Baltimore's blueprint for putting the O's back in October
To return to the postseason, the Orioles may need to do something in their final 30 games that they haven't done all year in any 30-game stretch: go 20-10. Baltimore, which begins a weekend series against the Yankees in New York tonight, trails the A's by three games in the loss column and the Rays by four games in the race for the second wild card berth.
Tampa Bay (15-15) and Oakland (15-14) could play mediocre baseball the rest of the way and get to 90 wins. The Orioles would need that unprecedented 20-10 run to get to 91, but don't count them out. Here is what they need to fall into place to grab a playoff spot:
• A jolt from rookie pitcher Kevin Gausman. Baltimore doesn't have enough big arms on its staff. The Orioles rank 25th in the majors in ERA and are the third worst team in baseball at getting hitters to swing and miss, behind only two also-rans, the Twins and the Astros. But their defense is so good that it has helped to keep the team in contention despite the lack of quality stuff on the mound. Still the O's could use some shutdown pitchers. The right-handed Gausman, who was just recalled from the minors this week, can help. Manager Buck Showalter can deploy him as a weapon out of the bullpen, plugging him into mid-game emergencies to snuff out rallies. "He has a chance to be real good down the road," Showalter said. "Not just good. I mean real good."
• No more giveaways by Jim Johnson and the bullpen. Baltimore was the best team in one-run games in baseball history last year (29-9), but is next-to-last in such games this year (15-24) -- which as I forecast before the season was entirely predictable. The Orioles need to win close games from here on out, something that made their 3-2 victory over the Red Sox on Thursday "absolutely huge," according to center fielder Adam Jones. Johnson, who leads the majors with 41 saves this season (and who also leads MLB with nine blown saves) closed it out. Credit also goes to ace Chris Tillman, who gave Baltimore seven strong innings in what was only the third time this year that a team beat Boston in Fenway Park without issuing a walk.
• A second wind from Matt Wieters. No catcher is even within 70 innings of the MLB-leading 979 1/3 innings Wieters has logged behind the plate this year. His bat is dragging. Since July 26 Wieters is hitting .146/.198/.323, pulling his average down to .227. Like the Cardinals' Yadier Molina, Wieters is so important on defense that the Orioles need him in the lineup.
• A little help from the DH spot. Baltimore has tried 14 different designated hitters this season -- none of them as many as 30 times -- who have combined to rank 11th in batting average, 12th in OPS and 14th in RBI and OBP. The Orioles have basically punted on the position all year, though they added Michael Morse in a waiver trade on Friday. Wilson Betemit and Danny Valencia will also need to contribute.
Is a 20-10 run possible? Put it this way: Last season the Orioles were hanging onto a second wild-card spot with 30 games left. They wound up posting the best record in the league over the rest of the season: 20-10.
I wonder if this has ever happened before: On Thursday the Yankees had no one under the age of 30 among the 10 players in their starting lineup. The graybeards, in fact, had an average age of 35: Brett Gardner, 30, Derek Jeter, 39, Curtis Granderson, 32, Alfonso Soriano, 37, Alex Rodriguez, 38, Lyle Overbay, 36, Mark Reynolds, 30, Ichiro Suzuki, 39, Chris Stewart, 31 and Hiroki Kuroda, 38.
Actually, it has happened before -- New York had done it the previous day, even with a different pitcher (Andy Pettitte, 41), a different DH (Vernon Wells, 34), and a different second baseman (Robinson Cano, 30).
The pennant races as they should be end Sunday. That's when teams can add as many as 15 players to their active rosters, and games devolve into an extended version of bullpen matchup. That means more pitching changes, more dead time, longer games and more results decided by roster sizes that have nothing to do with the first five months of the season.
Dumb? You bet. Fewer things in baseball are dumber than two teams playing a game with an unequal number of players. The Cardinals' 2011 run to a championship would not have been possible without manager Tony La Russa squeezing every bit of manpower out of an extended September roster while his team played a raft of close and extra-inning games.
The mystery is why MLB continues to do nothing about the farce of September baseball. General managers have talked for years about moving to a designated daily roster of between 25-28 players. For instance, you can call up as many players as you want, but before each game you hand in an active roster. That way, at least both teams are playing with the same number of players, and nobody winds up with six left-handers in the bullpen. But for all the talk, nothing is ever done about it. I have not heard a single good argument for why it makes sense to keep the present system.