Buck Showalter was hired to turn around the struggling Baltimore Orioles, but no one could have predicted the immediate impact the new manager would have on the team. After winning 32 times in their first 105 games, Showalter, who took over on August 3rd, guided the O’s to 17 victories in the month of August and into the role of spoiler in the American League playoff race.
The winning month for Baltimore was the first for the franchise since June 2008 and marked the first time the Orioles have had a winning record in the month of August since the 1997 season.
But the Orioles haven’t moved into a position to avoid the worst record in baseball and a 100 loss season by beating bad teams at home. The Orioles have become legitimate spoilers in the American League playoff race.
Of their 17 wins, six came at the expense of the Los Angeles Angels to basically knock the defending AL West champions out of contention in their division.
Baltimore also won four of seven against the Chicago White Sox and split a four-game series with the AL West leading Texas Rangers.
They finished the month with a 5-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox that further erodes the chances for the perennial playoff contender.
There is no secret to the success of the Orioles in August. Quite simply, since Showalter’s arrival they have increased their offensive production while decreasing the number of runs they allow.
After allowing 5.5 runs per game through the first 105 games, the Orioles have allowed only 3.5 runs per contest since Showalter’s arrival. Starting pitchers who were struggling to get through five innings while registering an era of 5.50 have suddenly become workhorses averaging nearly seven innings per start in August with an ERA of 3.20.
The turnaround has been most pronounced for two of the young guns that ultimately must consistently perform at a top level over the long haul if the Orioles want to maintain success and return to contention in the AL East.
Left-hander Brian Matusz posted a 4-1 record in August with a 2.43 ERA in six starts. With the exception of a rough outing against Tampa Bay where he allowed five runs in four innings, Matusz was nearly untouchable in August. He allowed Boston two runs in the final game of the month, registered three games in which he allowed only one run and pitched eight shutout innings against Texas.
Providing the right-handed complement to Matusz has been Brad Bergeson. The best pitcher for Baltimore in 2009 before his season ended early after being hit by a batted ball in late July, Bergeson struggled early in 2010 and even made a brief trip back to the minors.
He has finally regained his 2009 form during the month of August. His 3-0 record and 2.72 ERA in August include three games in which he surrendered just a single run.
Baltimore also has received solid production from a pair of relievers who certainly appear to be making a case for their inclusion on the 2010 roster.
Koji Uehara has five saves and has allowed only one earned run over the last month. He was originally brought to Baltimore to be a starting pitcher, but after nearly two seasons seems to have finally found his niche.
Mike Gonzalez came to Baltimore to be the closer at the start of this season, but a disappointing start and then long stint on the disabled list derailed those plans. Though not closing, Gonzalez has regained his previous form as a top relief pitcher and allowed only two earned runs in 11 appearances in August.
Offensively, the Orioles are still not tearing up the league, averaging four runs per game in August, but that average is higher than the 3.5 runs per game they were posting in the previous four months of the season.
Luke Scott and Felix Pie, two players looking to secure roster spots for 2011, were the top offensive performers for the O’s in August.
Scott hit .314 with nine home runs and 20 RBI. He has posted a solid season for the Birds and demonstrated that he can provide consistent power from the left side of the plate. The question moving forward is where to play him as Scott has seen little action in left field and been used primarily as the designated hitter and occasionally at first base.
The jury is still out as to whether Pie can be an everyday player in the majors, but he is making his case with a strong showing since returning from the disabled list. He hit .308 with three home runs and 11 RBI in August. He also stole four bases and scored 13 runs.
After 13 months of disappointment, one month is not enough of a sample to definitely say that the Orioles have turned the corner, but if they can follow up with another strong month in September, they could be building toward a run in 2011.
They need look no further than two examples from this season’s playoff race to see how a late season surge one year can carry over to the next.
Last season the Cincinnati Reds finished the year going 27-13 in their final 40 games. The San Diego Padres closed with a 23-13 finish. This season both teams are winning their divisions and appear headed toward the playoffs.
Can the Orioles make similar gains in 2011? Only time will tell, but Buck Showalter sure seems to have them moving in the right direction.