Orioles news and notes: Hardy, Markakis, Johnson, Uehara
Several people have questioned why in the world would shortstop J.J. Hardy want to sign a contract extension with the Orioles when they are struggling so badly, and he likely would have several contenders bidding for his services after this season. Obviously, a three-year, $22.25 million contract extension is a nice comfort for a player with an extensive injury history. But the two other factors that immediately come to mind are loyalty and commitment. Hardy readily admits that he’s still a little bitter about how his time in Milwaukee ended. He felt that he was one of the guys that helped the Brewers get to the 2008 playoffs, and yet a year later, a struggling Hardy was optioned to Triple-A Nashville, a move that allowed Milwaukee to delay his free agency one extra year. The Brewers then traded him after the 2009 season to open up a spot for youngster Alcides Escobar. Hardy went to the Minnesota Twins, and he struggled to stay on the field and never felt part of that organization’s future. So Hardy was appreciative when the Orioles traded for him and then months later expressed to him that they wanted him to be part of their future. Sure, Hardy wanted the comfort of a long-term deal, but he also wanted to be wanted and feel that an organization was committed to him going forward.He got both feelings from the Orioles.
On to another question that I’ve been asked repeatedly: “Why is Nick Markakis choking up on the bat so much?” I posed that one to Markakis, who enjoys talking about his hitting mechanics with a reporter almost as much as he enjoys wearing a fastball from John Lackey in the ribs. Markakis gave his usual stock answers that he just feels real comfortable now at the plate and he’s staying with what works. About as expansive as he got was indicating that that it allows him to exhibit better bat control. I asked him whether he feels that choking up will further limit his power – I know, I know, Barry Bonds choked up a lot, too - and he opined that it had nothing to do with it, and power was a function of his bat speed. He then went out and homered in his second consecutive game.
I’m guessing that Orioles manager Buck Showalter will happily confront this problem tonight because it will mean that his team actually has a lead against the Boston Red Sox, but it will be real interesting to see who will get the ball late in a close game if such a situation arises. Koji Uehara won’t be available after having pitched in three consecutive games. Kevin Gregg is expected to start serving his suspension tonight. Jim Johnson probably will be available, but he did pitch 1 2/3 innings yesterday. Mark Hendrickson will be off limits after pitching three innings yesterday. Michael Gonzalez has pitched three of the past four days. My guess is Johnson would be the designated closer for the night, but anything beyond that would be purely a guess.
Just a quick note on Johnson’s workload: In his first 22 appearances, the big righty was forced to get more than three outs just six times. In his last 21 appearances, he’s gotten more than three outs 12 times. I don’t think it’s a matter of trying to stretch him out for a transition into a starter either. The Orioles have so few relievers that they can trust, and Johnson is one of them.
And one more thing about the Orioles’ bullpen: I’ve talked to enough scouts of teams that are looking for relievers, and while they praise Uehara for the season that he’s having, and say that he’s a guy that their club is keeping an eye on, they quickly talk about his durability concerns, his problems pitching in really hot weather and his propensity to give up the long ball. Look, I get it, but you can’t ignore the following numbers: 1.84 ERA, nine earned runs, 23 hits, eight walks and 58 strikeouts in 44 innings. The one blemish is the six home runs allowed. Regardless, he’s just having a phenomenal season. I was a little surprised that Showalter brought him into a third straight game yesterday, especially with a five-run lead. I initially wondered if Showalter was trying to send a message to the scouts in attendance that Uehara is in fine form and count be counted on to pitch on a regular basis, but I concluded that was probably a reach. Either way, I don’t know what more scouts would have needed to see about Uehara after watching this series. In three consecutive games spanning four scoreless innings, he retired 12 of the 13 hitters that he faced, six of them on strikeouts. He also threw only 45 pitches (32 for strikes) while getting those 12 outs.