by Matthew Taylor
The inspired efforts this season of our beloved Birds are taking place away from the national spotlight. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnik does give a halfway-point nod to the O’s bullpen, which he places on his list of “the biggest overachievers of ’08.“
After spending $42 million on free-agent relievers prior to the 2007 season and failing to get the desired results, the Orioles hit upon a more cost-efficient plan for ’08: Make a couple of astute trades, resurrect a formerly promising arm in the system and watch the entire production take off.
If you’re looking for an explanation for Baltimore’s surprising start, the bullpen is a pretty good place to focus. Orioles relievers are 15-13 with a 3.28 ERA, compared to 24-35 and 5.71 last season. After going 13-31 in one-run games a year ago, the O’s are 17-12 this season.
Closer George Sherrill, acquired from Seattle in the Erik Bedard deal, can be an adventure at times. But he has converted 27 of 32 save chances through a combination of good stuff, better deception and even better intestinal fortitude. Sherrill has become a fan favorite in Baltimore, which could complicate matters if general manager Andy MacPhail decides to dangle him at the trade deadline.
MacPhail acquired two power arms from Houston in the Miguel Tejada deal. Dennis Sarfate is averaging more than a strikeout an inning, and Matt Albers also pitched effectively before going down with a torn labrum in his right shoulder last week.
The big revelation has been Jim Johnson, a former fifth-round draft pick who never quite cut it as a starter. Johnson lengthened his stride in the minors with the help of pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt — and presto — his power sinker is suddenly unhittable. He has allowed 26 hits and posted a 1.17 ERA in 46 1/3 innings.
Crasnik’s correct that the bullpen has been central to the team’s resurgence; it is indeed a big part of the tale. However, as any Birds loyalist knows, there’s more to this story, which is ultimately about the re-birth of a love affair between a city and its long downtrodden team.
I’ve shared multiple discussions with my friend and former Roar from 34 regular Chris Heun about the concept of the “lovable loser” and how a team comes to earn that description. I’d say that the 2008 Birds possess many of the necessary elements except, of course, for the losing.
Consider Tuesday’s victory over the Royals and the reception given by the fans to closer George Sherrill in an outing that followed two consecutive blown saves.
Sherrill, who had blown saves the two previous days by giving up home runs on two-strike hanging sliders, got a standing ovation as he ran out of the bullpen, a gesture the first-year closer said “meant a lot.”
Remember the sad case of Terry Mathews and the reception he received from fans during the ALDS? The team’s fan base may be smaller now than it was in the late ’90s, but the remaining loyalists appreciate the fighting spirit of this ’08 squad.
And what of Dave Trembley, the career minor league manager who’s leading the unforeseen resurgence? To hate this guy is to hate cold lemonade on a scorching summer afternoon.
The closer also appreciated the support of Trembley, who wore a T-shirt with Sherrill’s name and number under his jersey. After the game, Trembley presented Sherrill with a sign that was given to him by a fan during batting practice. It read, “Never a doubt, Georgie,” the team’s slogan after Sherrill’s memorably nerve-racking saves.
The manager wearing a player’s replica T-shirt? Is it possible to be schmaltzy and sincere at the same time? Fan signs making their way to the team’s closer? Is this really the same Major League Baseball that has so disillusioned even the truest of fans in recent years?
Meanwhile, Roch Kubatko relays this humanizing gem from Sherrill, who reflected on his Monday night meltdown, highlighted by a hurled bucket of gum, in humorous terms.
Sherrill said he was trying to hit the dugout fence, not drive the bucket through the gap. “Bad location,” Sherrill said. “I missed my spot again.”
The whole incident is made better by the fact that Luke Scott helped the Orioles’ bat boy pick up the gum that Sherrill had scattered in the grass. That’s the same humble Luke Scott who offers waves and tips of the cap to fans at Camden Yards who cheer his name.
It’s nice to get some national attention, but it’s the local guys who are getting it right: “For a change, it’s fun to be a fan.”