Orioles rely on pitching in bid to repeat as AL East champs

BALTIMORE (AP) For the first time in 17 years, the Baltimore Orioles open a new baseball season as defending AL East champions.

The Orioles can only hope for better results than in 1998, when they followed a wire-to-wire run to the division crown with a 79-83 flop – launching a franchise-record run of 14 straight losing seasons.

Although Baltimore lost slugger Nelson Cruz, Gold Glove right fielder Nick Markakis and setup man Andrew Miller from a club that last year went 96-66 and advanced to the AL Championship Series, manager Buck Showalter has no intention of disappointing a fan base that has embraced a team coming off its second playoff appearance in three seasons.

”They come to Camden to watch us win,” Showalter said. ”There’s no more passionate, sincere group of fans than we have. Nothing would kick me in the chest more than for us to regress. I want to keep going forward.”

Baltimore made only one significant offseason acquisition, picking up outfielder Travis Snider in a trade with Pittsburgh. The big question is, do the Orioles still have enough good players to stay atop the AL East?

”It definitely stinks to lose Markakis, what he brought to the clubhouse, and Cruz, what he brought to the field. But we’ve got to move on,” said Steve Pearce, who’s coming off the best year of his career. ”You look around the locker room and there’s a lot of talent here. All our pitching’s returned, so we still have a really good team.”

The Orioles are counting on third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters to bounce back from injury-shortened seasons and for first baseman Chris Davis to regain the form he showed in 2013 before slumping miserably last year.

None of the three were available in the postseason, when the Orioles swept Detroit in the division playoff before being bounced in four games by the Kansas City Royals.

Davis’ absence will extend into opening day, on April 6 in Tampa Bay, when he concludes his 25-game suspension for using a banned amphetamine. Wieters is expected to start the season in the disabled list as he continues his recovery from elbow ligament surgery, but at least Machado appears on target to make up for lost time.

The offense will be a work in progress, but the Orioles hope they won’t need heavy hitting to back a starting rotation that remains entirely intact. Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez combined to go 54-29 last year, and the foursome could get some help from right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who’s looked good in spring training after stumbling in his Orioles debut last year.

The bullpen will be anchored by Zach Britton, who had 37 saves in 41 tries during his first season as a closer.

Some things to know about the 2015 Orioles:

TOP OF THE LINEUP: Alejandro De Aza is expected to take over for Markakis as the leadoff hitter. De Aza is faster than Markakis and had a .341 on-base percentage after being obtained from the White Sox before the trade deadline.

”I will just let the game dictate what to do,” he said.

What De Aza needs to do is get on base ahead of Machado, Davis and cleanup hitter Adam Jones.

DAVIS SEEKS A FRESH START: Slowed by a muscle strain near his rib cage, frustrated by defensive shifts and embarrassed by his suspension, Davis is raring to go in 2015.

”I’m in such a different situation this year than I was last year, having been off for a month and a half more than these guys,” Davis said.

He says his teammates have forgiven him for using Adderall, which led to his untimely suspension.

”The guys are just ready to move on and focus on what we need to accomplish this year,” Davis said.

SNIDER STEPS IN: With Markakis gone, Snider will attempt to fill the void in right field.

He hit .264 with 13 homers, 15 doubles and 38 RBIs in 140 games with Pittsburgh last season.

”I’m not here to replace Nick Markakis, but to be another man on this roster and to come out here every single day with the goal of getting better,” Snider said.

MACHADO CONFIDENT: After playing only 82 games last year, Machado is ready to go after knee surgery.

”I feel great,” the 2013 All-Star said. ”I’m doing everything. I’m stealing bases and hitting the ball well, playing good defense, doing everything I’ve got to do to get ready for the year.”