. Doesn’t matter whether first base is open. Down five runs in the eighth, two on and two outs, you hold up four fingers.
Manager Brandon Hyde would have been roasted by media and fans if the Orioles challenged Torres again and the result was a third three-run homer. Walking Torres didn’t put the tying or winning run on base. The Orioles were on the wrong side of an 11-6 score. And the next batter grounded out.
Hyde was right and still exposed to second-guessing.
If the same situation came up yesterday, I would have carried Torres to first base.
Stevie Wilkerson was asked what the team could learn from playing the Yankees. Operating at a near-perfect level seems to be a requirement to beating them.
“I think we learned that we have to do everything right to win those games,” he said. “You’ve got to get timely hits, make timely plays, put guys away when they’ve got runners in scoring position and we’ve got to drive our guys in when we have them in scoring position.”
I learned that I’m still hit-or-miss when it comes to predicting the next player to come off the 40-man roster. I never would have put Jimmy Yacabonis at the top of the list. I didn’t have him in the top five.
I’d imagine that a team would claim Yacabonis if he hit the waiver wire. The arm is too intriguing. And he might benefit from having a set role, without the constant movement between majors and minors.
A classic change of scenery guy whose development could use fewer interruptions.
Ryan Eades, claimed off waivers from the Twins, has two minor league options remaining after 2019. Yacabonis has run out. The Orioles want the flexibility.
Especially important this week was the acceptance and execution of a message that Hyde and pitching coach Doug Brocail have preached all season. Their pitchers have got to work inside, which in turn gives them more options to put away hitters during an at-bat.
The reluctance or inability to do so has exposed the staff to tremendous beatings. But Dylan Bundy retired 16 of 17 batters after Gary Sánchez’s three-run homer in the first inning and said afterward that he pitched inside “a little bit more than I have in the past.”
“They lean out over the plate all the time,” Bundy said, “and when you’re making quality pitches and they’re getting homers and singles and doubles off them, you’ve got to get them off the plate with a purpose.”
No one was happier about it than Brocail, who sat with me in the dugout earlier in the day and addressed with tremendous passion this exact topic.
“You have to have the desire to pitch in,” he said. “I get questioned on it a lot. Not only my buddies and people around baseball, but even our manager. Why don’t we pitch in? Well, here’s the report. Read it. It’s pound in, pound in, pound in, pound in.
“We had a meeting where Brandon sat the guys down and he says, ‘Guys, if you don’t pound in, you’re going to get killed here.’ And that night they went out and we did not pound in. We probably have the most behind-in-counts of any pitching staff I’ve ever seen. You talk about pitching in, you talk about sequencing. When you’re 2-0, you can’t sequence. When you’re 3-1, you can’t sequence. When you’re 2-0 and you’re 3-1 and you go inside, you add another ball.
“What I like is first pitch, you get a strike, go in. You get even, go in. And we do not pitch in. You’ve got to have catchers who want to call in, you have to have a guy on the mound that knows that pitching in buys you real estate. And when you have a young staff, they’ve got to trust that their stuff is good enough to get in.
“We talk about buying real estate constantly and nobody does it, and it absolutely blows my mind that you want to go out and you want to pitch to one side of the plate and continue to get hit like we get hit, but you’re not doing anything about it. It’s disappointing more so than you can imagine.”
Brocail is able to provide a walking, talking example to his pitchers.
“I look back over my career and go, ‘OK, what made me good?’ ” he said. “My first three years, I didn’t pitch in, learned how to pitch in and things got a lot easier. And when you talk to other guys that went through the same thing, ‘Man, I had struggles until I learned how to pitch in. I had struggles until I learned how to pitch up and change eye levels.’
“You don’t have to have the best stuff, you just have to know and have an idea what you’re doing with the baseball and where you’re going with it and get it there. Or get it near there.”
Missing by wide margins or by smaller ones seem to bring the same amount of damage to the Orioles. Whether it’s a starter handing over an early lead or a reliever surrendering a home run to the first batter faced.
