What an amazing season it has been! We're 18 games from the finish line and the Orioles still share first place in the AL East with the Yankees. On the surface, the team's 5-4 record over the past 9 games seems unimpressive. But contained within that stretch are a four-game split with the Yanks and a three-game sweep of the Rays, both of which helped solidify Baltimore's position in the playoff race. The team has now won 81 games, guaranteeing their first non-losing season in 15 years. With one more victory, they can officially call themselves winners.
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Let's talk offensive substitutions - pinch hitters and pinch runners, that is. There are many reasons why a team might use a pinch hitter. Lew Ford hit for an injured Wilson Betemit in the sixth inning this past Thursday. Later in the same 14-inning marathon against the Rays, Matt Wieters, who was supposed to have the day off, was an obvious upgrade in the bottom of the 13th, pinch hitting for Taylor Teagarden, the game's starting catcher. In Sunday's blowout loss to the Yankees, Xavier Avery and Ryan Flaherty were both given plate opportunities, more to limit injury risk to starters and give at-bats to bench players than for any tactical advantage. Every once in a while, the manager will make a lefty/righty switch in an effort to confound the opposing pitcher. Such was the case when Ford took Nate McLouth's turn in the series finale with the Blue Jays on September 5th.
Generally speaking, the Orioles have been horrible in pinch hit situations, hitting .135/.224/.154. They've been one of the worst pinch hitting teams in the Majors this season - surprising considering their astonishing success in close games. Tactically, it isn't a choice Buck Showalter seems to make very often - 52 pinch hit at-bats, ninth in the American League.
Pinch running seems to offer a more obvious advantage. Any hitter is more likely to produce an out than a hit. But an extra step on the base paths can equal a run. That said, pinch runners haven't done too well for the Birds of late either. Nate McLouth ran for an injured Nick Markakis on September 8th. Endy Chavez ran for Chris Davis on Thursday. Avery ran for Wieters last night. No runs were scored by the subs in any of those situations.
None of this is to say that the Orioles have a weak bench. The truth is quite the opposite, though that strength has manifested itself in other, ultimately more important ways. Markakis's injury is a case-in-point. Most teams would be severely hampered by losing one of their most talented players. While the Birds would certainly be a better team with him than without, they have not crumbled. They won the game in which they lost him and 3 of the 5 since. Every team contends with injuries every year and the 2012 Orioles have been no exception. Indeed, the two most accomplished players on the payroll, Jim Thome and Brian Roberts, have spent the vast majority of the season on the disabled list. It has been the role players as much as the stars who have kept the team steady this year. Compare this to the situation in (ahem!) Boston and one wonders if investing in high-priced studs is such a sensible business model.
So, this is what a pennant race feels like, huh?