Final game gives Zimmermann last chance to impress

The final game of the 2021 season is sneaking up on the Orioles today and tapping them on the shoulder, perhaps leery of a harsh reaction.

Tip-toeing around this team probably is a wise strategy. Whispered apologies. Keeping its guard up, just in case.

The Orioles went 54-108 in 2019, the most recent full season. They’re 52-109 heading into today’s finale in Toronto.

They’re also 20-55 against the American League East. The 55 losses are their second-most in a season in franchise history after the 60 accumulated in 1987.

Gains in the rebuild aren’t measured by wins and losses, but an increase in the former would have been nice. A reward of sorts for the sacrifices made on the major league side.

Having a farm system ranked first or second makes 2021 a success, depending on a person’s perspective. A run differential that might give you a case of the dry heaves probably puts you on the opposite side of the evaluation scale.

Being this close to the 2019 record actually is rather impressive given the 19- and 14-game losing streaks this summer, but there’s plenty of time later to dissect the season like a frog in high school science class.

Injuries robbed pitchers Chris Ellis, Keegan Akin, Tyler Wells and Jorge López, and infielders Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo of important final looks from the club, though a few certainly would require extenuating circumstances to prevent inclusion on the 2022 opening day roster.

Thumbnail image for Zimmermann-Delivers-Debut-Orange-Sidebar.jpgRookie Bruce Zimmermann is working in reverse, coming off the injured list to make two late starts. The local kid - choose his birthplace, childhood residence, high school or current home - held the Red Sox to one run and two hits in four innings in his first major league appearance since June 13.

Place Zimmermann’s biceps tendinitis and sprained ankle high on the list of unfortunate developments, since a full summer of starts could have elevated his stature for 2022. Made him a heavier favorite to break camp with the team next spring, expanded his comfort and knowledge against major league hitters.

Zimmermann allowed two earned runs or fewer in three consecutive starts and four of five before surrendered three in 5 2/3 innings against the Rays at Tropicana Field and landing unexpectedly on the IL. He was one of the most impressive pitchers in camp, with a stretch of 10 strikeouts in nine scoreless, one-hit innings over three Grapefruit League games.

Impressive to the point where he was anointed the No. 3 starter behind John Means and Matt Harvey.

Where he slots next April also depends on offseason free agent signings and possible trades. Whether Zimmermann makes the club depends if he avoids the kind of command breakdowns that cost Akin last spring.

Kelvin Gutiérrez is expected to get one more start at third base before shutting down, a player who’d probably ignore the season tapping on his shoulder. Don’t turn around when you built a nine-game hitting streak going into yesterday, slashing .348/.412/.543 (16-for-46) with three doubles and two home runs, and flashing a plus arm and occasional dynamic stop at the corner.

“We let (Maikel) Franco go and Gutiérrez got an opportunity to play and has done a really good job defensively,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “As of late, he’s swinging the bat much better. He’s become interesting in that, a guy who’s got a lot of tools. He showed you the power (Friday) night. He’s hit one the other way for a homer and now he pulled a homer, and played extremely solid defense.

“So I think we’re just going to continue to evaluate and see what the 40-man looks like here at the end of the year and into the offseason.”

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