It's easy to discount the Baltimore Orioles and their 14-8 start. Even Orioles fans will agree with that, I suppose -- 14 consecutive losing seasons, six consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses, a decade of bad pitching, bad fielding, bad free agents and bad ownership. It's the Orioles. It's been a long time since they mattered.
But we have to pay attention after this start. At least for a few weeks, right? They are 14-8, they are tied for first with the Tampa Bay Rays in baseball's brawniest division, they've won six of seven and they've won games in a peculiar, un-Orioles-like fashion -- great pitching and dramatic comebacks. The Orioles allowed just 13 runs over this seven-game stretch. Sunday's win was the kind you put on a season highlight DVD as they scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth -- capped by Wilson Betemit's walk-off three-run homer against Oakland's Grant Balfour.
"We got a team where everybody pulls together," Betemit said after the game. "Everybody knows how to play, knows how to win, and that's what we do."
Now, maybe Betemit just got caught up in the happy celebration. He probably doesn't realize how that quote sounds so odd to Orioles fans. Then again, he's new to Baltimore and isn't trapped by that cloud of losing seasons. But it's also true that Baltimore is winning these kinds of games -- according to Nick Faleris of the Camden Depot blog, that's five comeback wins in the seventh inning or later for the Orioles, matching their 2011 total.
Nolan Reimold (.333), Adam Jones (.330), Robert Andino (.324) and Chris Davis (.319) are all hitting above .300. Matt Wieters has six homer runs and a team-leading 15 RBIs. The Orioles are sixth in the AL in runs even though J.J. Hardy is hitting .181 and Mark Reynolds is hitting .150 without a home run.
Now, this is where I rain on the Orioles' parade a little bit. Those four guys hitting over .300? They've combined for just 13 walks but 60 strikeouts. Can they keep up that production? The low walk rate means the Orioles are just 10th in the AL in on-base percentage, so they have been relying on the home run (29 in 22 games).
But it's been the rotation that has provided the biggest lift. After ranking last in the AL in 2011 with a 5.39 ERA, the rotation has posted a 3.65 ERA so far, led by newcomer Jason Hammel's 1.73 mark. But Wei-Yin Chen has been a nice surprise as well, with a 2.22 ERA. The 26-year-old Taiwanese left-hander came over from Japan and has a four-pitch repertoire that isn't overpowering but he's fanned 19 batters in 24.2 innings, a good enough rate to survive.
Now ... this is where I again in some rain. While Jake Arrieta has looked good, left-hander Brian Matusz has again struggled, although his last start was his best. The Orioles are still looking for the promising lefty of 2010, but he's at least throwing 90 mph again. Tommy Hunter is a finesse right-hander who has survived despite allowing eight home runs so far. But what happens when he starts going through those AL East lineups start after start?
Speaking of which. The Orioles play the Yankees and Red Sox this week. They already went 0-3 earlier in the season against New York and this time have to play the Yankees on the road. This will be a good test to see what kind of team the Orioles really have. Not to disagree with Mr. Betemit, but I have doubts whether this is a team that knows how to win. Last year, the O's went 13-23 against New York and Boston; in 2010, they went 14-22; in 2009, 7-29. The last time they won a season series against either team was 2004, when they went 10-9 against Boston.
Series of the week: Orioles at Yankees, Monday through Wednesday
Jason Hammel (3-0, 1.73) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (1-3, 4.38), 7:05 ET
Brian Matusz (0-3, 5.66) vs. Phil Hughes (1-3, 7.88), 7:05 ET
Jake Arrieta (1-2, 4.45) vs. Ivan Nova (3-0, 5.18), 7:05 ET (ESPN)
Hammel has thrived by throwing lots of grounders -- he's fourth among all starting pitchers in groundball rate so far, at 61.8 percent. The O's hope to take advantage of a struggling Hughes on Tuesday. He's lasted just 16 innings over four starts, giving up five home runs and a .329 average. Nova is 3-0 -- he hasn't lost a start since last June 3. But he's allowed a .343 average, though his walk rate is down and strikeout rate way up from 2011.
Three pitching matchups to watch
The Braves have quietly gone 14-8 with a +27 run differential, third-highest in baseball behind the Rangers and Cardinals. Filthy Hamels (30 strikeouts, three walks) will be a fun test for the NL's leading offense (tied with the Cardinals at 5.1 runs per game). Beachy has a 1.05 ERA, although that figure has been helped by four unearned runs. Still, Beachy has allowed a .191 average through four starts and has improved his groundball rate from 33.8 percent in 2011 to 47.3, leading to just one home run allowed.
Peavy looks rejuvenated, the Peavy of a Cy Young past. He's thrown two straight complete games, has held hitters to a .162 average, has allowed one home run and has a 33/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Impressively, four of his starts have come against the Red Sox, Tigers, Orioles and Rangers, four of the AL's best offenses so far. In short, he's been dominant, maybe the best pitcher in baseball in April if you factor in the competition. Detroit's rookie left-hander has been impressive in his four starts -- allowing one run each time out (three of those on home runs). Smyly throws in the 90-93 range with his four-seamer, mixing in a slider and cut fastball and occasional changeup. He allowed two hits in six innings against the Yankees in his previous start.
Greinke had one blow-up start in which he allowed eight runs, but has otherwise allowed a total of five runs in his four other starts, two of which were wins over the Cardinals. I'd like to see Greinke get a little more economical with his pitches and prove he can pitch more than seven innings. Greinke pitched at least eight innings 10 times with the Royals in 2010, but has to do it with the Brewers. Bumgarner has reeled off four straight wins and has yet to walk more than two batters in a game.
Heat map of the week
Courtesy of Mark Simon we have a little comparison between Albert Pujols and red-hot Matt Kemp. One big difference has been their success with two strikes. Pujols has faced 50 two-strike plate appearances and has totaled 11 hits plus walks (and no home runs, of course). Kemp has faced 45 two-strike plate appearances but has 18 hits plus walks, including four home runs. Another big difference, as you can see on the heat map below on their overall production in different zones: Kemp is 8-for-12 (with five home runs) on pitches down the middle while Pujols is hitless in that area. Maybe that's reason for Angels fans to be optimistic: He's due to start pounding those mistakes.
Player on the hot seat: Mat Latos, Reds
The Reds gave up a lot to get Latos from the Padres in the offseason, a guy acquired to fit behind Johnny Cueto in the rotation, but in reality expected to be Cincy's best pitcher. He's been a huge disappointment, with one win in five starts. He had one seven-inning scoreless stint against the Giants, but has otherwise failed to fool many batters. Opponents are hitting .304 off him and he's fanned just 18 batters in 28.2 innings, after averaging 8.9 K's per nine the past two seasons. His velocity has been fine; hitters are just putting more balls in play. After hitters to swing and miss his slider 23 percent of the time last year, they're doing so 17 percent this season. He's also allowed a much higher line-drive percentage and his slider and sinker.
(Oh, yes, this doesn't mean Pujols isn't still on the hot seat.)
Player to watch: Bryce Harper
No introduction needed. He's up, he went 2-for-6 with a double, walk and sac fly in his two games and I'll be watching as many of his at-bats as possible this week. You can check him out on "Sunday Night Baseball" against the Phillies.
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