The Orioles made their latest concession with a young player prior to today’s game in Minnesota, optioning starter Dean Kremer to focus again on his development. They returned outfielder Austin Hays to the injured list. They kept Ryan Mountcastle out of the lineup with a bruised hand and carried a two-man bench.
The goal was to end a losing streak that grew to eight games, but the importance of the big picture trumped everything. And the pains sharpen during the process.
No one promised anything less.
Jorge López is offering hope today, a reprieve, as he tries to maintain his grip on a rotation that’s been fluid. He’s made it through five scoreless innings on only two hits and the Orioles are clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Twins.
Trey Mancini homered with two outs in the first inning for the latest early lead. Mancini has 11 homers and 45 RBIs, including 25 this month, after driving a slider from Michael Pineda 404 feet to left field.
Pineda lowered his head in disgust as soon as Mancini made contact, which came after Cedric Mullins’ leadoff single and caught stealing.
The Orioles have lost 15 of 17 games since “the high of John Means’ no-hitter,” as executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias labeled it today in a Zoom call with the media.
“It’s been tough on everyone involved,” he said. “These struggles happen in baseball, but they particularly happen with young teams and a young roster. These stretches can be harder when you have a group of young players like we do, and we have a young roster right now. There’s no secret about that. And we’ve done so purposefully with the organization’s strategy dating back to the middle of the 2018 season, when it was clear that rebuilding the club and the roster was necessary, that the organization would turn toward young players.”
A talent pipeline is under construction. Money is invested in international scouting and analytics departments. Drafting and developing players is a priority and any breakdown threatens to destroy the rebuild efforts.
“It was a big task, it is a big task, it remains a very difficult task, and these processes are difficult,” Elias said. “They don’t go perfectly, they don’t go smoothly, they require a lot of effort and a lot of perseverance and endurance through tough stretches like this. And we continue to have the upmost confidence in the coaches and player development professionals that we have up and down the organization, the people who are involved in guiding these young players and coaching them and making decisions about their futures, and the players themselves.
“This wave of young players right now that are undergoing some struggles in what I call their sophomore seasons are a very talented group. I don’t think this is unexpected. Sophomore slumps are real. This is a generation of players that has undergone probably the strangest and most difficult introduction to the major leagues possible. A lot of these guys totally skipped Triple-A because of the pandemic, working at alternate sites, were dropped into the American League East. Had a weird calendar last year, have a weird calendar this year. It’s not easy, but it’s a very talented group.
“You look at our young pitchers that have undergone some struggles this year, Kremer and then (Keegan) Akin, the ERAs are a little high, but the strikeout and walk numbers remain positive. Those are interesting and indicative of future results, and we see a lot of talent there. So this is a group of players that we believe in, I know that things will improve and get back in a positive direction on the field at some point, so we continue to drive through it. But it’s most important that we remain steadfast on our organizational goals right now of improving the overall functionality of the organization top to bottom.
“We’re already seeing positive signs of that in the minor leagues, and some early positive results in the minors and good performances across the rungs of our minor league ladder, and that’s what we want. That’s going to continue to improve. And that’s even in spite of the challenges that the last year has presented itself with compressed talent acquisition and the interruption of the minor league schedule.
“We are remaining on target with what we’re trying to do, which is build for a sustainable, competitive playoff-caliber future for this organization for a long time so we do not have to undergo a process this traumatic ever again.”
The lumps were anticipated, but they still hurt. The flirtation with .500 and steep drop. The harsh criticisms stinging.
“I don’t think anyone’s happy about the win-loss record,” Elias said. “We haven’t been since we’ve been there. But it’s very important for us to remain focused and committed. Overreacting briefly to struggles from young players, making rash roster decisions with guys that have bright futures, is not in our long-term nor short-term best interest.
“So we remain committed and focused and working hard every day on what we do and understand that baseball can be like this, especially when you’re going through what we’re going through. And the players themselves have the same approach and know that the hits will start to fall or they will get into a groove on the mound. And we wait for that to happen. We see talent here and we see youth here and want to continue to support these players and allow them to develop and get better.”
The shuffling of prospects to and from the minors isn’t done without regret. The Orioles are providing opportunity. The leashes are longer for some than others. But there’s a limit.
“If we feel at any time that someone is overwhelmed, that their development would be better benefitted from being in Norfolk than being in the major league environment, we will do that,” Elias said. “But suffice to say, as guys are on the major league roster, they’re there because we want them to be there and we see better performances on the horizon for, really, a lot of these guys.”
Tickets went on sale today to the general public for the remainder of the season. Crowds are allowed inside Camden Yards at full capacity. The Orioles are trying to lure them while possessing the worst record in baseball, knowing that few challenges are as daunting.
“It’s very painful,” Elias said. “We follow this team as well on a night-in-and-night-out basis. We’re living it. We understand the length of losing that this fanbase has gone through dating back to 2017 in a lot of ways. This is a long time. But we had a lot of systemic-level work that has needed to be done. ... We’re allowing young players the chance to play and stick in the major leagues, and while the overall record and team performance has been very difficult during that time, we are seeing some rewards from that.
