They say that some guys throw, and some guys pitch. Bruce Zimmermann, a lefty who almost nobody was excited about until this spring, is a guy whose stuff speaks softly. His changeup is crafty, and he can throw his curveball for strikes, but, lacking a swing-and-miss fastball, Zimmermann must pitch to do well. And against the Red Sox on Saturday night, pitch Zimmermann did.
Zimmermann gave his team six innings of three-run ball tonight (with a good argument that he really gave up two runs, see below). He mixed in four pitches, including a bunch of gutsy first-pitch curveballs for strikes and some well-placed high fastballs. He located, with just one free pass allowed. He allowed his fair share of contact (seven hits), but mostly wriggled out of trouble. He was efficient, too, getting through six innings on 85 pitches.
Sadly, though, if the Orioles’ bullpen is going to keep throwing like this, manager Brandon Hyde is going to have ask his starters to start going even longer than that. Clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth, César Valdez surrendered the tying run, and a wild Dillon Tate and a hittable Wade LeBlanc coughed up two more to put the game away in the tenth.
It wasted what was truly a nice start by Zimmermann. In the first, Zimm (I’m following Brandon Hyde’s lead here) allowed a run on a hard-hit bouncer, a walk, and a two-out Rafael Devers single. (That walk, by the way: Zimmermann gutsily tried to test Xander Bogaerts with a 3-2 curveball. It didn’t work but still: respect, dude.) Then, to the great shame of the Orioles infield, the Red Sox plated a second run on a tricky double steal: the runner on first got hung up in a run-down, but Rio Ruiz forgot to watch the lead runner, who crossed the plate to put Boston up 2-0.
Zimmermann scooted through the second in just 10 pitches, and wriggled out of the third after a one-out double to Kike Hernández that bounced just short of the wall. With two outs and Hernández on third, Zimmermann sat down the notoriously tough Bogaerts with a perfect curveball, a well-located changeup for strike two, and another curveball that drew a pop-up.
He’d need some help to get out of the fourth and fifth unscathed, but this time, the defense came through for their starter. With two outs in the fourth, Marwin Gonzalez dropped a bunt base hit, and when Christian Arroyo tagged a double to left, the Red Sox waved Gonzalez home. Boy, was it good to have DJ Stewart out in left field today: Stewart made a solid and accurate relay throw to nail the speedy Gonzalez (I didn’t do that on purpose) at home. Then in the fifth, Hernández tagged a ball skyward that landed in Cedric Mullins’ glove just short of the wall. According to announcer Jim Palmer, the new MLB baseball travels five feet less than the old one. Zimm needed every one of those five feet.
Unscathed with two outs in the sixth, Zimmermann’s night ended with the lefty Devers tagging a flat changeup into the bleachers to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead.
Meanwhile, this Orioles offense did little to support their rookie starter. It’s hard to believe it was under a week ago that the Orioles piled on a hapless Garrett Richards for six runs in two innings in Fenway. Early-season rust for Richards? Slumping bats tonight? Either way, Richards looked bad for exactly an inning, and then he didn’t. He greeted Trey Mancini, who’s been pressing harder than just about anybody, with a first-pitch fastball right down the chute that Mancini tattooed into the center-field bleachers. Mancini trotted around the bases and met Anthony Santander at the plate with a big bear hug. (I literally went, “Aww.”) Sensibly, Richards went to a different pitch against Santander, the curveball, but he hung it, badly. Don’t hang a curveball to Tony Taters! The ball was cranked into the bleachers. 2-2 Birds.
But after those fireworks, the offense put up goose eggs for six innings, whiffing ten times with tons of weak contact. In the second, they failed to capitalize on a highly stupid play by Rafael Devers, who fielded a one-out throw to second from the catcher on a stolen base attempt, didn’t tag the base and started jogging away. (The best part: Kike Hernández’s “WTF?” gesture in the outfield as his third baseman broke for the dugout with two outs.)
For most of the game, the one offensive bright spot was Cedric Mullins, who keeps hitting when his teammates don’t. In the fifth, Mullins had a one-out single plus an easy stolen base. In the seventh, he smoked a double into the right-field corner, the Orioles’ first extra-base hit in 60 batters. That stat is a shame.
The Orioles finally made some noise in the eighth. Ryan Mountcastle led off with a single. Against DJ Stewart, Adam Ottavino went to his breaking stuff. The home plate umpire called a very wide slider strike two, prompting an exasperated “C’mon, man!” from Jim Palmer. It didn’t matter: Stewart drove a sinker into the outfield gap for a team-revitalizing double. On a Maikel Franco tapper to first base, Ryan Mountcastle broke for home, but Red Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec muffed the throw. Safe! Tie game. A one-out popout brought the ice-cold Freddy Galvis to the plate. After whiffing on a bunt attempt, Galvis poked a high fastball the other way to score a pinch-running Ryan McKenna and give the Orioles a 4-3 lead!
Alas, alas, alas. You know what happened next. César Valdez, who had a 0.00 ERA entering tonight, came out to protect the one-run lead in the ninth. Tonight, the dead fish was regrettably hittable: Gonzalez swatted a one-out single into the hole, pitch-hitter Franchy Cordero pulled a single into right field, and Dalbec legged out a tailor-made double play ball that would have ended the game. Tie ballgame.
The Orioles had a chance to salvage this one in the bottom of the ninth, but Red Sox closer Matt Barnes blew the side away on 97-mph heat.
Hyde brought in Dillon Tate for the tenth inning. He did not have his best stuff. A deep flyball moved the extra-innings inherited runner over, and a wild pitch over Severino’s glove brought home the Red Sox’s fifth run. After two straight walks, Hyde pulled Tate and put the game into the capable hands of Wade LeBlanc. LeBlanc immediately gave up a hard-hit single to plate one more run.
Just over a week into the season, Orioles starters are exceeding expectations, but several bullpen pieces are looking frazzled and the offense, something fans had reason to hope for good things from, is ice cold. The Orioles will have to figure out something soon.