SALISBURY, Md. - Take a team that has gotten outstanding starting pitching and timely hitting. A team that has solid defense, great chemistry and likes to keep it loose. A team that features a young, progressive-thinking coaching staff. And you can get a team playing some good baseball.
Make that great baseball.
But even those connected with the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds - the Orioles’ affiliate in the South Atlantic League - are honest to admit they could not have expected anything like this.
Delmarva has started the year going a robust 24-5, the best record of any of the 120 teams in full-season minor league baseball. The Shorebirds already have had winning streaks of 10 and seven games. They are 12-3 at home, 12-2 on the road, 7-0-2 in nine series and 9-1 in one-run games. They keep leads but also come from behind, going 5-3 when trailing after six innings and 4-3 when down after seven.
This remarkable start has been stunning and impressive. And despite a blowout loss last night, very welcome by fans in this town 30 minutes from Ocean City. They haven’t seen a playoff team here since 2005, or a championship in the SAL since 2000.
“You can’t help but just smile and say, ‘Man that is pretty cool.’ To be honest I never saw this coming,” the Shorebirds’ 33-year-old manager, Kyle Moore, said yesterday afternoon. “And I also don’t want to get too wrapped up in it on May 8.
“But at the end of the game, when you do have a few hours to enjoy it, it’s really special. It’s not something I’ve ever been a part of or seen. I’m really still trying to figure this thing out. What is this team made of that they just refuse to lose and they don’t give anything away? I just sit back and it’s pretty awesome.”
The great team chemistry has been a part of this start, several players and coaches said during interviews yesterday at Perdue Stadium. But they’ve also got a 2.47 rotation ERA and team ERA of 2.89 that is second in the league. They’re batting .261 to lead the league, and rank third in the 14-team circuit in runs. Delmarva leads the SAL in fielding percentage and has the fewest errors.
So, they are good, and also loose and playing relaxed.
“I’ll add that this clubhouse is the best clubhouse I’ve ever seen,” Moore said. “Of course, winning helps. But just as far as the camaraderie of the players, they play for each other. Which is not something I’ve ever seen in the minors. You have to play well to get promoted, and sometimes everyone is playing for themselves. But, for whatever reason, in that clubhouse, it’s a little different. They hang out after the game and they play for each other. Which certainly has to play into the success we’ve had, especially late in the games. I couldn’t be more proud of the results, but again, it’s only May 8.”
The rotation has seen Grayson Rodriguez (3-0, 0.89 ERA), Blaine Knight (3-0, 0.68 ERA), Gray Fenter (2-1, 2.05 ERA), Ofelky Peralta (2-0, 1.07 ERA) and Drew Rom (1-0, 2.53 ERA) excel. Shorebirds pitchers have fanned 306 in 252 innings with a .209 average against. Infielder Adam Hall, 19, is batting .330, outfielder Robbie Thorburn has hit .382 in nine games, outfielder Doran Turchin has driven in 20 and catcher Daniel Fajardo has hit .306 while throwing out 8 of 14 trying to steal.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Fenter, who looks strong following Tommy John surgery in April 2016. “Everyone here, it’s like one big family. It’s almost like a high school summer team. Everyone shows up to the park, we have a good time and when it’s time to play, we play baseball. We always find a way to come back. We don’t score a lot of runs every night, but somehow if we give up seven, our hitters find a way to put up eight. We’re all in sync.”
Added hitting coach Tom Eller, new to the Orioles after 12 seasons as head coach at Harford (Md.) Community College: “I was thinking we might not win that many games, but we’d focus on player development. And in that focus on player development, we’ve won a lot of games. It’s been outstanding. I love working with this group and the different characters we have on this team.
“This is just a guess, but I’m guessing we are one of the younger coaching staffs in the organization. We’re having a lot of fun, and we know what we are trying to translate to the players and how to translate it.”
He’s right about the youth on the staff. Eller is 36 and pitching coach Justin Ramsey is 37. He’s in his first year with the Orioles organization after four seasons at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla. Development coach Pat Leyland, 27, is in his third season with the Orioles. He is the son of Jim Leyland, who had a 22-year career as a manager in the majors.
Fenter said that the chemistry is part of the winning but didn’t lead to the winning. He sees this as a close-knit team no matter the won-loss record.
“I think that is a part of who we are and it would be that way no matter,” he said. “There are 140 games, and it’s hard to play 140 if you are dead serious the whole time. So, we have a loose team.”
But Turchin did rate the chemistry as a key element of the winning.
“That is a huge part of why we are doing well right now,” he said. “We’re staying loose. Yes, this is our job and it’s a grind, but it’s not your normal 9-to-5 job. This is what we love to do, and we’re blessed to have these opportunities. So we are going to take advantage of it. But at the same time, we believe in each other. Overall, when you put it all together, we are having fun playing with each other, and we’re giving our best for nine innings every day.”
If you ask Moore to point out a few aspects of his team that have stood out the most, he begins with pitching. The Shorebirds rotation is 10-2 with a 2.47 ERA.
“I think two big things for us are, No. 1, our pitching has had a lot of success,” Moore said. “They have really executed the plan they’ve been given and really developed. The bullpen has been awesome. The second thing I would say is the resiliency of our team. They just don’t give away at-bats. No matter what the scoreboard says or how the game is going. All the way from breaking up a no-hitter with one out in the ninth to coming back on the road, we were down three and we put up four in the eighth. The offense is extremely resilient.”
And yes, no one expected this, but the Shorebirds are going to ride the wave as long as they can.
“I thought we had a good little team and I was excited to get this going, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” added Moore. “Once it kind of started rolling, we started to expect to win, no matter the inning or the score. Then it started feeding off itself and it got contagious. Guys started seeing positive things. Didn’t expect that, but I did really like our guys leaving camp.”
And even in a sport where there is a game almost every day, Moore tries to take some time to enjoy this remarkable start.
“I try to do that at the end of the game with our staff,” he said. “We like to sit in there and talk about the game. Hang out and go get dinner. That has been our time to enjoy it. Baseball is such an everyday thing, when you wake up the next day you have something to prepare for. But for sure, when the game is over until we hit the pillow, we enjoy this.”
About last night: So on the night I show up to cover this team off to this amazing start, they throw in their first clunker of the year in a 9-0 loss to Greensboro at Perdue Stadium. I think I blame myself! The Shorebirds were held to four hits and saw a seven-game win streak end. They’ll play a morning game today beginning at 10:35 with a marquee matchup. Reigning Orioles Minor League Pitcher of the Month Rodriguez goes for Delmarva against SAL co-wins leader Osvaldo Bido (5-0, 1.26) for Greensboro. No worries, Shorebird fans. I’m a long way from Salisbury today.
I had a great time visiting the Shorebirds yesterday, got several good interviews and will be rolling them out over the next week or two in this space. So get ready for more Shorebirds talk and stories coming your way.