“It’s very tough. I’ve said all along this is not something you want to do purposefully. This is where we started from when this group came in. We’re trying to fix things. The way that baseball is and the way it’s set up, it takes more than one season or two seasons, and especially in the division that we’re in. There’s some length to the process. We’ve been here for two drafts, one of them was only five rounds, but we’re seeing those players graduate up through the minor leagues. Soon the international players will start to join them. There’s a lot to look forward to. We’re doing things the right way and doing them in a way that will set us up for a long time so that, hopefully, we can be amongst those organizations that are able to avoid going through processes like this. And it is possible and it’s difficult, but you’ve got to get to that level first, and that’s what we’re doing right now and that’s what I and a lot of people were brought here to do.
“It’s hard work, it doesn’t go perfectly, you have some good luck, you have some bad luck, but our sleeves are rolled up, we’re grinding through it. We’re going to start seeing results eventually. I’m very confident in that.”
The defense must improve. It’s been a mantra for years now. And lapses behind the plate, as seen again last night with Pedro Severino’s fourth passed ball and inability to prevent two wild pitches in the second inning, haven’t gone unnoticed or been taken lightly. Changes aren’t promised, but might be implemented.
“We’re keeping an eye on what everybody is doing in Triple-A,” Elias said. “Across the board that’s something that we’re looking at and getting reports on and weighing things. I have been frustrated at times with a lot of defensive performances on the team, but this is understanding again that this is a tough game and players are working hard and we’re going to try to get the most out of them. But ultimately, if we get to the point where a different mix would be to the benefit of not only those players themselves but for the pitching staff or for the good of the team at large, we’re going to look at that and consider it.
“I know that there have been frustrations and we share them, but we’re not at that point and we’re going to continue to push and work.”
Pitching coach/director of pitching Chris Holt has left the team on multiple occasions for personal reasons, putting assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes in the dugout and major league field coordinator/catching instructor Tim Cossins in the bullpen. Elias doesn’t have an exact date for Holt’s return.
“I’m hoping soon,” he said. “This isn’t a planned thing, and life happens in everything. We accommodate people when that happens and he’s obviously very committed to this team, so it’s very important, to say the least, that he be where he is.
“Hopefully he’ll be back soon. He’s been working very hard remotely and staying plugged in. But we have a great pitching coach in Darren Holmes who’s been keeping things going. We have two pitching coaches on the staff for a reason. It’ll be nice to get Chris back soon.”
López issued back-to-back two-out walks in the first inning and struck out Miguel Sano with a 98 mph fastball. Trevor Larnach led off the second with a double, moved to third on a grounder and was out at the plate on Rob Refsnyder’s grounder to Maikel Franco.
The Twins didn’t get another hit until Willians Astudillo’s leadoff single in the fifth, which was followed by Refsnyder’s double play ball.
Chance Sisco and Mullins opened the third with walks and were stranded. The Orioles are 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position today and 3-for-28 in the series.
Update: Miguel Sanó hit a three-run homer with two outs in the sixth inning and the Orioles lost 3-2. The losing streak stretches to nine games.
The Orioles are 0-15 against the Twins dating back to March 31, 2018.
Max Kepler led off the sixth with a single and Maikel Franco could only get the out at first base after bobbling Jorge Polanco’s grounder. Nelson Cruz walked, Alex Kirilloff grounded to Mancini and Sanó drove a 96.7 mph sinker 426 feet to center field with an exit velocity of 114.1 mph, per Statcast data.
Plate umpire Erich Bacchus squeezed López on the previous pitch to run the count to 2-1.
López went a season-high six innings on 93 pitches. He allowed three runs and four hits with four walks and three strikeouts.
“I don’t care about that, I care about my team winning,” López said. “It’s something I try to do every outing I can.
“Felt really good overall. It’s hard when we are in this situation. I’ve got the lead and that’s what a good starter does, take the lead to as far as I can and give the team a win. It’s something, big mistake that can’t happen again.”
“Threw the ball great,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Disappointing on that pitch, but six really good innings, was in control, was in command. Pitch count was down, velo stayed there throughout his outing. He pitched really, really well. He just made that bad pitch there.”
Mancini led off the ninth with a double off Hansel Robels, the first hit for the Orioles since the first inning, and Franco doubled with two outs, but Stevie Wilkerson grounded out. The Orioles went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
The Orioles have lost 16 of 18 and are 17-32.
“You just saw there in the ninth inning, we’re right there,” Hyde said. “I’m not sensing any quit in our guys. ... I see there’s some frustration, obviously. This doesn’t feel good. There’s no way around it. This doesn’t feel good. We’re just having a tough time getting on the right end of it.”
Down on the farm, Norfolk activated reliever Eric Hanhold from the injured list.