Last night, in the midst of Reggie Bush handing back Heisman awards and the general din of NFL Week 1 overreaction, the Orioles managed to win their 4th straight series and their second straight game against the Blue Jays, to whom they had lost all 12 previous meetings. Baltimore is winning against the division, they are winning on the road (first time with two consecutive winning road trips since 2008), and they are now winning in blowout fashion after putting up 11 on Toronto yesterday. It is old news to say that the O’s have played far better than anyone could have expected over the past month and a half, but it is the long-term outlook for this team and its young talent that will make the last two weeks worth watching.
Orioles fans entered 2010 hoping for signs of concrete progress on the parts of their young nucleus of talent, including Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Matt Wieters, and Brad Bergesen. There is no sense in rehashing their struggles early in the season, but instead highlighting the change in attitude that has allowed them to have a distinct turnaround to their seasons.
Buck Showalter, quite simply, has told them how good they are. For all the hype they had received coming to Baltimore, I think we all assumed that if anything, these players were in over their heads with all the praise and anticipation. Lost in all of that, according to the skipper, was that they lacked confidence in their ability to truly compete at this level. Since Showalter took over it has been a recurring theme, from telling Brad Bergesen that if he listened to the opponent’s scouting report he would think he was Cy Young to forcing Matt Wieters to swing on that next pitch just to show him he can get a good hit. I have never seen a manager take such an active role in managing a player down to each pitch in order to achieve the desired attitude in his players.
He is fulfilling the expectation of him as a micromanager, but right now is hitting all the right buttons for this team. Most recently he told reporters last night that he told his pitchers to have no regrets when they went out to the mound, to not have to go home and feel like they lost because they didn’t attack the hitter. I have heard many O’s managers tell their pitchers to attack the zone, but not many who managed to get through to them.
I would ordinarily chalk this all up to typical manager-speak, but the results are startling. Since July 30, Jake Arrieta has lowered his ERA from 5.47 to 4.66 and hasn’t allowed more than 3 walks in any game, answering questions regarding his control. Matusz has gone at least 6 innings in 6 of his past 7 starts, cutting out his last start in which he was removed after an inning for precautionary reasons. The much-maligned Chris Tillman, who popped up and down from Norfolk to Baltimore all season, has allowed just 4 earned over 12 innings in two starts since he came back. Brad Bergesen may have finally returned to form, lowering his ERA by a full point since July 31, including a complete game 2-hitter on August 11.
But it isn’t just limited to pitchers. Near the end of August, Matt Wieters was hitting just .239 and struggling with a long, looping swing as he had all season. Since then Showalter has taken a personal interest in showing Wieters that he belongs on this stage and encouraging him to be more aggressive at the plate. Wieters is currently hitting .259, including a 3-5 night yesterday.
Of course it could be pointed out that Felix Pie has cooled off significantly, Josh Bell continues to strike out at an astounding rate, and not all of the young players have performed to expectations. However, it should be noted that while the team as a whole has gotten wins, it has been driven by individual performances by the young talent that the Orioles were hoping would meet their lofty expectations back in April. It may have taken longer than expected, but it seems that these players finally believe in themselves, their ability, and the Orioles. Perhaps a change in attitude was all this team needed after all.