It seems like every series under Buck Showalter comes with a “first time the Orioles have done X since 20XX”, and this is no exception. With yesterday’s 9-1 pasting of the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles have won their first series at Fenway since 2004. I had to read that twice just to make sure I got it right. Not once? In 6 years? With his record as Orioles manager at 29-17, this team is playing better on both sides of the ball than their next-door neighbor, the Ravens- how often have Baltimore fans been able to say that? Unfortunately, this season won’t continue with postseason aspirations. Last night’s win was keyed by the pitching of Brad Bergesen, one of the many turnaround stories of the last two months of the season. If he is able to anchor his spot in the rotation, will be one of the building blocks for a successful 2011.
In 2009, when people started talking about “the cavalry” of young, hot pitching prospects, the names were simple- Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta. All three were recent picks and products of the Andy MacPhail Era in Baltimore, and carried with them the hype (and burden) that comes with all supposed franchise saviors. Brad Bergesen wasn’t among them. In fact, when Andy MacPhail took over, Bergesen was toiling his way through Delmarva and Frederick, the 2004 4th round pick barely a mention among the O’s prospects. But in 2009 it wasn’t Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, or Jake Arrieta who made the biggest positive impact on the Baltimore Orioles (Arrieta was busy in Norfolk)- it was Brad Bergesen, until a Billy Butler line drive ended his season.
I will admit, love watching Brad Bergesen pitch- when his breaking balls are dropping off the face of the Earth and hitters are weakly tapping into easy groundouts, it is some of the most impressive stuff you can see out of a pitcher. Yes, the wild strikeouts are fun, but they come with walks and sloppy pitching that makes anyone with a strong arm an automatic superstar. Give me a guy like Bergesen, who can go deep into the ballgame and completely confuse an opposing lineup, forcing the power hitter into grounders and neutralizing the home run threat. Alas, a strategy like that does not succeed without exceptional control and perfect mechanics, which makes it at the same time all the more impressive and precarious. Brad Bergesen lost those mechanics earlier this season and while riding the train from Norfolk to Baltimore this season caused fans to wonder if last year’s early ROY candidate was just an aberration.
I held firm that it wasn’t, though it was more out of a hope than anything else. We have seen pitchers just lose their arm angle or their throwing motion and just never get it back- Rich Hill is a notable example- and exchange their incredible off-speed pitches for journeyman status. Bergesen perhaps pushed himself too hard to start the season, from injuring his arm filming a MASN commercial to just being thrown into the rotation too soon, once again the organization’s desperate need for pitching overwhelmed what was probably the prudent choice in that case. Now Bergesen seems to be back to his early 2009 form (or better?), lowering his ERA from 6.63 to 4.90 over his last 10 starts. Over that span, 8 of his starts have gone at least 6 innings, with 2 ending in complete games. He only had one outing when he allowed more than 3 earned runs. Over his last 5 starts, he has allowed just 6 earned runs over 34 2/3 innings.
Once again, much of this can be traced back to Buck Showalter. Prior to a game against the Chicago White Sox, Showalter again reached into his motivational bag of tricks to help get Bergesen back on track- he told him that if he listened in on their scouting report on him, he would think he was Cy Young. It falls in line with Showalter’s ongoing message to his starters to pitch to your strengths, not to the hitters’ supposed weaknesses. Whether Bergesen’s return to form is the result of added confidence or just correcting his mechanics we can’t know for sure, but it is certainly reassuring for an Orioles team that needs all the pitching it can get.