The second half of the baseball season kicked off this weekend, and the Orioles currently have a team fielding percentage of .992, the best percentage in baseball. Think about it, the Baltimore Orioles, the feel good story of 2012, the rag tag group of players other teams had given up on, is currently the best defensive team in baseball.
The Orioles were able to sweep the Texas Rangers this weekend not just because Adam Jones hit another home run and Nate McLouth finally stole another base (his first in over a month!) A huge reason why the Orioles were able to complete the sweep was the strong team defense that allowed the offense to capitalize on mistakes made by the Rangers.
Manny Machado was the talk of the All Star Game with his sparkling defensive play to rob the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt of a hit. Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun wrote a great article about the reactions of Davis, Jones, Hardy and Chris Tillman to Machado’s amazing play. In Friday night’s 3-1 win over the Rangers, though, the talk of the game was Nick Markakis robbing Adrian Beltre of a home run.
It’s hard to articulate what Nick Markakis means to the Orioles; if I had to compare him to one of the Ravens, I think it would be Marshal Yanda. They’re not rah-rah guys like Adam Jones or Ray Lewis, but they’re tough as nails, hard workers, and they make the plays that need to be made. When Markakis spoke about the play after the game, what struck me most was how nonchalant he was about the whole thing, like it really wasn’t that big of a deal. He spoke in true Orioles fashion, it wasn’t about him and how well he timed his jump, it was about the team and how his play helped the team win.
A play that might get overlooked from Friday was Chris Davis almost toppling into the stands catching an Adrian Beltre pop up in the 8th inning. Much has been written about the game of musical positions that Davis played last year, especially after Mark Reynolds became the everyday 1st baseman. Now that the 1st base bag belongs to Davis, his defense is remarkably improved, an added bonus and a major reason why the Orioles have committed only 31 errors so far this season.
On the radio, Joe Angel and former top draft pick Ben McDonald talked about J.J. Hardy being the captain of the infield, and that was especially evident in Friday night’s game. In the bottom of the 6th inning, Jeff Baker of the Rangers attempted to score from first on a double by his teammate Craig Gentry. Hardy received the relay throw from Adam Jones and most likely would have nailed Baker at home, but Baker had actually stopped running half way between 3rd base & home plate. Brian Roberts alerted Hardy, who quickly fired to Machado at 3rd to get Baker, avoiding a huge run in a close game.
In Saturday’s 7-4 victory, Adam Jones made a play in the bottom of the 2nd inning that I had to rewatch to understand how smart it was. Elvis Andrus hit a liner to center field, and Jones feigned making the fair catch, purposely letting the ball drop in front of him. Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, caught not knowing whether Jones was going to catch the ball, ended up in no man’s land between 1st and 2nd base. Jones, with the knowledge that Pierzynski is not the fastest runner, nailed him at 2nd base on a force out. Instead of 1st and 2nd with one out & the tying run at the plate, Miguel Gonzalez was able to work his way of the inning without allowing a run.
In Sunday’s 4-2 win, Machado and Davis combined on a nifty double play in the bottom of the 7th, catching Elvis Andrus snoozing off 1st base. Machado was able to continue to show off his range as a defender with a strong throw to Davis to double off Andrus. Machado did make a rare mental error on Friday when Jeff Baker stole 3rd after realizing Machado was taking his time getting back to the base. Baker ended up scoring Texas’s only run on the next pitch.
A lot of the plays made by the defense on a daily basis won’t show up in the box score, but it is plays like the ones made by Davis, Markakis, Hardy and Machado, backing strong outings by Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, that will make the difference going down the stretch. The AL East teams will spend the bulk of the 2nd half playing each other and the Orioles have the toughest remaining schedule, so on nights when the team’s potent offense isn’t clicking and/or the pitching falters, it will be the team’s confidence that they can make plays like the ones they made this weekend that will keep them competitive regardless of the score.