Monday, July 27, 2009

Watch out for the Orioles

Among the thoughts racing through Red Sox fans' heads as they left Fenway Park on Sunday -- aside from "Is Smoltz done?" and "That LaRoche kid is pretty good. I wonder if he has a brother who plays third base?" -- had to be this one: "We just got beat by David Hernandez? Who's David Hernandez?"

Perhaps an introduction is in order.

Hernandez, who induced an incredible 17 fly-ball outs in baffling the Red Sox for seven innings on Sunday, had a 2.68 ERA at Double-A last year and a 3.30 ERA at Triple-A this year. He made his major-league debut on May 28 and, after a couple of early hiccups, has settled down as a big part of the Orioles' rotation. In his four previous starts entering play Sunday, he had a 3.33 ERA and was seeing opponents hit .237 off him.

The Red Sox couldn't touch him on Saturday.

"First and foremost, he was effectively around the zone, effectively wild up," Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay said. "But I don't think he walked anybody. He was around the plate the whole time, and you've got to give him credit. We swing the bat pretty well and he got a lot of lazy fly balls, which means there's deception to his fastball. It's getting on you faster than you'd think and you're just missing squaring it up."

Baseball America anointed his slider as the best in the Orioles' organization. What the magazine didn't do, however, is name Hernandez one of the top 10 prospects in the Orioles' organization. That honor instead went to five other pitchers -- and a group that didn't even include Brad Bergesen, a 23-year-old righty who now has a 2.57 ERA and an 11-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in two career starts against the Red Sox. (Bergesen was a tough-luck loser on Friday night, throwing six solid innings but receiving no run support.)

Watch out, American League East.

The Orioles are rebuilding fast.

"We're not as good as the Red Sox," Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said after his team's win on Sunday. "We're not as good as the Yankees. But we're not going to give in to them."

The reason for the optimism that oozes from Trembley and his team was obvious all weekend. Right fielder Nick Markakis went 5-for-13 over the weekend with a solo home run on Sunday, for example, and made an unbelievable throw from right field to nail Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate on Friday. But he's already a household name -- or should be.

"People are living in a dream world if they don't think he's one of the best right fielders in the American League," Trembley said. "I'd take it a step further and say I think he's one of the best players in baseball. ... I went up to him today and said, 'I'm putting you in the (No.) 4 slot because you're our best guy,' and look how he played."

Left fielder Nolan Reimold went 7-for-10 with three doubles and three runs scored. Catcher Matt Wieters went 3-for-7 with an RBI on Friday and Saturday and remains on track to become an offensive mold in the Joe Mauer or Mike Piazza mold. Center fielder Adam Jones didn't do much this time around, but ask Kevin Youkilis what the All-Star outfielder can do with the glove.

"The improvement that Jones made from last year to this year is tremendous," Trembley said. "We expect the same thing out of Wieters, Reimold, Bergesen and Hernandez, and if we get that kind of improvement that we got out of Jones, that we got out of Markakis after his first year in the big leagues, we're going to have a very good team.

"That's where you've got to stay the course. You've got to be patient. You have to understand the big picture. You have to give your guys a whole lot of credit."

Oh, and then there's the pitching in the minor leagues. Check out the arms the Orioles have moving through the system:

* Chris Tillman, 2.70 ERA, 99-26 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Kam Mickolio, 3.03 ERA, 41-12 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Jake Arrieta, 2.59 ERA, 70-23 K-BB ratio at Double-A; 4.34 ERA, 43-17 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Troy Patton, 1.99 ERA, 47-18 K-BB ratio at Double-A; 6.00 ERA, 21-9 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Brian Matusz, 2.16 ERA, 75-21 K-BB ratio at Single-A; 1.88 ERA, 39-7 K-BB ratio at Double-A

Not all of those arms have to pan out. If even two of those pitchers make it and stick in the big leagues, with the bats the Orioles have developed, the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays quickly will have company.

"Our guys have shown improvement," Trembley said. "I've seen them the whole year. If you only see them once in a while and get all wrapped up in the losses instead of the other part of the game, it's easy to let those things get out of perspective. We don't have it out of perspective at all."

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