Orioles news, notes and opinions: Tillman, Gregg, Tatum, pitching matchups, Berken
Mostly lost in yesterday’s game because of Vladimir Guerrero’s heroics and Matt Wieters’ golden arm was Chris Tillman’s uneven outing. Tillman allowed one run on six hits and two walks over five innings. He was fortunate to avoid further damage -- the Nationals went 1-for-8 against him with runners in scoring position -- and the downside was he needed 97 pitches to navigate through five innings. I have been pretty negative about Tillman at times, and some posters -- and even some members of the Orioles' clubhouse -- maintain that I’ve been unfair to the 23-year-old. I disagree with the latter sentiment, but beyond all that, I do see him making strides. There’s no question that he’s frustrating to watch at times because he’s always falling behind hitters and working deep in counts. There’s no excuse to walk No. 9 hitter Alex Cora in any circumstance, as he did yesterday. Like many Orioles officials, I also struggle to comprehend why his fastball velocity fluctuates so much from start to start and inning to inning. But yesterday, Tillman’s stuff, for the most part, was better than what I’ve seen from him in a long time, an observation supported by Orioles manager Buck Showalter and Wieters. The sequence that followed the one-out walk to Cora and the double by Roger Bernadina was a good example. Tillman threw two really nice cut fastballs that Ian Desmond flailed at and then a nasty breaking ball to send Laynce Nix to the bench. It was a really nice sequence for a pitcher who is learning to compete and make adjustments. To this point, I have mostly disagreed with the line of thinking that Tillman has nothing left to prove in the minors and you need to keep running him out there every five days against big league hitters to see how he develops. My take was that you owe it to the rest of your team to give them a chance to win and it just isn’t fair to the hitters to keep being put into a big early hole and for the bullpen to keep having to come in so early in the game. However, I’m coming around to that line of thinking, mostly because I do see signs of progress from Tillman, even if all the results don’t necessarily indicate it.
When I was doing a story on Orioles closer Kevin Gregg in spring training, I asked several people about his high walk totals. Gregg walked 30 batters in 59 innings last season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Both former Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who had Gregg as his closer in Florida, and Showalter said the numbers were not a sign of poor command, but rather Gregg's pitching to the situation and not giving in to guys who can hurt him. That all may be true, but I’d have to think that Gregg’s propensity to walk hitters -- 13 free passes in 18 1/3 innings this season -- has become a concern. In getting the save yesterday against the Washington Nationals, Gregg walked one but went to full counts with all three batters he faced. Overall, he has faced 81 batters this season and has gone to three-ball counts with 25 of them, walking 13. His other issue has been getting the leadoff hitter out. The first batter he has faced in an inning is 5-for-16 against him with three walks.
It wouldn’t surprise me that if the next time the Orioles call on their backup catcher to start a game, which will probably be Thursday’s homestand afternoon finale against the Kansas City Royals, it will be Craig Tatum and not Jake Fox. It has been no secret that Showalter and the coaching staff would prefer to have a more natural backup catcher on the roster. The roster construction -- first carrying two utility infielders in Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino, then keeping 13 pitchers -- hasn’t allowed that to this point, and Tatum had been on the minor league disabled list. But he’s playing again, Izturis is on the major league disabled list and the Orioles have a little more roster flexibility with all these off days allowing them to use a four-man rotation. The Orioles still want young first baseman Brandon Snyder to get regular at-bats, so perhaps a logical move would be to option him back to Triple-A Norfolk, promote Tatum and use Fox in a first-base platoon with Luke Scott.
In the Kansas City series, the Orioles will face two lefties (Danny Duffy and Jeff Francis) and right-hander Luke Hochevar. Looking a little beyond that, it appears that they’ll miss Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson in Oakland this weekend, which would be a nice break for them. However, they should see lefty Gio Gonzalez, who is having a terrific year. As for next week in Seattle, the Mariners have an off day Thursday, and you never know with injuries, but it looks like the Orioles are scheduled to draw Doug Fister, their old friend Erik Bedard and rookie phenom Michael Pineda. That means no Felix Hernandez or Jason Vargas, but with the way Seattle is pitching these days, I don’t know if there are any good matchups. Bedard, by the way, is 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA over his past four outings.
Jason Berken’s transformation back into a starter at Norfolk will be interesting to watch. When he last was a starter, Berken went 6-12 with a 6.54 ERA in 24 starts for the Orioles in 2009. However, he doesn’t necessarily have the same repertoire he did back then. His changeup is a much better pitch than it used to be, and it could fit in well with his fastball and slider. I’m sure Friday’s demotion was tough to accept for Berken, but I think it could end up being a positive for him. I know people assume that just because he is struggling, it must be because of the labrum tear in his right shoulder. However, when I’ve watched him pitch recently, I don’t feel like I’m watching an injured pitcher. As Showalter pointed out yesterday, his velocity was between 92 and 95 mph the other night. I feel like I’m watching a guy who is having major command and confidence issues and needs time in a less pressurized environment to work things out. His starting in the minors will also give him a chance to stretch out and make adjustments.