Don't discount O's quick start

April 09, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

In spite of a string of early injuries and illnesses, the Orioles spent the first week of the season on top of the American League East and — relative to where they were exactly a year ago — on top of the world.

The one-year turnaround has been so dramatic, in fact, that everyone with any kind of baseball pedigree is rushing to downplay their success and temper any magnified expectations that might have arisen from the back-to-back series victories over the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers.

That's logical enough, since it was just one week in a very long season, but it might be a mistake to discount the importance of getting off to such a good start under such difficult circumstances.

How you evaluate the short-term performance of this team depends largely on what you expected before the season began, and measured against the general level of expectation that surrounded the Orioles, what has happened so far is actually quite significant.

They have managed to store up some acorns in baseball heaven at a time when several key players have fallen out of the rotation and the starting lineup. The loss of No. 2 starter Brian Matusz on the day before he was set to open the season looked like a possible death blow at the time, but the club has won both the games he would have started and inched a week closer to his return. Luke Scott missed several games with a groin strain, but is already back in the middle of the batting order.

Jeremy Guthrie (pneumonia) and J.J. Hardy (rib cage strain) also have been sidelined without creating a major interruption in the club's performance.

What does that prove? Only that the Orioles are a much deeper team than they've been in recent years, though you can be sure that manager Buck Showalter didn't want to test that depth again so soon with the loss of second baseman Brian Roberts to a stomach ailment.

The quick arrival of top minor league prospect Zach Britton — and his terrific debut — temporarily took the sting out of the Matusz injury and could turn out to be a catalytic event if the Orioles are really in the midst of an organizational renaissance. The club's improved position depth also has already come into play, with Cesar Izturis stepping in ably for Hardy the past few games and Nolan Reimold standing ready while Scott recuperated.

Not only were the Orioles able to buy some important time while they were (and continue to be) banged up, they were able to put some distance between themselves and two of the teams that were expected to be looking back at them by now. Really, what were the odds that they could lose their No. 1 and No. 2 starters during the first week of the season and enter the second weekend leading the division favorite Boston Red Sox and the defending division champion Rays by five games?

Showalter has been careful not to read too much into the early struggles of both divisional rivals at this early stage in the race, but the large number of games remaining to be played does not diminish the importance of those that are already in the win column.

Quite the contrary. The Orioles are trying to re-establish their credibility with local fans, so you could make the case that a string of victories in early April might be even more significant than a similar string in August.

The early struggles of the Red Sox and Rays may not signal a dramatic changing of the guard in the division, but it also is significant in the context of what the Orioles are hoping to accomplish during this transitional season.

They need to remain competitive for as long as possible to validate the Andy MacPhail rebuilding project and maintain the momentum that they established during their surprising turnaround last August. Their unlikely 5-1 start certainly fits into that schematic, but a major stumble by one or more of the other contenders in the A.L. East could keep them viable long enough to build some enduring excitement in the stands.

The Red Sox probably will bounce back in relatively short order, but the Rays appear to be in serious trouble with Evan Longoria on the disabled list and Manny Ramirez's shocking decision to retire on Friday. They already looked vulnerable with the offseason losses of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and a big chunk of their pitching staff, so it's going to be hard to recover from their winless first week.

There is an opportunity here for the Orioles to get some real traction and present the fans with their first truly entertaining season in a long time.

Yes, it's early, but it's not irrelevant.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/schmuckstop

Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" every Friday at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.

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