Springtime Storylines: Can Dan Duquette lead the Orioles out of the wildnerness?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Baltimore Orioles.

The Big Question: Can Dan Duquette lead the Orioles out of the wilderness?

This is not one of those previews in which we say “if everything breaks right …” because there’s no way this team is challenging for a playoff spot. If you believe otherwise, look, I love your optimism, but this is not the place for you, ok?

No, the real question is how long it will be until the O’s are not the easy pick for last place, and that depends on one man right now: Dan Duquette, the Orioles new general manager.

Duquette hasn’t held a GM job in a decade. And he wasn’t at the top of Peter Angelos’ list this winter. But those aren’t the biggest issues because Duquette is bright and had a lot of success in his past life. No, at the moment the real issue is how free of a hand he has to do what needs to be done to fix this team. Specifically, overhaul the player development system that has been profoundly lacking in recent years.  There have been some changes so far, mostly a reshuffling of scouting operations and a commitment to Latin America that improves upon past efforts.

Ultimately, though, what has felled this organization is Peter Angelos and his impatience. It took years for the Orioles to slide from one of the best organizations in professional sports to where they are now. Will Angelos grant Duquette the time necessary to fix all of that damage, or will there be another GM and another plan in three years?

So what else is going on?

  • As Matthew noted yesterday, the fact that Jake Arrieta got the Opening Day start is special.  He had a 5.05 ERA in 22 starts last year, then had elbow surgery. This spring, he has a 6.14 ERA in his four starts. That’s the ace. It’s also evidence of just how thin the Orioles pitching is this year.
  • The book on this team of late has been “promise in the lineup, problems with the rotation.” But let’s be honest here: Nick Markakis has regressed since his breakout in 2008. Adam Jones has still not broken out like people keep thinking he will and despite hitting 37 homers, Mark Reynolds is actually kind of a scrub when you balance his power out with his atrocious defense. The position players here are still OK I suppose, but it’s only a strength compared to the pitching, not an absolute one.
  • Let’s be more optimistic: Manny Machado is one of the best prospects in the game. And, as a shortstop, can be the guy who anchors a team for years to come. He doesn’t turn 20 until July and he already more than held his own in single-A.  He is hope for the future, O’s fans.
  • More optimistic on the major league level: Matt Weiters broke out last year, hitting 22 homers and winning a Gold Glove. There’s likely even more where that came from. He’s good, everyone.

So how are they gonna do?

Ain’t gonna lie: they’re a last place team. And there’s not a lot of immediate hope for them to be better.  More likely: the season is dominated with trade talk involving Adam Jones, a Manny Machado Watch and a lot of games where the O’s give up, like 11 runs.

Wish I had more for you, people. But it’s gonna take Dan Duquette a while to sort this all out.

Phillies’ 6-run ninth tops Cardinals in 6-3 wild-card win

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Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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ST. LOUIS — Philadelphia scored six times in the ninth inning off the stingy St. Louis bullpen, highlighted by a bases-loaded single by Jean Segura, and the Phillies beat the NL Central champion Cardinals 6-3 on Friday in the opening game of their National League wild-card series.

The Cardinals, who were 74-3 on the season when leading after eight innings, were poised to put away another close game after Juan Yepez connected for the first go-ahead pinch-hit homer in franchise history with two outs in the seventh inning.

But after struggling all afternoon against Jose Quintana and the St. Louis bullpen, the Phillies finally got their powerful offense going against Ryan Helsley. JT Realmuto began the ninth-inning rally with a single, and walks for Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos loaded the bases before the All-Star closer plunked Alec Bohm to score a run.

The Cardinals training staff came out to check on Helsley, who had jammed the middle finger on his pitching hand earlier in the week in Pittsburgh. He tried to throw another warmup pitch but was pulled for Andre Pallante, who gave up Segura’s hit through the right side of the infield that put Philadelphia in front.

Edmundo Sosa added a run when he brazenly scored on Bryson Stott‘s grounder to first base, and Brandon Marsh drove in another run when a tough hop got past Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

By the time Kyle Schwarber added a sacrifice fly, Phillies reliever Zach Eflin had plenty of wiggle room in the ninth.

It looked as if Eflin might need it, too, when Nolan Arenado and Dylan Carlson reached base and Nolan Gorman hit a two-out single to right. But Eflin responded by striking Yadier Molina to end the game, leaving Philadelphia a win away from facing NL East champion Atlanta in the divisional round.

There was a sentimental breeze sweeping through Busch Stadium before the game. Ozzie Smith cheerfully walked to the mound to deliver a ceremonial first pitch, and if the flag-waving Cardinals fans packed into every nook and cranny closed their eyes during introductions, they might have thought they were watching a game a generation ago.

After all, some familiar faces were in the lineup from the last time St. Louis and Philadelphia met in the playoffs.

That was 11 years ago to the day Friday, when the Cardinals beat the Phillies in a dramatic pitchers’ duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL divisional series. Molina and Albert Pujols played for St. Louis that night while erstwhile ace Adam Wainwright, pitching out of the bullpen this series, also was there to celebrate.

Just like that night in Philadelphia, pitching dominated most of Friday’s series opener.

Quintana, who arrived in a deadline trade from Pittsburgh, was masterful for the Cardinals, allowing only a single to Matt Vierling and a double to Bohm while pitching into the sixth. His day was done after fanning Schwarber for the second time on his 75th pitch, handing the game over to a relief corps that had been downright dominant this season.

Zack Wheeler was the equal of Quintana, allowing a leadoff single to Lars Nootbaar and nothing else until Tommy Edman‘s leadoff single in the sixth. Edman was left stranded on third when Paul Goldschmidt grounded out.

Wheeler departed after retiring Arenado to start the seventh. He struck out four and walked one on 96 pitches, his most since Aug. 20, shortly before the right-hander landed on the injured list with forearm tendinitis.

Then it came down to the bullpens, and the Phillies managed to overcome one of the best in the game.

UP NEXT

The Phillies will try for the wild-card sweep on Saturday night when they send right-hander Aaron Nola (11-13, 3.25 ERA) to the mound. He was stellar his last time out against Houston in clinching Philadelphia’s wild-card playoff spot.

The Cardinals will turn to right-hander Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29 ERA) to force a decisive Game 3. Mikolas struggled in a tune-up out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh but allowed one earned run over his last two starts.