The Cleveland Indians conclude their road trip this weekend with a four-game long-weekend series in Baltimore. Though we’ve become accustomed to thinking of the Orioles as the punching bags of their division, they were in first place in the mighty AL East for much of the early part of the season and playing inspired ball. In fact, the O’s this year are a lot like the Indians in 2011. Let’s take a look at four ways these two teams mirror each other.
1. The Bullpen. It was last year that first heard the term “Bullpen Mafia.” At least up the All-Star break the Indians’ ‘pen was unhittable. Chris Perez had a 2.43 ERA in the first half, Vinnie Pestano broke on the scene as the Tribe’s best reliever and struck out 47 in 33 ⅓ innings, and the cast of Rafael Perez, Joe Smith and Tony Sipp were just plain great.
Looking at the O’s bullpen, closer Jim Johnson has allowed only four runs in 33 ⅔ innings this year, four of their five most-pitched relievers have ERA’s under two, and Darren O’Day, has 6.4 strikeouts per walk. Their lefty specialist Troy Patton has allowed 12 runs, but left-handers are OPS-ing just .501 against him. It’s as fine a bullpen as you’ll find in the league, reminiscent of what led the Indians to so much success last year.
2. Lots of Power. From a switch-hitting, powerful catcher in Matt Wieters to sluggers around the keystone to a stud of a center fielder, it’s almost like looking into an orange-tinged mirror for Tribe fans. Sure, Wieters hits for better average and has had several more years to establish himself than Carlos Santana, but they both bring 20-plus homer capability and switch hitting to the table and are up and coming stars. Wieters a bit of a disappointment due to his hype (he was hailed as a more powerful, switch-hitting Joe Mauer) but he’s a fine player. Shortstops J.J. Hardy and Asdrubal Cabrera can both crush the ball. Hardy has been nicked up but he’s still in his prime and has the potential to dominate a game, and they’re both kind of lackluster in the glove department, too. Robert Andino doesn’t compare in any way to Jason Kipnis, but he does to Orlando Cabrera, who was the ‘11 Tribe’s other middle infielder most of the season.
The last is a bit of a stretch, but Adam Jones (298/.344/.555) is one of the best center fielders in the game. The Indians had a guy that started last year in center with at least that much talent, if not more: Grady Sizemore. He was the key to the Tribe offense, and despite being damaged in 2011 he still hit 10 homers with a 95 OPS+, making us all dream of the good days. It’s the right way to build a contender, and hopefully it works out for the Orioles like it almost did for the Indians (just not this weekend).
3. They Love to Swing the Bat. Maybe it’s just the presence of Mark Reynolds, but right now the Orioles are second in the league in strikeouts. Last year the Tribe did exactly that, whiffing 1269 times on the year. In related news, the Indians’ offense last year was pretty bad. They were ninth in the league with 704 runs scored, and seventh in walks with 494.
The Orioles already have 589 strikeouts against only 209 walks (12th in the league) and 310 runs scored (eighth). Who’s to say what this means for the rest of the season, but right now they’re causing a lot of breezes for the infield and not giving themselves easy chances. We saw how this ended up for the Indians last year, and if the Orioles can’t make a change, especially in that division, they’re in for a long second half.
4. The June Swoon. Remember when the Indians were 30-15 with a double digit lead in the AL Central last year? They fell to 32-20 at the end of May, and then the wheels fell off and they went 48-62 the rest of the way. The Orioles have yet to really hit the skids (12-10 in June—not horrid, but not the type of play to maintain a lead) but their real problem is the division they play in. The Yankees went on an 11-game winning streak and hold a commanding lead, and the Orioles are beginning to succumb to the schedule a bit. They have a host of games left against a very good Rays team, the Yanks of course, and let’s not forget the Red Sox and Blue Jays.
It’s a great division, and the Orioles don’t have much to work with. You need to play .600 ball to be sure of making the playoffs in this division, and they just can’t do that. Their pitching is pretty good, but not good enough to match up against ace-type hurlers every night or All-Star laden lineups every game. Going against the Yankees 19 times a year, or even the Jays and Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie and company, is a lot different from facing the Royals or Twins.
How will it all end? the Indians suffered a miserable defeat and saw the Tigers go to the ALCS. WIth a second Wild Card opening hopes are a bit brighter for the Baltimore boys, so we’ll see how they hold up. It’s brutal what they have to see on their schedule, but they have to get out of the cellar some time.