Down to The Wire: Orioles Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Baltimore Orioles

September 27 – 29

Written by Mike Passador and Dave Church

After dropping a frustrating, emotional series finale with the Yankees, the Blue Jays will welcome another division rival to town in the form of the Baltimore Orioles. While the Jays are in a semi-comfortable wild card position at the moment, that could change if the team wilts against the powerful O’s. The Orioles sit third in the AL East after leading the division for 111 days, having been done in by lackluster starting pitching in the recent weeks. The Orioles will be treating these games as must-wins since they’re currently in a heated battle with the Tigers for the second wild card spot. A strong series from the Jays could put a severe dent in Baltimore’s playoff aspirations while shoring up their own postseason status.

Pitching Matchups:

Tuesday, September 27th – First Pitch 7:07 PM ET

Aaron Sanchez vs. Kevin Gausman

Sanchez came into his last start against the Mariners with some concerns about a blister on his right hand. He did his best to allay any worries, tossing six innings while only surrendering one run last Wednesday. In his four starts against Baltimore this season, Sanchez is 3-0 with a 3.38 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 24 innings. The young fireballer has done well against most of the Oriole lineup; the only exceptions are Jonathan Schoop, who has a .467 average in 15 at bats against Sanchez and Chris Davis, who has hit .429 with three homers in 14 at bats.

Gausman was actually supposed to pitch on Sunday but was pushed back to the series opener thanks to an intercostal issue. He’s pitched terrifically in his last 10 starts, having posted a 2.57 ERA since the calendar flipped to August. The intercostal problem may be to blame for his most recent outing in which he surrendered five runs to the Red Sox, but the Blue Jays might have their hands full with Gausman receiving some extra rest. His mid-high 90s fastball is his most-used pitch but it’s his splitter that could give the Jays trouble. The pitch has generated a 24.8% whiff percentage this year, up from his 23.3% career average. The strikeout-prone Blue Jays will have to lay off and wait for his more hittable offerings.

Wednesday, September 28th – First Pitch 7:07 PM ET

Francisco Liriano vs. Ubaldo Jimenez

The deadline acquisition has performed admirably in his short time with the Blue Jays. His walks per nine innings has decreased from 5.5 to 3.1 and his ERA has dropped over two full runs since arriving from Pittsburgh. He’s proven to be a worthwhile reclamation project by posting a 1.96 ERA and 16 strikeouts in his last three starts and seems to have pushed R.A. Dickey out of the rotation. The veteran lefty will be looking to shut down a powerful Orioles lineup but has the swing-and-miss stuff to get the job done; Baltimore ranks 24th in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, 27th in overall contact rate and 29th swinging strike rate while Liriano’s slider and changeup both generate a whiff rate above 20%.

The 32 year old Jimenez has had his share of struggles this season, pitching to a 7-12 record with an ugly 5.71 ERA. He’s had two decent performances against the Jays to go with two dreadful outings: a 0.1 inning, five run start on June 12th and a 2.1 inning, five run start on June 17th. It’d behoove the Jays to get to Jimenez quickly, as they did in those two awful starts, since the deeper he gets into games the better he seems to pitch. In his first time through the order this season, batters have hit .296 as opposed to .283 the second time through and .252 the third. Some biases exist in those numbers, but if the Jays can’t cash in on early opportunities they could find themselves frustrated by the time Baltimore’s excellent bullpen takes over.

Thursday, September 29th – First Pitch 7:07 PM ET

Marcus Stroman vs. Chris Tillman

After some mid-season malaise, Stroman has returned to form in September. In his five previous September starts he’s racked up a 3.00 ERA and 23 strikeouts despite a winless record. He was sensational last time out, holding the Yankees to just one hit in seven shutout innings. With three straight quality starts to his name, Stroman has delivered exactly what the Jays needed in the season’s penultimate month. The diminutive (not that it’s indicative of things such as heart) righty has faced the Orioles thrice this season, picking up a win on April 19th thanks to seven innings of three-run ball, a no decision after five and a third innings of four-run ball on June 9th and a June 19th loss where he was rocked for 10 hits and seven runs in just three and two-thirds innings. His increased strikeout rate (16.0% in the 1st half, up to 24.0% in the 2nd) plus his strong run of recent play hopefully points towards Good Stroman pitching on Thursday evening.