“So many times, we set up down and away and we make a mistake in the strike zone belt-in, and next thing you know, we have a guy on second and then we have a pull guy up and they don’t realize that you can still pitch in, but in is now off the plate in instead of in the strike zone in,” Brocail said.
“I’d like to be able to snap my fingers and have it all change overnight. As much as we talk about it, as much as we practice it, we just do not do it. It’s so frustrating.”
The Yankees series that led into today’s off-day also raised more concerns about John Means, who’s posted an 8.36 ERA since the All-Star break.
Means is healthy, which should provide some comfort. No one is suspicious that he’s hiding an injury. And Brocail is convinced that a lack of command Tuesday night was due to poor mechanics that can be corrected.
“(Tuesday) night for me was a lot different than the first game back,” Brocail said. “The first game back, I thought he had pretty good stuff, said he felt phenomenal. Problem was, we ran into a five-out inning that we didn’t get out of. (Tuesday) night, his delivery was choppy, he was leaking with his head, pulling off.
“It’s kind of hard for people to understand. John and his side work, head goes toward home plate, nose goes to the catcher’s glove, doesn’t roll out. He adds velo, he adds the determination to get somebody out and it starts leaking toward third. We’re trying to get it so that we can have the vigorous attack so that when he goes to amp up, he does it with a decent delivery. And one thing with Johnny is when he gets off, he struggles to get the outer portion of the plate down. Whereas he doesn’t have a problem getting to the outer portion of the plate up, and that’s where he got hit.”
Brocail returned to the team hotel and watched video of the start. Studied each pitch. Knew exactly what went wrong.
“I came in (yesterday) and I said, ‘Dude, your delivery was all over the place.’ He goes, ‘I know, falling off early.’ So at least he felt it. That’s the good thing,” Brocail said.
“You look around and we’re at the point in development where guys think they’re throwing really good sliders and really good off-speed pitches and then go look after the game and we see little cutters, sliders and slurvish curves and it’s just ... For us right now in the building stages that we’re in, we’ve got to make sure this winter that when guys get to their throwing programs, they’re learning how to spin the ball better, they’re learning how to drive the ball to a spot that much better. Because as everybody sees, we get absolutely annihilated in the middle of the zone and that can’t continue to happen.”
The same lack of concern over Means’ physical state is repeated on the mental side. No one is worried that his confidence will erode. That he won’t figure out how to navigate through the adversity and find smooth sailing again.
“My God, no, not at all,” Brocail said.” I mean, this guy’s got a good head on his shoulders, he knows what he wants to do with the baseball. Sometimes it just doesn’t go there. But John Means is going to be a building block for this rebuild for a long time. He’s going to be here when the building’s all done.
“If John turns it around, the one thing for me is he has to be able to command his fastball to both sides of the plate a little bit better. My one worry was, everybody’s like, ‘Well, we want him to have a strong September,’ and I do, too. I want him to have a great September. Problem is, he’s building up innings.
“I know he had a decent amount of innings last year, but it wasn’t at the big league level. Up here, there’s more stressful innings, there’s deeper counts, there’s more foul balls, there’s longer at-bats, and that’s something that he’s going to have to go through. He’s going to have to start throwing his curveball more, he’s going to have to start utilizing his slider. I think he’s found out lately that you just can’t pitch up and in and down and away and hard up and soft down. You’ve got to mix in the breaking balls. You’ve got to get guys looking to the front door, not just the backdoor side.
“It’s where he’s at in his youth, I guess. We were all there, we all understand it. Just like I said, I’d like to be able to snap my fingers and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go out and dominate both sides of the plate, we’re going to elevate, we’re going to punch guys out instead of having eight-, nine-, 10-pitch at-bats. We’re going to know what our swing-and-miss pitch is and be able to utilize it so we can have quicker ABs. And right now, it’s just not happening.”