So much has gone wrong this season for the Baltimore Orioles, it's difficult at times to say where the franchise should even begin to focus its attention as it tries to address the problems that have led to another frustrating year.
But what has become clear, even as the summer turns into a long and miserable slog, is that the one position the Orioles don't need to stress over next year is shortstop.
In the series opener Friday against the Detroit Tigers, J.J. Hardy made a case for why it's still worth your time to pay attention to this team, even as the losses mount. The Orioles shortstop belted two home runs and made several elegant defensive plays, all of which helped the team hang around on a night when its starting pitcher again struggled to provide a quality start.
But outside of Hardy — whom the Orioles signed to a three-year extension this summer — the Orioles couldn't muster enough timely hits, even against a shaky Brad Penny, and they lost for the 11th time in 14 outings, falling to the Tigers, 5-4, in front of an announced 21,465 at Camden Yards.
“We were real lucky to even be in that ballgame,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after poring over the box score and pointing out that the Tigers had 19 base runners.
The Orioles looked like they had tied the game in the eighth inning when Adam Jones crushed a fastball off Joaquin Benoit to deep center field, but Austin Jackson reached above the wall and made a running catch to rob Jones of a home run. In the ninth, the Orioles had the tying run on third base thanks to a leadoff walk by Matt Wieters, but Jose Valverde struck out Nolan Reimold — with Hardy on deck — to end the game and leave the Orioles a season-worst 26 games under .500.
“I feel like we battled,” said Hardy, who has hit four home runs in the past six games. “I think that ball Jonesy hit in the eighth that Jackson went up and robbed was a big, big part of the game. But I think we battled. They just came out on top.”
The home run that Jackson took away was the second time on the night that Jones came up just short. In the fifth inning, he hit a laser off the wall that missed going into the bullpen by less than a foot; he settled for a double.
“I think I'll do a little more push-ups tonight,” Jones said. “I crushed both balls. Luck of the draw. It's a game of inches, and they were short on my side today.”
The Orioles were probably fortunate to be in the game as long as they were, considering the erratic outing they got from starter Alfredo Simon. Simon gave up four earned runs in 41/3 innings, but it could have been far worse. It took him 55 pitches to get through two innings.
“I know I can do better than that,” Simon said. “I'm just trying so hard. Sometimes I get into trouble in the first and second inning, so I got to face that and just do better.”
Simon flirted with trouble every inning, surrendering a career-high 11 hits and walking three Tigers. In the first inning, Detroit pounded out three consecutive singles to grab a 1-0 lead, and the Tigers had the bases loaded with one out. But Simon caught a break when Jhonny Peralta grounded into a double play, ending the inning.
“We were fortunate there to get a double play,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It was a struggle for him.”
Not much has been a struggle lately for Hardy, however. After Simon escaped the first inning, Hardy gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead in the bottom half by belting a two-run homer off Penny. It was the eighth straight game in which Hardy has recorded an RBI.
But the Tigers just kept chipping away at Simon, who has surrendered a total of 21 hits in his past two starts. The Orioles countered with impressive defense, including a beautiful throw by right fielder Nick Markakis in the fourth inning and an even prettier tag by Wieters that prevented Jackson from scoring on a fly ball. Hardy made a diving stab to end an inning, in addition to a perfect throw from his knees to nail a runner attempting to go from second to third, and Chris Davis snared two hard-hit balls that looked like hits.
Without the Orioles' fine defense, Showalter said, “we're not even in that game.”
But the Tigers eventually broke through. Third baseman Wilson Betemit hit a two-run homer in the fourth off Simon to put Detroit ahead 4-2.
Showalter shrugged off any suggestion that Simon might have been pitching to a small strike zone.
“I think a lot of it was self-inflicted,” Showalter said.
Hardy cut the deficit to 4-3 with his second home run in the fifth, a 372-foot, bases-empty blast into the left-field seats that gave him his third game of the season with multiple home runs.
The Orioles tied the game on an RBI single by Vladimir Guererro later in the inning.
“I feel like I'm having a pretty good idea up there right now,” Hardy said. “I feel like I'm not necessarily a guess hitter, but in the back of my mind, I feel like I know what they're trying to do.”
Detroit took the lead for good in the sixth inning on a single by Andy Dirks off reliever Troy Patton. Dirks had a career-high four hits, and the Tigers' bullpen didn't surrender a run over the final four innings.
“It was a frustrating time for us because we're just so close, but starting pitching has been a challenge for us and I'm real proud of the effort guys continue to play with,” Showalter said. “When you're spending 20, 25 minutes out there between innings, I'm impressed with the intensity our guys brought.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times