Tillman was placed on the DL with shoulder inflammation in late August after the right-hander complained of shoulder discomfort and subsequently got rocked by the Astros. Tillman returned on September 11th, delivering good starts against Detroit and Tampa Bay before getting blitzed by the Red Sox on Friday. Prior to the shoulder issues, Tillman was 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA. While he enters the tilt with Toronto with a 16-6 record and a 3.84 ERA, it’s been a successful year for the 28 year old. Tillman typically relies on a fastball, sinker, cutter, changeup and curveball but has shuffled his pitch mix in September. He’s taken to throwing more changeups than sinkers this month so the Jays will have to be on the lookout for Tillman’s off-speed stuff on Thursday.

Additions and Subtractions

With the expanded September rosters enabling each team to carry many more pitchers and bench players, neither team has made any recent changes to their roster. The Orioles recent use of a six-man rotation had their starters in some question for this series after Kevin Gausman, though they eventually decided on Jimenez and Tillman.

The Blue Jays are going to be short-handed thanks to the brawl from Monday’s game against the Yankees. Both Devon Travis and Joaquin Benoit were hurt during the fracas, with both injuries seeming to be more than solely the day-to-day variety.

Keep an Eye On

American League East Hitters: Can They Hit? Will They Get Hits? Let’s Find Out!

The Orioles and Blue Jays once had reputations as teams that scored a lot of runs coming into this season. So the last time they met, they of course combined for 22 runs in three games in low scoring affairs, with the Jays winning two of three. The O’s only managed 11 runs in 3 games in their last series against the Diamondbacks, but still won all three matchups. The Jays have mostly sputtered offensively in September despite having their full lineup, managing just 3.9 runs per game on the way to a 10-13 record.

Benoit isn’t Joaquin Through That Door

The injury to Joaquin Benoit during Monday’s brawl against the Yankees leaves a hole in the seventh inning for John Gibbons’ pitching staff. Given the manager’s fondness for the recently acquired reliever, it will be interesting to see who gets the call in the first setup situation. One assumes Joe Biagini is the next man up, as Gibbons has come to rely on the Rule 5 pick for middle inning jams. Perhaps Brett Cecil, who hasn’t allowed a run since August 21st and only three since the month of July, returns to higher leverage roles. Or some other new hotness, like Danny Barnes? With the clock running down on the season, Gibby won’t have much time to find out.

Chris Davis, No Longer a Jays Killer?

Orioles first baseman Chris Davis has been a thorn in the Jays’ side throughout his career. The Jays did well against him in the last series in August, as Davis went 0 for 9 with 3 strikeouts and 3 walks (all at the hands of Aaron Sanchez, who wanted no part of him). Davis’ OPS is still a healthy .868 against the Jays on the season, so they’d do well to continue to pitch him carefully. Cecil has had some success against Davis in his career, and may get the call in crucial, late inning at-bats.

Probable Lineup

Baltimore Orioles

Toronto Blue Jays

Adam Jones – CF Devon Travis – 2B
Hyun-Soo Kim – LF Josh Donaldson – 3B
Manny Machado – 3B Edwin Encarnacion – 1B
Mark Trumbo – RF Jose Bautista – RF
Chris Davis – 1B Russell Martin – C
Jonathan Schoop – 2B Troy Tulowitzki – SS
Matt Wieters – C Michael Saunders – DH
Pedro Alvarez – DH Melvin Upton Jr. – LF
J.J. Hardy – SS Kevin Pillar – CF

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

With the division mostly out of play because the Red Sox don’t lose games anymore, this is the most important series remaining on the Blue Jays’ schedule. A sweep or winning two out of three would go a long away towards cementing the Jays’ playoff chances, though the Tigers and Mariners are still lurking a couple games back if the Jays are on the losing side. With different parts of the team struggling at the wrong times, the Jays have not had the September they wanted, but they still control their own destiny. Win this series, and they set themselves up well for the play-in game.

Lead Photo: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

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