Friday, May 11, 2012

Birdland Bulletin: Beasts of the East

What if I told you that the top two teams in the A.L. East were facing off in a series this weekend? Is that something that you might be interested in?  Well unlike Bob Ryan’s litany of empty promises, this promise is a reality.  But first, cancel those plane tickets to Boston because the Red Sox are in last place. Those train tickets to New York are also worthy of a refund. Go ahead, read those sentences again and let them marinate. AHHHHH, that felt good. 

The Tampa Bay Rays at 20-12 are in town to face the 20-12 Baltimore Orioles.  Yes, I know it’s only May so you will have to pardon my excitement because we have not had too many of these series in the past decade or so. 

On April 30, the Orioles embarked on a 2-week stretch that would test their metal and prove whether their hot start was fact or fiction.  Well after a series win IN the Bronx and a sweep AT Fenway, the O’s came home to face the gauntlet that is the Texas Josh Hamiltons.  The best part about that series is that it is over and it is in the past.  The Orioles have still looked good against the bigger teams in the A.L. and this weekend will be a true litmus test.  The Orioles have a great opportunity to flex their muscle in the A.L. East and take a step out in front of the Rays.  There are key injuries on both sides with the Rays without their three-hole hitter and team leader Evan Longoria, and the Orioles skipping Jason Hammel’s next start due to fluid build up in his knee.

QUICK SIDEBAR: The early returns of the Jeremy Guthrie trade have been fantastic.  Matt Lindstrom has an ERA of 1.29 in 14.0 innings of work while striking out 14.  Jason Hammel has been a revelation.  He leads the team in wins (4), K’s (38), and he leads all Orioles starters in ERA (2.09).  He has been commanding his fastball and his two-seamer has more run than my shorts after eating the Chili Taters from Hard Times.  Hopefully this knee injury is just some fluid build up and nothing to worry about because he has been the Orioles Ace in the first month-plus of the season.

The Orioles lineup is slightly more productive than the Rays, while the Rays possess a superior starting rotation.  Therefore the x-factor in this series will be the battle of the bullpens.  The Orioles bullpen has been fantastic led by the back end arms of Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, and the aforementioned Matt Lindstrom.  Righties Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala both have ERA’s under 2.00 and have looked good in a pinch.  Heck even Kevin Gregg did not look terrible over the weekend in Beantown.  But just like having sex with a model…how long can that really last?  Let’s hope Gregg can stay effective this weekend.

While the Orioles have the 2nd best bullpen ERA in the Majors (2.19), Tampa Bay comes in ranked 25th with an ERA of 4.40.  Tampa Closer Fernando Rodney has been locked in, going 9 for 9 in save opportunities with an ERA of 0.57.  Opponents are batting .179 versus Rodney.  J.P Howell is having a bit of a bounce back so far this season and Wade Davis has transitioned nicely into the Rays pen.  After that it gets uglier than Union Jack’s when the lights come on at the end of the night.  The Orioles have the edge in bullpens, but let’s hope the Orioles starters can pitch like we know they can and the bullpen will not have to be over taxed.

Game 1:
Jeremy Hellickson (3-0 2.75) vs. Dana Eveland (2012 Debut)
On paper the edge goes to the Rays, but on paper the Orioles have been underdogs all year. If the Orioles can get into the Rays pen early they could steal this one.

Matt Moore (1-2 5.71) vs. Brian Matusz (1-4 5.91)
The Battle of the Much Hyper and Under Achieving Left Handers.  The uber prospect Matt Moore has struggled early this year.  Brian Matusz looked awesome vs. the Yankees two starts ago and was promptly shelled by the Josh Hamiltons in his last outing.  The Rays lineup is not as vaunted as the Texas Squad so hopefully Matusz can get right in this one while the Orioles bats hopefully keep Moore’s struggles going.

James Shields (5-1 3.23) vs. Jake Arrieta (2.3 4.23)
A couple of power armed right handers toeing the rubber in this one.  Some days Arrieta looks like the Orioles ace and other days he serves up fastballs like they are the soup du jour.  Arrieta will rise to the occasion facing off against “Big Game James” and we will have a Sunday classic.

The Rays have one of the best manager's in baseball in Joe Maddon. But just because you are one of the best does not mean you are the best.  In fact the best looks something like this:

Camden Yards will be full of Birdland residents this weekend and hopefully the O’s can take the series and grab hold of first place in the A.L. East.  Win or lose, it’s just refreshing to have a big series at the Yard even if it is only May.

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