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Orioles-Mariners series preview: Taking on the wild card contenders

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The Mariners have been very good. The Orioles have been very bad. The two teams will be playing for the next four games.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles and Mariners are each among the most surprising teams in the American League so far this season. The difference between them is how they have surprised. The Mariners are a surprise because they are good. currently sitting six games ahead of the closest competitor for the second AL wild card spot. The Orioles are a surprise because they are extremely bad.

The two teams square off for the first time this season beginning tonight. If you haven’t been paying too much attention to the AL West - a good policy most years - you might have missed this team showing up as one of the quality teams in the AL. They have done this despite losing star second baseman Robinson Cano first to a broken finger and then to an 80-game PED suspension that will make him ineligible for any postseason play.

Longtime Mariners stalwart Felix Hernandez is struggling, with an ERA over 5. $100 million man Kyle Seager’s production has sagged. The bullpen has had issues. And yet, the Mariners are an enviable 47-31, with former Oriole Nelson Cruz leading the way in the fourth year of his four-year contract, slugging 20 home runs and batting .274/.358/.573 so far this season. You don’t have to say anything. We all know.

Most of the rest of Cruz’s teammates have been up to the challenge of hitting, too, with the team entering Sunday’s play fifth in OPS in the league. They’re in the middle of the pack with a starting rotation ERA of 4.08 and right about the same with a bullpen ERA of 4.04. It’s all added up to what seems like quite a fun season to experience for our friends over at SB Nation’s Lookout Landing.

The Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports leagues, not having been back since 2001. I’ll be happy for them if this is their year. They’re only 3-7 in their last ten games, though, so they’d better start playing for that. Perhaps lucky for them, here they are in Baltimore to face the worst team by record in MLB.

Game 1 - Monday, 7:05

Felix Hernandez (6-6, 5.14 ERA) vs. Andrew Cashner (2-8, 4.72)

Old age comes for us all over a long enough period of time, but it comes for professional athletes relative to their younger peers sooner. At the tender age of 32, perhaps Hernandez is there. The signs aren’t hard to read: Declining velocity, declining strikeouts, increasing walk totals, injury-shortened seasons. D’Angelo Barksdale’s explanation that the king stay the king is only true in chess.

What’s really dragged Hernandez down this season are road games. The Venezuelan righty has a 6.98 ERA in eight road starts. That will not get you very far. Expect manager Buck Showalter to play Colby Rasmus here, because Rasmus has reached base 11 times in 16 plate appearances against Hernandez, even if this makes no sense because Rasmus last got a hit off Hernandez in 2014 and they’re both different players now.

A thing that is true about Cashner is that he has the highest WHIP of all qualified pitchers (1 IP per team game) this season. In this way he has taken Wade Miley’s place in the rotation in the most thorough sense. Cashner’s struggle is at home, where he has a 5.22 ERA, and he gives up home runs no matter where he’s pitching. When the Orioles signed him, they surely believed he would limit home runs as he had done in his career up to that point. They really do have a problem evaluating starting pitchers.

Game 2 - Tuesday, 7:05

James Paxton (6-2, 3.72 ERA) vs. Kevin Gausman (3-6, 4.38)

The most interesting thing about Paxton this season is that time a bald eagle landed on him, rejecting his Canadianness. The next most interesting thing about him is his strikeout rate, what with his racking up 124 strikeouts in 96.2 innings. Then there are the Orioles hitters, who have struck out 684 times already this season.

Paxton is a lefty and the O’s are once again among the worst in the AL at hitting lefties, batting just .233/.297/.371. It’s hard to be that bad, but they are. Will Showalter stick with Chris Davis here as a sign of faith that things changed in his week-plus absence from the lineup?

Although I wish that I could say that this is the year the O’s are finally getting the Gausman they always imagined they would unleash, that certainly isn’t the case. He isn’t even averaging six innings per start, he’s giving up hits like they’re going out of style - although some of that may be blamed on the horrible Orioles defense. He is better than the guys the O’s keep signing and trading for to join the rotation, though. We have to give him that.

Game 3 - Wednesday, 7:05

Wade LeBlanc (3-0, 3.26 ERA) vs. Alex Cobb (2-9, 6.56)

Gazing on the ‘18 Mariners from afar, I see the 2012 Orioles in them. It’s there in their 23-11 one-run game record, it’s there in how they are greatly outperforming their modest run differential. It’s also there in how they could pull Wade LeBlanc off the scrap heap and suddenly he’s firing off a low-3 ERA series of starts.

LeBlanc hasn’t started more than 10 games at the big league level since 2011, and here he is, unbeaten in late June. Baseball is a peculiar game sometimes. I wish them good luck in sustaining their mojo, truly - just maybe not in this series.

What is there to say about Alex Cobb? Here’s something. He has made 13 starts as an Oriole. After 13 O’s starts, you were probably also tired of seeing Ubaldo Jimenez and dreading 3.5 more years of him. Jimenez had a 5.01 ERA at that time. This seemed unbearable, and it was... and Cobb’s ERA is over a run and a half higher. He, too, is signed for 3.5 more years.

Regarding all of the Orioles front office drama, my main feeling is this: I hope that the people responsible for signing so many crummy starting pitchers are the ones who lose the power struggle.

Game 4 - Thursday, 3:05

Mike Leake (8-4, 4.11 ERA) vs. Dylan Bundy (6-7, 3.75 ERA)

Mike Leake is the kind of pitcher who “they” would probably tell you can’t succeed in MLB these days. He’s a righty whose fastball averages just 89 miles per hour, he’s striking out just 5.4 batters per nine innings this season, and yet, the results speak for themselves - decent, not great, would love to have that ERA in the O’s rotation. He is coming off a start where he held the Red Sox scoreless across eight innings.

Not bad for a guy who spent his whole career in the National League before a trade to the AL last August. I am generally disdainful of the possibility of success for such players, perhaps because whenever the Orioles add such a player they seem to fail, but Leake is making it work.

For Dylan Bundy, a 2.97 ERA in April was followed with a 6.12 ERA in May and now a 1.98 ERA in four June starts. Who is the most real version of this pitcher? Or is part of his deal that he will bounce between the two depending on how his workload shakes out? Bundy will be on regular rest for this start, which has been how he shines this season: a 1.88 ERA in six starts.

This is all small sample size stuff. but if an elite Bundy can keep it up most of the summer, O’s fans might have something to feel good about in this disaster of a season. Oh, and by the way, Bundy is also best in the daytime, with a 1.83 ERA in eight day starts. Let’s hope 3:05 is day enough for him.

Poll

How many games will the Orioles win in this series against the Mariners?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    0 (Orioles get swept)
    (32 votes)
  • 41%
    1
    (64 votes)
  • 29%
    2
    (46 votes)
  • 4%
    3
    (7 votes)
  • 3%
    4
    (5 votes)
154 votes total Vote Now