Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scarred for life

This team is killing me.

We are just over a week away from it being June and the Orioles are in first place in the AL East. They are 12 games over .500. They have the best record in the American League.

And I have not been able to enjoy a moment of it.

After the way the team closed 2010 fans had hope. In retrospect they probably had too much hope. When the team started 2011 6-1 many fans drank the Kool-Aid. So when the team fell off of a cliff through the majority of the 2011 season (before relishing in the spoiler role in September) it hurt. It hurt a lot more than we thought it would. Now I am trying to not be a pessimist, but I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. So in order to stop that, let's look at what is going on with the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.

Now the O's are having their best season since 2005, when they were in first well into June before an old roster and some nasty steroid business (be careful where you wag that finger, Raffy) tanked the team and Lee Mazzilli's coaching career. But this team isn't the same as the 2005 team. This is not a team held together with spit and baling wire. There is a core of young talent both in the field and on the mound. The much hyped - including by me - Young Guns seem to have settled into their roles and while none of them wound up being an ace I would say that Jake Arrieta is a solid 3rd starter and Matusz is a tweener 3rd and 4th starter. I think Zach Britton pans out to be square into the 2nd starter slot if he is fully healthy, although it is too early to know for sure (I shall not opine on Dylan Bundy just yet). The bullpen has looked really good, especially Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson basically making an Orioles game a 7 inning affair if the Birds have the lead. In the field Adam Jones looks like he has finally moved from "really good" to "MVP caliber" (BTW - I will be starting a "sign the man" campaign soon). Matt Wieters might not be able to hit a bases empty grand slam like was prophesied but is a top 3 catcher in the game both offensively and defensively. JJ Hardy is a calming influence (not to mention a plus defender with some bat skills). Nick Markakis is probably not worth the contract he signed but it is the kind of deal that a team has to make in order to convince other players (like Wieters and Jones) that the team is serious about winning. As far as I am concerned the jury is still out on Chris Davis at 1st base. Remember, this is the first time he has ever had regular playing time in the majors. He has been streaky with the bat and a wee bit south of average with the glove, but a .300 average w/6 HR and 16 RBI are not the worst stats in the world (we could have Garrett Atkins). His on base and slugging percentages are both higher than his career averages (as is his batting average), so let's see how the season plays out.

I don't think we can say enough about the work that Buck Showalter has done, but a LOT of the credit has to go to pitching coach Rick Adair. He has brought a professionalism and technical knowledge that was sorely lacking last year, and he has deftly handled the fragile egos and elbows of the pitching staff. The improvement we have seen this year in Matusz (last night's start reminded me of the way he closed out 2010 when he gave enough of a glimpse of what he could do that he was a consensus candidate for American League Rookie Of The Year before his season fell apart) and the emergence of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen need to all be at least partly attributed to Adair's work. Jim Presley is also doing a nice job as hitting coach. And quick poll: how many of you know the name of the 3rd base coach without looking it up? Probably almost nobody. And that means that DeMarlo Hale is doing a good job there. The only time a fan base knows the 3rd base coach's name is if he screws up or if he is a popular former player (much the same lot in life as the long snapper in football).

The fans are starting to come back out. There is chatter between strangers about the team (and for once it isn't a montage reminiscent of the opening scenes of Major League). National pundits are starting to have nice things to say (some more begrudgingly than others). The refrain is often "sooner or later people are going to have to start taking the Baltimore Orioles seriously", but it beats being a punch line for the late night talk shows for a change. All we can do is hope that they can keep it up.