Right-hander Jake Arrieta stood stonefaced at his locker Sunday afternoon and placed the Orioles’ 7-4 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers — and a missed chance at the club’s first series sweep of the young season — squarely on his own shoulders.
“I really didn’t feel like the Dodgers beat us today. I beat us. I put us in a tough situation,” said Arrieta, who lasted just four-plus innings, giving up two hits, five walks and five earned runs. “Not giving up many hits at all, just making their job a lot easier by putting them on base for free. It's unacceptable. It's not something that I've ever expected of myself. And it's just bad. It's bad.”
Arrieta, who now has a 6.63 ERA in four starts this season after a 6.20 ERA in 24 big league outings in 2012, has said these words before.
He’s often self-aware; his harshest critic. He’s also hard-working, fiercely competitive and, perhaps, the most talented pitcher on the Orioles’ staff.
That’s why what he does on a routine basis — look unhittable in one moment and unwatchable in the next — is both mystifying and frustrating for all involved.
“That’s the thing. It’s there. It’s just a matter of getting consistent, and that’s what everybody’s striving for in baseball,” said catcher Matt Wieters. “We’re going to keep working until he figures it out.”
Arrieta pitched in five innings Sunday. In three of them, he was perfect, including retiring six straight to start the game on just 23 pitches. In the third inning, he threw 37 pitches, loaded the bases twice and gave up one earned run before escaping by fanning slugger Matt Kemp — one of Arrieta’s six strikeouts.
In the fifth inning, Arrieta loaded the bases with no outs on two walks and a hit batter before giving up a two-run single to Mark Ellis, the final batter he faced. Rookie T.J. McFarland allowed both inherited runners to score, saddling Arrieta (1-1) with his first loss of the year.
“We hope he eventually will [figure things out],” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Arrieta. “He has at times. Just hasn’t found that consistency.”
Even the announced crowd of 41,265 wasn’t sure what to do with Arrieta as he walked off the field in the fifth. Some clapped, some booed. A mixed reaction for another confounding outing. In 19 innings this year, Arrieta has struck out 20 and allowed just 15 hits. But he’s walked 16 batters, oftentimes when he seems to be rolling along.
“It’s being so close and tasting it and knowing that it's there. That's where the frustration comes in,” Arrieta said. “I'm so close to being so good and everybody knows it. That's frustrating, but it's not going to keep me down. It's not going to keep me from continuing to work at it, and get to where I'm going to go.”
The question now is whether Arrieta stays in the rotation and stays in Baltimore. The 27-year-old has minor league options remaining and the Orioles could benefit from adding an extra reliever from the minors — at least until Wednesday, when they will need a spot starter due to Friday’s game being washed out.
Showalter was asked post-game whether a move was coming, and whether it could involve Arrieta in exchange for a reliever that could provide temporary bullpen help.
“That's a way it could possibly be. I'm open to suggestions,” Showalter said. “I think we've got an idea going into the game what we hoped to be able to do, and we'll see whether [Sunday’s] game changed what we hoped we wouldn't have to do.”
As for Arrieta, he was asked whether he felt he has pitched well enough to stay in the big leagues. He simply said, “Yup.”
Afterward, his teammates seemed to echo the sentiment that Arrieta, who also could be moved to the bullpen, belongs in the majors. He just needs to continue to work at what makes him effective in spurts.
“I’ve seen him at the top and at the bottom,” said center fielder Adam Jones, whose third-inning homer gave the club a 4-1 lead that Arrieta could not hold. “When he is just going after hitters and throwing that fastball with a ton of movement … that’s when he is at his best. That’s basically what he has to do and he knows it.”
Showalter talked about how Arrieta needs to take the emotion out of his performances — similarly to Jones at the plate — and not get bothered if a pitch or a play doesn’t go his way.
“Emotions affect mechanics. Everybody wants to know if things are mechanical or something else,” Showalter said. “Just like [when] Jonesy takes emotions out of an at-bat, he’s a tough out. … [Arrieta] got out of that one inning with only one run, but obviously he created a lot of his problems. It’s tough on guys playing behind him, the tempo goes away.”
The Orioles (10-8) scored three runs in the first against right-hander Stephen Fife, who was called up from Triple-A Albuquerque on Sunday because regularly scheduled starter Chad Billingsley was placed on the disabled list before the game with elbow discomfort.
Fife, who made five starts with the Dodgers last year, was immediately and rudely welcomed back to the big leagues by the Orioles. Leadoff hitter Nate McLouth drew a walk, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on a Nick Markakis single. Four batters later, J.J. Hardy hit a two-run single with the bases loaded to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the first. Fife was charged with four runs in 4 2/3 innings pitched.
But the Dodgers (8-10), losers of their six previous games including a doubleheader Saturday, avoided the series sweep by taking advantage of Arrieta’s wildness while adding insurance runs against McFarland and Troy Patton.
It was the first time the two teams had met since 2004 and only the second time they’ve faced off in Baltimore since the 1966 World Series, which the Orioles won in four straight.
In regular-season games, though, the Dodgers have won six of nine versus the Orioles.
This one was all about Arrieta, the good and the bad and whether he’ll get another chance to pitch in the big leagues in five days.
“I know he’s probably beating himself up a little more than he needs to, but we’re here for him and we’re his teammates,” Jones said. “We’re never going to quit on him and he knows that.”