Orioles could be surprise team of 2011

The day began with bad news for the Orioles, as Brian Matusz was officially placed on the disabled list with a strained intercostal muscle and could miss three-to-six weeks.

It shifted to optimism as the club announced that prized left-hander Zach Britton would be called up from Triple-A to make his major league debut on Sunday.

It ended in joy, as former prized prospect Chris Tillman pitched six no-hit innings and Nick Markakis made a spectacular game-saving catch to preserve a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay.

The Orioles haven’t finished above .500 since 1997, and unlike the Pirates and Royals, haven’t been able to use financial impoverishment as a complete excuse, as they mostly drafted poorly and invested unwisely. The years of losing sapped the baseball energy in Baltimore, as attendance at once-packed Camden Yards declined from leading the American League four consecutive years in the '90s to ranking 10th in the league in 2010.

There is a good chance that will climb this season. The team went 34-23 after Buck Showalter took over last season, with the improvement coming in two areas: the team played better defense and the pitchers threw more strikes.

That mandate was on display Saturday night. Markakis made two superb plays in right field, including the final out when he ranged back to the wall and robbed Ben Zobrist of a potential game-tying double. Earlier, left fielder Felix Pie (in the game only because Luke Scott had strained a groin in the top of the inning) threw a strike to home to nail the speedy B.J. Upton in the seventh to keep the game tied 0-0.

But the big story was Tillman, a tall right-hander who originally came from Seattle in the Erik Bedard trade. He’s been a strike-thrower in the minors, but in 23 career major league starts has been tentative, nibbling at the corners like many young pitchers, an approach that has led to 4.2 walks per nine innings, include 5.2 last season.

He was ticketed for more time in Triple-A, but a hip injury to Justin Duchscherer opened a rotation slot and then he was pushed up a day in place of Matusz. Against a Tampa lineup known for working the count and taking walks (the Rays led the AL in 2010), Tillman did issue three free passes in six innings, pushing his pitch count to 101 and an early dismissal, but challenged hitters more than I've seen him in the past. I’m hesitant to read too much into this outing, as only four of his 13 in-play outs were ground balls. Still, you never know when an outing look this can be the confidence-builder a young pitcher needs.

On Sunday, Britton starts. He’s a lefty with a power sinker/slider combo who generated a lot of ground balls and ranked No. 11 on Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list. He was the team’s best pitcher in spring training and the only reason he didn’t make the squad was an attempt to protect his service time.

If the Orioles can hold the rotation together until Matusz returns, this team could be a big surprise. The lineup will be relying on the aging bats of Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, hopeful improvement from Matt Wieters, and the unknown productivity of whiff king Mark Reynolds. If those guys hit, this could be a fun team worthy of bringing the fans back to Camden Yards.


  • The Tampa Bay bullpen is one of the key storylines of the 2011 season and it failed to do the job on Saturday. James Shields pitched a gem for the Rays but left in the eighth after allowing a single and walk. Rookie lefty Jake McGee -- who many think should be the team's closer -- entered to face switch-hitting Brian Roberts. It was the right move by Joe Maddon, as Roberts is better from the left side, but McGee grooved a 92-mph fastball right down the middle and Roberts crushed it to left-center.

  • Matt Cain picked up where he left off (one unearned run in three postseason starts), with six scoreless innings to give the Giants their first win. For those who followed the Cain ERA/FIP debate this offseason, Cain had just three K’s but allowed only five hits. He’s usually a fly ball pitcher but nine of his 15 in-play outs were grounders.

  • Watched the end of the Mets-Marlins game and Francisco Rodriguez came on for the save with a 3-2 lead. He struck out Logan Morrison and Scott Cousins on nasty changeups, but was otherwise shaky, allowing Greg Dobbs to tie it with a pinch-hit single off a first-pitch meaty fastball. (Don’t pinch-hitters always come off the bench looking for a first-pitch fastball?) The Mets rallied in the 10th off Ryan Webb and the best part for them was K-Rod didn’t get credit for a game finished. He has a clause that if he finishes 55 games, a $17 million option automatically kicks in for 2012. I think the Wilpons would turn the franchise over to a collection agency if that happens.

  • Oakland’s bullpen fell apart again in the late innings. Brian Fuentes threw one wild pitch about 10 feet outside, following a couple of Brad Ziegler doozies from Friday. But the A’s did cut their errors from five to one, so that's progress.

  • Ichiro Suzuki had two hits to pass Edgar Martinez as the team’s all-time hits. He did it in typical Ichiro fashion: with two infield singles. Love it.

  • And, yes, Red Sox Nation is in a panic.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.