Believe it or not, the Orioles are still playing, though this isn’t the story of a scrappy overlooked team anymore.  Last night Baltimore shut out the Boys of Tropicana 4-0 to end their 4 game skid, which included a now-commonplace sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays.  Can someone explain to me what lets the Orioles win series against the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays, but they are unable to put away the Blue Jays?  The good news is the O’s don’t have to play them anymore.  The bad news is, the season is about to end anyway.  With 3 games left in the season, the Orioles need to go 3-3 to have a better record than they did last season, which if you had asked me in March I would have said you weren’t saying much.  If you had asked me in June, I probably would have said you were insane.  Ask me today, and, well, I would hope so.

The four game skid was at one point ominous and at the same time a reminder of how flawed this team still is.  When the O’s were riding high at twelve games over .500 during Buck Showalter’s tenure, even the most optimistic fan knew that couldn’t possibly last.  Baltimore still lacks power at the corner infield positions, a shortstop (Izturis has good D, I know that, but there have got to be better offensive shortstops with decent defense), and bullpen help (with Johnson, Uehara, Gonzalez, Hernandez, and Berken all going down for significant parts of the season, they need some insurance).  However, their 4-6 loss to Toronto was unique in that it harkened back to the same issues that plagued this team earlier in the season- racking up hits and failing to get a runner across, Matt Albers breaking down, and a young starting pitcher (Chris Tillman) getting lit up and taking a step back. 

That said, last night Brian Matusz did what a future ace is supposed to do- stop the bleeding by pitching a dominant performance and doing anything it took to get the win.  He managed to throw just 94 pitches in seven innings, lowering his ERA to 4.40 with a mark of just 1.78 over his last 7 starts.  I won’t for a moment say that Matusz will have the same level of success next season, but it bodes well for the most heavily hyped pitcher of the famed “Cavalry”. 

While Brad Bergesen, as I noted in my column last week, has stepped up his play in recent weeks and Brian Matusz is becoming the King of the AL East (3.70 ERA against AL East opponents), the Orioles face a major question with Chris Tillman.  In his last start, he was so concerned with not allowing walks that he laid three pitches right over the plate for home runs.  He has been a mixed bag this season, with truly spectacular games at AAA Norfolk and the occasional  incredible performance with Baltimore, like that July 10 7-inning, 2 hitter against Texas.  It has been a while since Tillman was able to string together two quality starts, and he has already walked 5 more batters that last season in 19 fewer innings.  Either his confidence is shot or he doesn’t belong on this level.  Either way, I am not ready to pull the plug on Tillman, but I am also not ready to let him stay with the club when 2011 gets underway.

Moreover, it is not time to trade Chris Tillman, though I have heard that bandied about in a few places.  Not only is it not Andy MacPhail’s style to trade young pitching, but the very reason fans want to trade Tillman is the same reason the O’s shouldn’t do it.  Chris is pitching so poorly right now that his trade value is deeply diminished.  There is no way Baltimore gets a decent package of prospects that would merit giving up a top pitching prospect like Tillman.  He is still young, and his dominance of AAA at the age of 22 tells me that there are better times to come.  The play of Clay Buckholz is a good example of a highly touted prospect who struggled in the majors and was often the target of trade conversations.  Despite pressure to make the move, Boston stuck with Buckholz even while bouncing him between AAA and the majors.  It has paid of this season, as he has become one of their best starters.

I am not saying Tillman is the next Buckholz, but that it is worthwhile for the Orioles to stick with their investment for a little while longer.