The Orioles have swept the Angels- not just for the series, but for the season. Then again, if they were going to do it, they might as well do it in a year when the Angels have hovered around .500 rather than taking control of the division. Baltimore pitching allowed a total of 1 run in the entire series, coming in the 3-1 win on Friday night. No, the bats weren’t great, scoring 3, 5, and 1 runs in their three wins this weekend, but it was another display of how great pitching seems to get it done more often than great hitting. Not only did Kevin Millwood return to form, but Brad Bergesen remained on a hot streak and Jeremy Guthrie made a strong case for yet another Opening Day start in 2011. But there was more than starting pitching to this series sweep.
I know everyone wants to anoint Koji Uehara the closer, and he is certainly the best reliever on this roster right now. But it is comical the way fans and writers breaking out into hives if there isn’t an assigned closer on the team or there isn’t a designated “Ace” on the pitching staff. The title of a closer or an ace has no bearing on how the game is played whatsoever. Whether someone is titled a closer doesn’t matter, they are still a one-inning reliever. Whether someone is an ace doesn’t matter, they still pitch every 5 days. While I understand that sometimes a pitcher struggles with the game on the line, I don’t think that is enough of a factor to separate the mentally tough and assign them to a closer role. If they have made it to the majors, they are plenty tough mentally- they just might not be as good. And therein lies the issue. A “closer” is someone you have to stick with even when they start to struggle, it assumes a longer leash than for a normal reliever. There is no assigned closer on the Orioles because while Koji is pitching the best right now, if he has one or two bad outings Showalter needs the flexibility to put someone else in there, titles be damned.
On the topic of relievers, it was good to see Jim Johnson get in the game with a 5-0 lead in the 9th on Saturday and return to the form we saw back in early 2009. He has said he wants to be a starter again, and while I thought that perhaps he could be in that role in 2009, the organization seems to want him to stay in relief. I don’t blame them given the glut of starting pitching prospects (not finished products, but prospects at least) in Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Brad Bergesen and the early-season bullpen struggles of this team, but I hope Johnson gets his shot at some point. Right now I am glad he is at least healthy and can hopefully be one less pitching spot to worry about in 2011.
Brad Bergesen has been an enigma this season, bouncing between early injury concerns to completely losing his delivery and spending stretches at Norfolk before being yanked back to Camden Yards. Many fans have wondered whether his strong performance in 2009 was nothing more than an aberration and that this season showed that this former 4th round pick wasn’t part of the Orioles future. There is still a decent shot that he might not be, but Bergy may finally be finding the form that made him an early Rookie of the Year candidate last season. Over the past month he has seen his ERA drop from 6.63 to 5.55, despite a two-start stretch in which he allowed 8 ER in 12.1 innings. The great thing about a sinker/slider pitcher like Bergesen is that when he has his command down, he can go 7 or 8 innings every time, as he induces early swings and easy ground balls. If his command is off, then he is extended batting practice for the opposition. For now I am willing to count on the current version of Bergesen, rediscovering the form that makes him a unique and intriguing part of the future.
Of course, this series did give us slight reasons for alarm, with Brian Roberts and Adam Jones both going down with hip and shoulder injuries, respectively. Neither is on the DL, but with Jones’ and Roberts’ injury histories in recent years, it could be cause for concern in the short term. The Orioles managed to win without either in the lineup, but with Roberts just starting to return to form (a hit in 9 of his last 10 games) and Jones having not finished a season healthy in his first two years with the club, fans should hope that these injuries don’t get any worse. The shoulder should be fine, but Roberts’ hip strain could be connected to his plethora of injuries earlier this year.
Baltimore also managed to pull off something in this series that they hadn’t done since June of 2008- had a winning month. It was their first winning August since 1997, and could mark the abrupt end of the August/September swoon that has haunted this team for over a decade. It is too soon of course to see whether the O’s will implode in the final month of the season, but their play on the field has a certain intensity that has been lacking in recent years. The Orioles have a brutal upcoming schedule, facing the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees in three consecutive series, so there may not be much good news between now and when the Orioles travel to Detroit to take on the reeling Tigers. But such is the AL East.