(Updated: 9:00 a.m.)
BALTIMORE — The Orioles finished the first week of the season as the only undefeated club in baseball.
But their first 5-0 start in 46 years came under less-than-perfect circumstances as Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy missed time due to injuries, the starting rotation went more than five innings just once, and the weather in Baltimore felt more like mid-February than early April. Those realities created even more reason for optimism since rarely will everything go perfectly over the course of a season filled with twists and turns.
So, how’d they do it over the first week?
Sensational work from the bullpen, strong defense, and the home run all played important roles as we’ve come to expect over the last few years, but that wasn’t the entire story. Starters pitched quite effectively — if not very deep — and the Orioles did the little things well, ranging from working longer counts to taking the extra base when afforded the opportunity.
Manny Machado played like the MVP-caliber player he’s become and Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard was the early toast of the town. Even Hyun Soo Kim collected a couple hits in his major league debut on Sunday.
Yes, it’s only five games — the 2015 Atlanta Braves started 5-0 and won just 62 more games the rest of the way — but five victories in the first week of the season count just as much as any others if the Orioles are in the playoff hunt in late September.
“You don’t win a championship in April, but you definitely learn how to play as a team,” Machado said. “That’s what we’ve been doing around here, and we’re going to continue to do that hopefully.”
The most notable short-term concern as the Orioles begin their first road trip of 2016 was the health of Jones, who missed the final three games of the homestand and continues to deal with “rib area” soreness. Manager Buck Showalter said Sunday that the five-time All-Star center fielder is “close” to returning, but Jones isn’t the type to miss so much time with a minor ailment.
Even when he does return, you hope the injury doesn’t linger and impact his performance in the coming weeks. An outfield that’s received an early boost from Rickard but is still vulnerable can’t afford to lose Jones for a significant period of time.
As it has for the better part of the last four years, the bullpen has excelled early on and has allowed just three earned runs over 21 1/3 innings with Mychal Givens surrendering all three over his first two appearances. He was much better on Sunday in a scoreless inning of work against the top of the Tampa Bay lineup and could help Brad Brach serve as the bridge to All-Star relievers Darren O’Day and Zach Britton in the eighth and ninth.
Sunday offered an example of the bullpen’s brilliance but also a warning of how critical it will be for the starters to pitch longer into games as Brach, Givens, O’Day, and Britton were forced to pitch the final 4 1/3 innings of a 5-3 win over Tampa Bay. Showalter had the luxury of all four being available after Saturday’s postponement, but he won’t be in such a position every night over the course of a 162-game season.
“That’s a long chain out of the bullpen today,” Showalter said. “To get through that many outs and not give up a run is pretty remarkable, but we can’t continue to do that. Hopefully as the season goes on, we’ll be able to get deeper in some games as guys get some pitch counts and innings under their belts.”
The starting rotation may have only one start lasting longer than five innings, but the circumstances have been unique for a group that’s posted an impressive 2.28 ERA so far. Chris Tillman’s Opening Day start was halted after two innings due to a rain delay, and he was lifted after just 83 pitches in his impressive five-inning outing on Friday since it was moved up a day.
Yovani Gallardo was effective in his first start, but he will need to pitch longer than five innings more often than not. Ubaldo Jimenez turned in an exceptional seven-inning start on Thursday, but which version of the enigmatic pitcher will the Orioles get on any given night?
The rest of the rotation remains fluid as Vance Worley — who pitched on Sunday for the first time since April 1 — and Mike Wright are receiving the first shots with Tyler Wilson on standby and Kevin Gausman moving closer to his return from the disabled list.
The first week may not have been perfect, but the end results were.
“They gave us a chance to win all five games,” said Showalter of the starting pitching. “And if we do that, we’ll have some fun this summer.”
You can only hope the fun of the first five games will carry over in the days, weeks, and months ahead.