Steady on D, Franco seeks answers at plate

May 15th, 2021

BALTIMORE -- bounced the Jonathan Loaisiga sinker into the dirt, pulling it on a few easy hops to Yankees third baseman Miguel Andújar. Whereas manager Brandon Hyde would characterize one of Franco’s earlier infield grounders as a productive out, as it moved a runner over as part of Baltimore’s three-run fifth, this one benefited from no such branding. This one helped put the finishing touches on Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Yankees at Oriole Park, the ensuing 5-4-3 double play erasing the potential tying run from first in the ninth.

Zooming out, though, it was reflective of a larger struggle afflicting Franco and the Orioles’ offense as a whole. Entering Friday as the American League’s second-worst unit in terms of total runs scored, the Orioles have endured long, silent stretches from hitters up and down the lineup.

Franco is far from the only one. But whereas others appear to be breaking out -- Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle among them -- the veteran third baseman remains mired in a slump, finishing Friday hitless in four at-bats and now 4-for-his-last-51.

“When he’s in situations, he’s a really good situational hitter,” Hyde said. “He’s done good in RBI situations and moving runners. But it seems like when there is nobody on, he’s getting big in his swing, and is coming around the ball and hitting a lot of ground balls to the left side.”

Signed to a one-year, $800,000 free-agent contract this spring, Franco arrived in Baltimore coming off six productive, if inconsistent, seasons for the Phillies and Royals. Though he never blossomed into the perennial All-Star some projected he would when he was a prospect, Franco nonetheless averaged 20 homers and 68 RBIs annually in Philadelphia from 2015-’19, then hit .278 with eight homers and a .778 OPS in 60 games in Kansas City in 2020. He immediately became one of the more veteran presences in the O’s young lineup.

The early returns were good, as Franco drove in 12 runs over his first 11 games and showed the knack for situational hitting Hyde noted. But he’s been searching since, hitting .186 with two homers in 25 games since mid-April.

Overall, Franco is batting .196 with three homers and a .572 OPS this season, both striking out and grounding out at career-high rates. The O’s entered play Friday ranked 14th among 15 AL clubs in hitting with runners in scoring position.

“We need Franky,” Hyde said. “Hopefully we can get him going here pretty soon.”

It’s a lack of production that, for much of Friday night, the Orioles appeared poised to overcome. Using an Austin Hays homer, and run-scoring hits from Mancini, Pedro Severino and Pat Valaika, the Orioles led by two in part because of an excellent 5-4-3 double play Franco started in the sixth.

The dagger came an inning later, when Travis Lakins Sr. surrendered Gio Urshela’s pinch-hit go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh. Winning a nine-pitch at-bat with Lakins, Urshela sank the Orioles on a night they received five solid innings from Dean Kremer, the young right-hander allowing little more than two solo Aaron Judge homers. The O’s then watched rallies fizzle in the seventh and ninth to drop their sixth game in seven tries.

“The things we talk about every single day -- try to do a certain job, and if they don’t give you your pitch, pass it to the next guy,” said DJ Stewart, who notched three hits and reached in all four plate appearances. “We did that all night, just came up a little bit short.”