If Orioles fans are lucky, it will be this way for another 3 1/2 months.
The Orioles have a chance to win their fourth series in a row if Wei-Yin Chen can pitch half as well against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday as Jason Hammel did on Saturday night. That would be a pretty big deal after the way they struggled through late May and early June, but -- let’s face it – in the American League East, you can’t let down for a second.
This is the division where you can win eight of your last 11 (as the Orioles have) and slip two games in the standings (as the Orioles did). The Yankees have streaked into first place and are finally back looking like their mega-rich, unbeatable selves, particularly to the National League teams that have been unfortunate enough to draw them during this year’s interleague period.
Sure, the Orioles would have entered Saturday's games a full three games ahead of the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, and I'm pretty sure nobody would be questioning whether they are "for real" if they were playing in some other division. But that's not the world we live in, which is why they have moved into another critical phase in this surprising season.
So far, they have managed to both survive and thrive during a period when the competition was fierce and the roster was in tremendous flux. Dan Duquette is still making almost a roster move per day, but the flurry of significant injuries that probably should have sent the Orioles reeling into oblivion has begun to relent. The key now is to squeeze a few wins out of the Braves and Mets and buy just a little more time to get reasonably healthy.
Manager Buck Showalter has done a masterful job of plugging holes in his lineup, which bears very little resemblance to the one he posted on Opening Day. The Orioles have won games they had no business winning and gotten important contributions from some players who, let's be honest, you'd never heard of three months ago. If you doubt that, I'm going to have to remind you that designated hitter Chris Davis has a 1-0 record and a 0.00 ERA and somebody named Steve Pearce had five RBI on Thursday night.
It's been so much fun that the fans and the goofy media types have taken to calling it Oriole Magic, but there's nothing terribly supernatural about it. The Orioles, despite there penchant for leading the league in all the wrong departments, have generally gotten six or seven innings per start and have developed one of the best bullpens in the sport.
Showalter said from the start if that happened, the Orioles would be competitive. Apparently, he's a pretty smart guy.
When things are going well in spite of themselves, the big moments and the surprising performances are distributed somewhat evenly over an extended period. Steve Tolleson cranks a three-run homer off Cliff Lee to save the rubber game against the Phillies. Jake Arrieta pulls out of a deep slump to pick up injured Brian Matusz and dominate the Pirates. That's how you string together five straight victories when you're missing your regular left and right fielders and you're having trouble catching the ball at third base.
Trouble is, when things are going well in spite of themselves, you have to assume that won't go on forever, which brings us back to my whole "critical phase" theory. I believe that there are a handful of points over the course of a long season when the survival of the species depends on the ballclub sucking it up and getting by until conditions improve.
This must sound awfully negative considering how well the Orioles have played over the past week or so, but the Orioles have hit a patch in this interleague schedule where the pitching is going to be very tough. They go from Atlanta to New York, where they are scheduled to face Johan Santana and red-hot R.A. Dickey. They come home after that to face the Nationals, who likely will send Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman to the mound during the final interleague series of the year.
Soon after that, the Orioles expect to get back right fielder Nick Markakis and reliever Matt Lindstrom and — combined with the recent return of Brian Roberts — should be about as close to full strength as they've been at any time this year.
In the meantime, they don't have to win every series, but they do need to grind out enough wins to keep running with the big dogs.
Help is on the way.
Read Peter Schmuck's in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090AM) and at wbal.com.
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