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Series With Yankees Exposes Weaknesses In Orioles Bullpen

Given how many no-names were in the Baltimore Orioles’ bullpen, I would have pegged the group to regularly give up runs when they were needed to shut the door.

That hasn’t been the case this season, though the Orioles’ weekend series vs. the Yankees exposed some of the O’s relievers.

The bullpen’s struggles came into clear view on Friday and Saturday, as the ‘pen combined to allow six runs. Cole Sulser and Travis Lakins were tagged for three runs on Friday, spoiling a solid outing from Dean Kremer than spanned five innings. And on Saturday, prospect Keegan Akin failed to stop the bleeding after Jorge Lopez was sent to the showers early, allowing three runs over 3.1 innings.

On Sunday, two other bullpen regulars struggled. Manager Brandon Hyde turned to former starter Adam Plutko as the team’s opener against the Yankees, only for him to make it through just the first inning with four earned runs to his name.

And while Bruce Zimmermann returned from Triple-A Norfolk to gift the Orioles 5.2 innings of one-run ball in relief, closer Cesar Valdez allowed three hits and one run in the ninth inning to properly scare Orioles fans into the heart wing of their local hospital.

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Summer Is Coming; O's Need To Make A Decision On Ruiz

Much like general manager Mike Elias took a flier on third baseman Maikel Franco before the 2021 season, Elias took a flier on Rio Ruiz back in 2019.

That’s standard for a team in rebuild — add former top prospect from a respected organization (Atlanta Braves) and see if a change in scenery will do him well. Ruiz was among the group of prospects that included Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, the group that would return the Braves to contender status.

Instead, Ruiz flamed out after two bad major league stints in 2017 and 2018. In 72 games as a Brave, Ruiz slashed just .189/.282/.302.

Elias had every reason to claim Ruiz off waivers. Defense had never been an issue for Ruiz at a premium position. There was reason to believe the talent was still there at the plate, even if Ruiz hadn’t shown it for a lengthy period of time.

But through 212 games as an Oriole, I think it’s fair to say that the reclamation project is over. Ruiz isn’t going to be who people thought he could be.

Serious Struggles At The Plate

Since arriving in Baltimore, Ruiz’s offensive numbers are simply not adequate. His OPS over these last three years is .672, an improvement from his days in Atlanta but well below league average. His start to the 2021 season has been particularly poor, as Ruiz has slashed .161/.247/.299 for an OPS of .546 through 31 games.

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Since Being Recalled April 18, Sulser Has Dominated For O's

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde gravitated to an unfamiliar reliever in 2020, and I never really understood why.

Watching Cole Sulser take the mound in high leverage situations gave me many a night with heartburn and indigestion. Then a 30-year-old rookie, Sulser was a nobody. There was no hype, no scout backing his potential. He was just a guy.

So when I watched Sulser get rocked outing after outing in 2020, I wondered exactly what kind of blackmail this veteran minor leaguer had over Hyde. I mean, Sulser registered a 5.56 ERA in 19 appearances, walking almost as many batters as he struck out. Sulser saved five games in 2020 but blew three other opportunities.

I even authored a column earlier this spring about Orioles reliever Tanner Scott, saying, “The days of Cole Sulser pitching the ninth need to come to a close.” I was just about done with the guy.

Good thing Sulser doesn’t listen to 26-year-old sportswriters.

Since being recalled to Baltimore on April 18, Sulser has dominated opposing hitters. He’s not just getting outs — he’s mowing down lineups with ease.

Through 12.2 innings, Sulser has allowed just two earned runs while striking out 20. His strikeout rate is up 23 percentage points from last season (42.6 from 19) and is among the league’s best.

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After Fast Start, Franco Needs to Kick it Back Into Gear

As Orioles general manager Mike Elias sought to add talent to the organization whilst in the middle of a deep and lengthy renovation job, one of the avenues he’s taken frequently is picking up flamed out prospects from other organizations.

Take Rio Ruiz, for example. The former top prospect from the Atlanta Braves never panned out in Atlanta but got a chance to revive his career in Baltimore in 2019. So far, Ruiz has been nothing more than a stopgap infielder who will likely be jettisoned once some of the Orioles’ infield prospects arrive at the major league level.

