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Orioles-Yankees series preview: A chance to gain, or lose, ground

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The Orioles have slipped back in the AL East lately. They have a chance to regain some ground in New York, if they win games against the Yankees.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Orioles head to New York this weekend for a three-game set that will give them a chance to regain some of the ground that the team lost with its recent 3-13 stretch. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if they don’t start hitting or pitching better, they’re only going to lose more ground this weekend.

It’s not as bleak as all of that, since the Orioles have taken five of the nine games against the Yankees so far this year. They’re able to beat these Yankees, even with large human being Aaron Judge heading towards a probable Rookie of the Year award and with Brett Gardner and Matt Holliday enjoying an annoying (to me) revival of their offense.

Whether they’re able to do so this weekend is another question. Manny Machado figures to miss at least the beginning of this series, so the O’s won’t have their best defense on the field. Two of the three Orioles starting pitchers with an ERA over 5 are set to start in the series, so they won’t be getting their best possible pitchers, either.

The Yankees are fresh off of winning two out of three games against the Red Sox, but over their last 10 they’re just 5-5. That’s actually a game worse than the Orioles over the same stretch of time.

Game 1 - Friday, 7:35

Starters: Dylan Bundy (6-4, 2.93 ERA) vs. Jordan Montgomery (3-4, 3.67 ERA)

Montgomery is left-handed, which sounds like an instant cause for concern based on the Orioles in past years, but they’re actually not too bad against lefties so far this year, with a .739 OPS that’s sixth best in the AL. The O’s have already seen Montgomery twice this year, and has yet to pitch more than five innings in either of those games.

Bundy faced the Yankees just back on Memorial Day. Will such a fresh return to the Yankees hitters benefit them the second time around? Bundy held them to two runs in seven innings in that prior start. That was part of a streak of 11 consecutive 6+ inning starts, and 10 out of 11 quality starts, to begin the season. With five innings in his last outing, that streak is finally over. Where does Bundy go from here?

Based on their performance so far, the Yankees may have the platoon advantage. They’ve scored more runs than all but one other AL team and they are doing that by mashing righties for a .274/.346/.469 batting line. This is the only game where the Orioles have a good pitcher going and even it’s not going to be easy. When you play a good team, it never is.

Game 2 - Saturday, 7:15

Starters: Chris Tillman (1-3, 5.59 ERA) vs. Luis Severino (4-2, 2.90 ERA)

Gone is the Severino of last season who arced towards failure at an Orioles pitching prospect-like rate. In his place is the Severino who wowed the prospect-industrial complex prior to the 2015 season and was a top 50 prospect in baseball. Walks are down, strikeouts are up, and batters are hitting just .224 against him.

Severino has faced the O’s twice this year. He scuffled the first time, in early April, giving up four runs in five innings. That’s one of only two starts this year where Severino has allowed more than three earned runs. He’s been dominant since, including a May 30 start against the O’s where he allowed a run on 6.1 innings.

Then there’s Tillman, who the Orioles are still waiting to look like his old self again. He’s given little evidence so far in 2017 that he will do that any time soon. With Tillman now having made six MLB starts plus four rehab starts, the “It’s like he’s still in spring training!” excuse is fading fast. The Orioles need Tillman to be good and batters are hitting .311 against him.

Game 3 - Sunday, 1:05

Starters: Kevin Gausman (3-4, 5.86 ERA) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (5-6, 6.55 ERA)

When it’s mid-June and your Opening Day starting pitcher has an ERA that’s closer to 6 than it is to 5, you’ve got some problems. That’s true for the Orioles as well as the Yankees, since Tanaka is no great shakes either - though the Yankees are managing it better, as Tanaka is their only poor-performing starter, whereas Gausman, of course is one of several for the Orioles.

Tanaka’s harsh regression is a curious one. It’s not accompanied by any kind of velocity drop in his fastball. He’s walking more batters than he ever has in MLB (a still-low 6.1%) and is suddenly having worse luck with BABIP (.323 against a career .277) and he’s been giving up home runs like they’re going out of style, with 17 allowed in just 66 innings. The O’s have seen him twice and tagged him for 10 runs in 10.2 innings.

For the O’s, Gausman is making me feel uncomfortably like he’s on the Orioles Jake Arrieta path. Strikeouts are down, walks are up, and his high BABIP (.356) feels more like bad pitching than bad luck. There are times where I feel like the only questions are which team they will trade him to and how long before he turns it around and wins a Cy Young there.

So far this season, Gausman has faced the Yankees three times, giving up 11 earned runs in 16 innings. Less than a third of his starts for the season have been quality starts - six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer. It hurts to watch.

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The list of hot-hitting Yankees over the last two weeks is basically “the whole team except for Chase Headley and Chris Carter.” They’re in first place because they’ve been hitting and pitching like a first place team. The Orioles are 3.5 games back because they haven’t been, and if they don’t play like one this series, they’ll be even farther back.