'Two bad innings on the mound' cost O's in loss

August 29th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The Orioles left Nationals Park on Wednesday night on the wrong end of an 8-4 decision, waving farewell to their regional rivals for another year. In splitting this two-game series in Washington, the O’s came out even on the season against the Nats as a whole, after the two clubs also split their mid-July set in Baltimore.

Bearing the brunt of Wednesday’s loss was the pitching, which after blanking the Nationals' red-hot offense in Tuesday’s opener, struggled from the jump. and were the victims of most of the damage, combining to allow all of Washington’s runs over two four-batter spans in the first and fifth.

Kurt Suzuki played a key role in both frames, his two-run homer capping a five-run first off Wojciechowski before doubling home two more off Bleier four innings later. Toss in two RBI hits from Asdrubal Cabrera and Juan Soto’s two-run triple and the hole proved too deep for the Orioles, despite chasing Max Scherzer from the game in the fifth and getting homers from Chance Sisco and Chris Davis.

“We just had two bad innings on the mound,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “But it’s tough to be down five against Scherzer early and have to scratch your way back.”

Now they head west, September right around the corner, set to embark on the final leg of a season that was always meant to be about evaluation and development. There will be ample time for both in the weeks to come, when the Orioles will finish out their schedule with an eye toward 2020 and beyond.

Here are some questions they are set to face:

Are the young outfielders for real?
Overshadowed a bit in the loss was another standout night from Anthony Santander, who doubled in a run off Scherzer in the third and chased him with an infield single in the fifth. Cured from the sizeable slump he was mired in during the middle weeks of August, Santander is white-hot again, with eight hits in his last 13 at-bats to bring his season average up to .288 with an .820 OPS. He’s compiled 31 extra-base hits in 71 games since arriving in early June, playing like one of Baltimore’s most valuable position players over that stretch.

Along with DJ Stewart (hits in seven of his past nine games), the Orioles have two young outfielders playing well with the hopes of securing regular roles for 2020. Consider it a welcome sight for an organization that’s preached opportunity since spring, has turned over its entire Opening Day outfield and isn’t loaded with outfield prospects at the upper levels. With rosters set to expand on Sunday, perhaps Austin Hays joins the mix at some point soon as well.

Can Bleier finish strong?
Things just haven’t been the same this year for Bleier, whose three-run, one-third of an inning appearance Wednesday was made worse by the visible dugout spat with third-base coach Jose Flores that came after. Hyde said he was also displeased with the way Bleier left the mound upon his removal from the game, after TV cameras caught him and Flores, who handles the club’s infield positioning, arguing about that subject.

“I think frustration boiled over,” Bleier said, before adding he’d like the chance to reconcile things with Flores. “Some balls I thought, maybe defensive positioning … I probably could have done better for myself to keep my mouth shut. Unfortunately, I may have said something, and you guys saw the rest.”

A contact pitcher who relies almost exclusively on his batted-ball outcomes, Bleier entered this season with a 1.97 ERA across 111 career games. His 2019 mark sits at 6.30 after Wednesday, despite important peripherals (ground-ball rate, walk rate, hard-hit rate) that more or less mirror his career norms.

So what’s afoot here? The numbers suggest Bleier’s struggles involve at least some elements of bad luck, though the extent infield positioning is to blame is largely immeasurable. Entering Wednesday, the gaps between Bleier’s expected and actual metrics in opponents' batting average (55 points, the fifth-largest gap in the Majors between Bleier's expected opponents' batting average and actual OBA), slugging (125 points, the seventh-largest gap) and weighted on-base average (64 points, fifth-largest gap) were all among the largest discrepancies among MLB relievers with at least 150 batters faced.

Bleier is 32, one year removed from serious lat surgery and arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. He would benefit as much from a strong finish as anybody on the roster.

What will the vibe be heading into 2020?
Though the situations aren’t the same, Bleier and Flores’ incident marked the second in three weeks between an Orioles player and a member of the club’s dugout staff, after Hyde’s dustup with Davis earlier this month. Are they scattered blips, natural byproducts of the wear and tear of a trying season?

Only time will tell. But the challenge for the rookie skipper and his staff going forward will be to manage the mood, even if victories remain scarce over the season’s final month.