The Orioles took a flier on another talented infielder this offseason in Maikel Franco. At one point, Franco was a top-100 prospect in the Phillies organization. Since then, Franco was demoted and non-tendered in 2019 and non-tendered again in 2020 by the Royals.

So late this spring, the Orioles took a chance on Franco as an option at third base. For a bit, it seemed like Franco was going to solidify his spot in the lineup for the rest of the season. But lately, Franco is becoming more and more of a liability.

Through April, Franco’s OPS stood at .708, a mediocre but respectable number. Since the turn of the calendar, however, Franco has just three hits. And only one of those was for extra bases. Franco’s May slump has tanked his overall OPS to .599.

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There's More To Means' Story Than Throwing A No-Hitter

As I was leaving work Wednesday, I immediately checked my phone to see how the Orioles’ game was going.

I’d already received a notification that Trey Mancini hit a three-run nuke to push the O’s lead to 6-0, but I had no idea that something bigger was at play.

I looked at the box score and saw the “0 0 0” for the Seattle Mariners, which only meant one thing.

John Means was dealing.

At risk of getting pulled over by our friendly officers in blue, I drove home as fast as I could manage to make sure I didn’t miss it. I got home just in time to see the top of the ninth, and I think that’s the only time I’ve ever wished for the O’s to end their half of the inning as quickly as possible.

Means took the mound for the final time, just three outs from the first Orioles’ individual no-hitter since Jim Palmer in 1969, one of the coolest guys to ever wear black and orange. To put that into perspective, my dad, another lifelong Orioles fan, was four years old. The O’s last no-hitter, a combined effort in 1991, came three years before I was born.

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Orioles' Top Prospects Do Not Disappoint In MiLB Debut

Contain yourselves, but only a little bit.

Orioles fans across the country rejoiced Tuesday, as Minor League Baseball made its triumphant return from the COVID-19 shutdowns. For a franchise in the development phase of its rebuild, getting their minor league prospects actual game innings for the first time in over a year is critical.

Some of the Orioles’ top prospects did not disappoint.

Start with the organizations top two pitching prospects — 2018 first-round pick Grayson Rodriguez and 2017 first-round pick DL Hall. Starting for Single-A Aberdeen, Rodriguez tossed four shutout innings and allowed just one hit. And at Double-A Bowie, Hall threw 4.1 innings and allowed no runs while striking out a career-high 10 batters.

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Freddy Galvis Continues To Surprise As Orioles Win Again

Well into the midnight hour, I was laying in bed winding down after a night of bowling. I was enjoying the Orioles-Mariners game, of which the O’s were trailing 1-0.

Then, the Birds proceeded to wake me up.

Cedric Mullins hit a two-run bomb, pushing the O’s ahead. After an RBI groundout from Mikael Franco, Freddy Galvis launched another two-run bomb into the Seattle sky, giving the O’s a 5-1 lead.

So much for sleeping.

Aside from enjoying the comeback, which was exhilarating, I finally thought about Galvis, a guy who I’d written off weeks ago.

I was wrong.

Of all the Orioles hitters, I didn’t expect a 31-year-old journeyman to be a reliable force in the lineup.

I mean, how could anyone expect a shortstop who’s played on four teams in four seasons with a career OPS of .679 to provide stability and production? No reasonable person would’ve come to that conclusion.

But here we are.

Galvis’ batting line is up to .265/.315/.470, an easily respectable slash for a stopgap signing by general manager Mike Elias. After a disastrous start, Galvis has hit safely in 11 of his last 13 games, a stretch that includes three home runs.

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Overachieving O's Have Chance To Cement Their Relevance

My favorite video game to play right now is MLB The Show 21. The lead commentator for the game, former major leaguer Mark DeRosa, has a saying that sticks with me.

“By May, you really start to have an idea about what kind of season you’re going to have.”

We’ve reached the start of this pivotal month, when pretenders fall short of their April standard and start showing their true colors. Or, for teams who had a bad start, they begin to shine as the weather heats up.

The Baltimore Orioles, everyone’s favorite punching bag for the last three years, are facing this month head on. Their series win vs. the red-hot Oakland Athletics showed that.

The O’s won the first two games of the series behind rock-solid pitching from John Means and Matt Harvey, who pitched a combined 12.2 innings and allowed four runs. Means was particularly impressive, scattering three hits over seven innings on Friday while striking out nine.

