Warm weather. Camden Yards. A hot-hitting Orioles lineup. Blend it all together and it has the potential to give a pitcher a splitting headache. Drives that appear to be fly balls elsewhere turn into home runs just over the fence in Baltimore. Wednesday proved that thesis.
Eight home runs were hit, four by each team. Ryan Zimmerman’s majestic three home run performance was overshadowed by the Orioles’ four-run comeback and the mistakes of Jordan Zimmermann and Tyler Clippard. Even in batting practice, balls were flying off bats. Everyone just might be capable of hitting a home run in these conditions, especially the second-best hitting team in the majors in the Orioles, who are averaging 5.11 runs per game.
“This ballpark can eat you alive,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “It always jumps here. I know this ballpark. you’ve got to keep the ball down. … It’s a tough park to pitch in … The margin of error in this ballpark is not great.”
On Thursday, the Nationals send 32-year-old Dan Haren (4-5, 5.43 ERA) to the mound at Camden Yards to face a buzzsaw. Baltimore counters with 36-year-old Freddy Garcia (1-2, 4.61 ERA), who is making his sixth start for the Orioles. Haren’s last outing against the Phillies was an improvement after a clunker in San Diego. But the match-up has between the two veteran pitchers has the potential to be dangerous for one reason: home runs.
Haren is fourth in the majors in home runs allowed with 12. Garcia has allowed seven in nearly half the innings. Haren is third in the majors in home run percentage (4.8 percent) and Garcia, who if he qualified for the rankings, would be tops (6.3 percent). Zimmermann, who entered Wednesday’s game with three home runs allowed all season, paid for his mistakes against the Orioles and surrendered three, experienced this first hand.
“I thought they were routine pop-ups and they kept going,” he said. “Can’t really do much about that. Can’t really change your game to pitch to a small ballpark … I think some of their numbers are a little escalated because of the ballpark but they’re a good-hitting ballclub. Got to tip your hat to them.”
The conditions work both ways. The Nationals struggling offense has shown some signs of life recently, scoring 23 runs over the past four games. Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche have been smashing the ball around the yard. The Nationals could benefit from another day against Orioles pitching, especially Garcia. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Nationals boasted the seventh-best team ERA (3.52) and the Orioles ranked 27th at 4.49 ERA. But adjusted for their respective ballparks, the differences are slimmer: the Nationals have a 108 ERA+ (13th) and the Orioles a 97 ERA+ (27th).
“It’s always a good place to hit,” Zimmerman said. “It’s tough to hit the ball. This has always been one of the best places to hit. It’s got a great batter’s eye. You can see the ball well. Really there’s not a bad place in the park to hit it. Most parks that are good hitters’ parks will have a deep left center or deep right center or something where you gotta hit it to get it out. But here it’s pretty nice all around.”
Haren faced a power-hitting team in the Braves on May 2 and mowed through them in a one-run, eight-inning performance, his best of the season. He fed into the aggressive, swing-early nature of that lineup. The Braves lead the majors in swinging at 32 percent of first pitches, but still manage to draw a lot of walks. The Orioles don’t draw nearly as many walks but swing at only 24 percent of first pitches — ninth best in the majors. They are aggressive but selective, working a fourth-lowest 3.77 pitches per plate appearance. Haren, a careful student of opponents, has surely noticed.
Orioles slugger Chris Davis is posting some outlandish numbers — 19 home runs and 50 RBI — and it’s only late May. He would be the Triple Crown leader if it wasn’t for Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera. (“Last year, I would have pounded him inside and this year he gets to it,” Zimmermann said.) Leadoff hitters Nate McLouth and Nick Markakis are playing well. Manny Machado is among the game’s best young hitters with a .332 average and feasts on fastballs. Sluggers Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy lengthen the lineup with more power.
If Haren should falter, relievers like Henry Rodriguez or Craig Stammen seem like ideal match-ups against the Orioles lineup. Rodriguez’s hard stuff is difficult to make solid contact against and Stammen’s power sinker won’t run the risk of getting lifted high in the air, especially if it’s sinking forcefully and is low in the strike zone.
“[The Orioles are] a good hitting team,” Zimmerman said. “No matter who is on the mound you’re going to have to score runs to beat them. They have a good approach. They’re patient but aggressive. They’re a tough team to get out.”
FROM THE POST
Ryan Zimmerman hits three homers but Baltimore rallies for 9-6 win, writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Gwinnett 10, Syracuse 1: Starter Danny Rosenbaum allowed five runs, three earned, on six hits over 1 2/3 innings. Jeremy Accardo gave up five runs on seven hits over two innings. Jeff Mandel pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. Xavier Cedeno pitched a scoreless ninth. Chris Marrero, hitting .302, went 1 for 4 and drove in the lone run. He has 40 RBI on the season.
Akron 6, Harrisburg 3: Starter Robert Gilliam allowed four runs on nine hits over five innings, striking out four. Pat McCoy tossed two scoreless in relief. Ian Krol, acquired in the Michael Morse trade, allowed two unearned runs over 1/3 of an inning. Tyler Herron completed the inning perfectly. Brian Goodwin finished 2 for 4, as did Steven Souza, Jr. Souza smashed a home run and drove in three.
Potomac 9, Salem 8: On rehab, Jayson Werth went 1 for 2 with a single and played three innings in right field. Taylor Hill allowed seven runs on 10 hits over 4 1/3 innings. Greg Holt earned the win in relief as the bullpen combined to allow only one run over 4 2/3 innings. Randolph Oduber, who replaced Werth, went 1 for 3 with two RBI. Caleb Ramsey homered and drove in four.
Hagerstown 12, Asheville 5: In his first start of the season, left-hander Matt Purke tossed 62 pitches over four innings, allowing two runs on seven hits and striking out six. Tony Renda, hitting .295, went 3 for 4 and drove in two. Khayyan Norfork, Wes Schill and Shawn Pleffner each drove in two.