Currently, the Baltimore Orioles sit at 43-35, eight games over .500 and right in the heat of the AL East. The most recent series against Toronto was a rough one, a sweep at the hands of a tough division rival in possibly the toughest division in baseball. The balance of the Orioles’ lineup suggests that, despite hiccup that being swept causes, this year’s club should be in contention for the long haul.
Last season, there was a lot of “holy cow, look at Baltimore, they just keep winning!” going around in the major leagues.
The types of records set by last year’s Orioles made headlines (one run games, extra inning games, saves) but also brought up a lot of questions, a big one being how can they possibly duplicate this success?
The decision by general manager Dan Duquette not to make any major moves during the off-season was met with a lot skepticism from commentators & fans, but the Orioles took a different road, “Give the guys already here a chance to shine” and, so far, it’s going pretty well. The team has had a couple of losing streaks that might have sent previous Orioles teams into a tailspin, but this group has found a way to scratch out wins to stop the bleeding.
Nate McLouth ended the six-game losing streak with a 10th inning game winning home run against the Yankees in May while Alexi Casilla‘s 3-run shot in last night’s 6-3 win over Cleveland (his first since August 2012) broke a 3-3 tie and team’s four game skid. While the focus has been (and rightly so) on
Chris Davis‘s monster first half at the plate and the rapid growth of third baseman Manny Machado, a balanced lineup & stellar defense has helped plug the holes created by an unusually leaky bullpen and some shaky starting pitching.
Chris Davis’s remarkably improved defense has more than filled the spot left at first base by the departure of Mark Reynolds. The early season injury to veteran Brian Roberts that forced the Orioles to platoon 2nd base has worked out just about as well as anyone could have hoped with Ryan Flaherty and Alexi Casilla contributing with strong defensive stops and key hits. Bench players Steve Pearce, Chris Dickerson, and Danny Valencia have all delivered when their number was called and starting left fielder Nate McLouth is stealing bases at a rate not seen since the days of Roberto Alomar.
Fans like talk about Orioles magic, it’s an idea as old as the team itself. The 2012 season was magical because it was so unexpected. It was magical to watch fans find their way back to Camden Yards again. It was magical to watch the team win close game after close game. The celebration that erupted in the clubhouse after the team defeated the Texas Rangers in the divisional playoff game, that was magical. There’s something different about this year’s team, though. This year’s team is calm, but confident. When Chris Davis went 0-16 during a 4 game stretch, he came to the ballpark before everyone else to spend extra time hitting off the tee rather than get frustrated, overswing at the plate, & rack up strikeouts. During Davis’s “slump”, shortstop J.J. Hardy‘s offensive production began heated up, matching his Gold Glove winning defense. Though he came up as a shortstop, Manny Machado has taken to third base, while continuing to showcase his otherworldly arm strength, making plays that normal 20-year old baseball players don’t make.
There is still room for improvement, especially on the mound. It’s tough to discern whether the mortality of the bullpen is coming from overuse or just rough outings, but there is a continued need for the starters to get deeper in the games. Majors-to-minors bouncers like Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta, who possess the skills to be successful major league pitchers, have to harness their inconsistencies & find ways to contribute to offset the fact that the team doesn’t have a true #1 “feared” ace in the rotation. The team can go big with the home runs, but pressure would be taken off the lineup if more pitches thrown by Orioles stayed in the ballpark (Baltimore leads the AL in home runs allowed).
Top to bottom, the AL East may be the strongest and toughest division in baseball. The schedule for the Orioles is not going to get any easier as the summer heat beats down. These are the big leagues, the home of the big boys & the big bats. The key is balance if the Orioles hope to unseat the division leading Red Sox (and hold off the Yankees, Blue Jays & Rays) for a shot to once again play meaningful games into the fall.