It's no joke, the Orioles are in first place

September 04, 2012|Peter Schmuck

Let's try to put this in proper perspective.

The last time the Orioles were in first place in September, your college freshman was just starting to walk with any degree of confidence, your phone wasn't smarter than you and "Seinfeld" was entering its farewell season.

It has been 15 years since the Orioles were on top of the American League East this late, so you can be forgiven if you don't want to let go of the strange and wonderful feeling that engulfed you on Tuesday night. That's when the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the first-place Yankees and the Orioles hammered the Toronto Blue Jays to move into a tie with the Yankees for the top spot in the division.

Who knows where it goes from here, but the Orioles have shocked the baseball world with a turnaround so unexpected that the so-called experts are at a loss to explain it.

The same team that seemed so undermanned coming into this season has been on a late-summer roll that includes recent series victories over the Yankees and the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, as well as a weekend series during which the formidable Rays scored a grand total of two runs in three games.

Admit it. You would have been satisfied with their first winning season in a decade and a half, but the bar keeps inching upward. The Orioles need just six more victories to reach that modest milestone with 27 games left to play, but nobody is focused on that anymore.

Blame manager Buck Showalter, who bristled a month or so ago when someone asked him about the Orioles' chances of earning a wild-card playoff berth. He wanted none of that and said so, insisting that his team was focused on catching the Yankees, which was a curious thing to say when the Orioles had just lost back-to-back series against two of their chief wild-card rivals (Tampa Bay and Oakland) and were just a handful of games above .500.

Maybe Showalter had just re-read his press clippings, those from spring training that documented the fact that in each of his three previous incarnations as a major league manager, he led a team that had finished at least 10 games under .500 in his first full year as manager to at least 88 victories in his second full season. No wonder one of the Orioles' unofficial slogans is "In Buck We Trust."

Of course, he would sternly caution anyone counting those orange eggs before they hatch that there is still a long way to go in this surprising season. The last month is usually the toughest, as the Orioles proved so painfully to the Boston Red Sox on the final day of the regular season last year.

Still, it's time to start believing — and behaving like real baseball fans — especially now that the Grand Prix of Baltimore is over and you can get back into town. The meager crowds for last week's uplifting four-game series against the White Sox left room to wonder how long it will take for Orioles fans to forgive the organization for its poor performance over the last decade and a half, but the coming four-game series against the Yankees is expected to draw close to 150,000 fans (with plenty of tickets still available for Friday's and Sunday's games).

The planets have been lining up in a way that suggests that this might be one of those magical seasons. The Rays had to spend a large chunk of their schedule without star third baseman Evan Longoria, which took a huge bite out of their offensive attack. The Yankees hosted the Orioles last weekend without superstars Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and they lost center fielder Curtis Granderson during the series with a hamstring injury. They have had a raft of pitching problems that started with the loss of closer Mariano Rivera during the first month of the season.

Throw in the near-total collapse of the Red Sox, and it's starting to look like the year of the cartoon Oriole.

Meanwhile, Showalter is getting sore fingers from pushing all the right buttons and vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has made so many roster moves that equipment manager Jimmy Tyler probably needs a spreadsheet to keep track of all the uniform numbers.

The players have defied baseball convention by winning in spite of their statistical body of work. They rank 10th in the American League in team batting average and the pitching staff is just barely in the top half of the league in team ERA, despite the strong performance of the bullpen. They have cleaned up their defense over the past few weeks but still have the most errors in the league and rank at the bottom of the AL in fielding percentage.

Yet they are in first place in one of the toughest divisions in baseball and look like they have a decent chance to stay in the race to the end.

After 15 years, it's almost surreal.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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