Some of the Orioles’ biggest concerns were exposed in Sunday’s 5-4 extra-inning loss in Anaheim that prevented a second straight series win on the West Coast.
Much of the focus fell on the 11th inning and Los Angeles Angels outfielder David Murphy’s game-winning hit off lefty reliever Brian Matusz, but that was only part of the story.
First and foremost, a maddeningly-inconsistent offense managed just two runs over the final 10 innings at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Sunday afternoon. After jumping on Angels starter Jered Weaver for two in the opening frame, the Orioles bats disappeared over the next four innings as the soft-tossing right-hander matched a season high of seven strikeouts in his first start since June 20.
Scoring a single run over their final five frames probably would have been enough for the Orioles to come away with a series win, but the pressure was on the Baltimore bullpen to pitch six innings on Sunday before Murphy finally hit one over left fielder David Lough’s head to plate the winning run with two outs in the 11th.
That’s what brings us to a concern that isn’t helping manager Buck Showalter rest easy in mid-August. Starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez has been an underrated part of the Orioles’ success dating back to the second half of 2012, but the right-hander hasn’t been the same since a stint on the 15-day disabled list in June and again struggled on Sunday, allowing four earned runs and seven hits while lasting just 4 2/3 innings.
Gonzalez had gotten off to arguably the best start of his career with a 3.33 ERA in his first 12 outings of 2015 — he completed seven or more innings in five of those starts — before a groin injury sent him to the DL. Since returning to the roster on June 25, Gonzalez has pitched to an alarming 6.22 ERA in 46 1/3 innings.
On Sunday, he displayed a better-than-normal fastball clocked at 94 mph — making you conclude his problems probably aren’t related to health — but his third inning couldn’t have been more frustrating. With runners at the corners and no outs, Gonzalez struck out All-Star sluggers Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and appeared on the verge of escaping unscathed when he got to an 0-2 count on Murphy. He then grooved a high fastball over the heart of the plate that Murphy sent into the right-field stands for a three-run shot and a 4-2 lead for the Angels.
It was the latest example of Gonzalez making a poor pitch while ahead in the count after earning a reputation for having good command over his first 3 1/2 seasons.
As important as Gonzalez has been over the last few seasons, the Orioles must be growing impatient with his woes over the last six weeks. The 31-year-old has now failed to complete at least six innings in seven of his nine starts since returning from the DL — raising his season ERA to a career-worst 4.45 — and he is putting more strain on a bullpen that doesn’t need it right now.
Gonzalez has a minor-league option remaining, but the best candidate to take his place, right-hander Tyler Wilson, was reportedly scratched from his Sunday start for Triple-A Norfolk with an oblique issue. Showalter and the Orioles will likely lean on Gonzalez’s track record a little longer, but the right-hander must pitch better than what he’s shown throughout the summer.
Even after Gonzalez’s rough day, the Orioles were still right there in the bottom of the 11th, but the decision to activate Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia from the DL and the undermanned bullpen it’s created materialized in a crucial spot. With only Matusz, the seldom-used Garcia, and closer Zach Britton remaining in the bullpen — you could argue Showalter should have gone to his closer despite it being a tie game — Showalter elected to have his lefty specialist intentionally walk Trout and Pujols to load the bases with two outs for the lefty-hitting Murphy.
That strategy was the correct one with Matusz in the game — lefties were hitting .129 against him while righties had a .304 average entering Sunday — but it would have been nice to have had the option of going to a Tommy Hunter or a Mychal Givens against Pujols in that spot instead of loading the bases. The new void in the bullpen is magnified by the recent struggles of Chaz Roe, who gave up the leadoff double to Carlos Perez that became the winning run.
No, a series loss in Anaheim doesn’t cripple the Orioles, but it did expose some of their biggest concerns.
The Orioles could not have anticipated Gonzalez’s problems over the last several weeks, but going with a weaker bullpen is their own choice.
That combination — along with another inconsistent performance by the offense — hurt them in a winnable game on Sunday.
And sitting five games out of first in the American League East and three games behind the second wild-card spot, they can’t let too many more opportunities slip through their fingers.