The Orioles’ offense woke up on Saturday, bringing eight runs across on 10 hits. Even in the season finale defeat on Sunday, the Orioles scored five runs.

Baltimore stands at 13-15 as of May 2, and the O’s are just 3.5 games out of first place. Even if you think the Orioles are one of the worst teams in the league, you have to admit they’re at worst plucky. At best, maybe everyone in the media was wrong and this team isn’t as bad as we all thought they were.

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The Orioles Need Mountcastle To Get It Going

The oft-used phrase “sophomore slump” seems to apply to a lot of professional athletes these days, which makes sense: the opposition has had an entire offseason to adjust after a rookie season, so teams coming into matchups against a player who were blind before are now armed with enough info to tear apart your gameplan.

So when Ryan Mountcastle started off slow this season, I figured it was because teams were attacking him differently. He would need time to reformulate his approach to at-bats. Maybe a couple weeks.

But that hasn’t been the case so far. Mountcastle is slumping pretty hard — he’s slashing .167/.208/.264 through 20 games and has just one home run thus far. Mountcastle is about to enter May as one of the least productive hitters in baseball. Here’s Mountcastle’s Statcast profile (right) to make it clear.

What’s changed? Why is Mountcastle struggling so much this season? Let’s attack that problem from a couple different angles.

Pitchers Aren’t Attacking Mountcastle Much Differently

Mountcastle saw fastballs 52.7 percent of the time in 2020 and he mashed, hitting .356 and slugging .492 against those pitches. Mountcastle saw breaking balls 35.4 percent of the time in 2020 and still found success, hitting .327 and slugging .442.

In terms of pitches seen, Mountcastle is seeing slightly more breaking balls and slightly fewer fastballs than last season. His fastball percentage has dipped to 49.1 and his breaking ball percentage has climbed from 35.4 to 39.4.

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Orioles Pitching Has Thus Far Exceeded Expectations

Throughout my time as a baseball fan, which spans almost two decades, I’ve noticed that rebuilding teams usually struggle the most in the pitching department.

It’s a lot easier to develop hitters than it is to develop pitchers — hitters generally stay healthier and as hard as it is to hit a baseball, it’s a little harder to pitch effectively.

So before the season started, I expected the Baltimore Orioles to hit and score at a decent clip, but struggle in the run prevention department.

As usual, I was wrong.

Through Friday night, the Orioles are 8-11. Baltimore ranks 13th in team ERA at 4.10, which is a highly respectable number in the juiced ball era that we’re living in. That number gets better when you exclude the Orioles’ starters, as the Birds rank sixth in bullpen ERA in the major leagues.

While the offense has spent most of the season floundering — Baltimore ranks 25th in runs scored — the pitching staff has kept them in ballgames. It’s encouraging, to say the least.

I can’t shower the Orioles’ starting rotation in compliments, but they’ve generally kept their club within striking distance. Bruce Zimmermann is looking more and more like a back-end starter at the major league level, holding a 4.57 ERA through four starts. He’s allowed three or less earned runs in each of his four starts and has finished the fifth inning in three of those starts. Zimmermann’s stuff isn’t exciting, but he’s started taking advantage of his curveball more this season and he’s seeing results.

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It's A Great Plan, But Now The Real Work Starts...

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last three years is that a plan without execution is just a dream. Dreams are fleeting and fragile.

You have to do the hard work necessary to make it a reality.

There’s a lot of hard work on the horizon for Virginia Tech, who announced an ambitious capital campaign that includes $400 million in fundraising over an eight-year period for various investments in the athletic department. The Reach for Excellence campaign outlines significant boosts to the football staffing budget, a massive renovation to Cassell Coliseum and numerous investments into other sports.

The end goals look good. Tech is shooting for a $30 million “football enhancement fund” that will aim to make it easier for the Hokies to hire better coaches and more lower-level assistants, among other things. Virginia Tech is also planning various investments into their non-revenue sports, helping with facility upgrades and enhanced nutritional support for athletes.

Don’t forget the headliner of it all — a $50 million renovation project that will modernize and revamp Cassell Coliseum into one of the nicest and most unique venues in college athletics.

Now none of these plans are necessarily brand-new — Virginia Tech has been talking about increasing the football program’s budget for years and the Cassell renovations have been in the works for just as long. But this is the first time it’s all been laid out and shared with the fanbase in a detailed way.

That’s cause for excitement.

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