Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, left, is thrown out at home plate… (Joy R. Absalon, USA Today…)
It has become fairly obvious that the team that makes the playoffs out of the American League East — and there probably will be only one — will be the team that best weathers what has been a division race influenced by an unusual amount of injuries.
So far, that team is the Orioles, who have tiptoed through a crowded training room to reach the All-Star break at the top of the standings.
They opened the season with their Platinum Glove third baseman, Manny Machado, on the disabled list and have lost one of the top all-around catchers in the game for the duration. They've also overcome time-consuming injuries to Chris Davis and Miguel Gonzalez, yet what they've endured so far is nothing compared with the string of major setbacks that has decimated the New York Yankees' gold-plated roster.
Not that anyone around here should feel sorry for the Yankees after the run they've had and the billions they've spent to dominate the division for much of the past two decades. The only thing that's relevant about their misfortunate is whether the Orioles can take full advantage of it and push them out of contention before they try to buy their way back in.
In spite of all that has ailed the Orioles through the first half, the divisional dominoes appear to be falling in their direction. The second-place Toronto Blue Jays lost some momentum in June and recently lost Edwin Encarnacion to the 15-day disabled list, which would be statistically equivalent to the Orioles suddenly losing top run-producer Nelson Cruz. Toronto also will be without regulars Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie for an extended period.
The last-place Tampa Bay Rays have been playing short all season, and the defending world champion Red Sox entered the weekend 91/2 games out of first place.
Clearly, Orioles manager Buck Showalter and baseball operations chief Dan Duquette are taking nothing for granted. The Orioles might appear to be cruising into the All-Star break at their high-water mark for the season, but the guys who push the buttons continue to work furiously to squeeze every possible win out of the 25-man roster.
On Thursday, the club optioned starting pitcher Bud Norris to Double-A Bowie to make room for an extra reliever and position Norris to make a minor league start during the break. The move set him up to return to face the Los Angeles Angels on the road, which probably was the next time he would have pitched anyway.
On Friday, the club announced that starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez had injured his ankle and would be placed on the 15-day DL, making room for the quicker return of recently optioned right-hander Kevin Gausman, who now is scheduled to start the nationally televised series finale Sunday night.
On Saturday, the Orioles optioned starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for third catcher Steve Clevenger (Mount St. Joseph), a move that gave Showalter an extra left-handed bat for the rest the Yankees series without costing Gonzalez a major league start.
Without belaboring the whole domino thing, consider that putting Jimenez on the DL can be construed as a positive thing over the short term because he has been struggling mightily with his command and Gausman has won four of his last five major league starts in fairly impressive fashion.
If all this gives the appearance that the Orioles are trying to get every possible game while the getting is good, that appearance probably isn't deceiving, though Showalter would insist that he is always in that mode, and that is a hard point to argue. In his world, there are no weak opponents that you're supposed to beat, and with the strength of schedule the Orioles have faced this season, he might be right.
"You could have said the same thing about us when we were without Matt Wieters for a while before it became apparent it was going to be the whole year, and a couple of other guys,'' Showalter said before Saturday's game. "Where it presents a challenge is to your advance scouts. (The Yankees] don't know who's starting tomorrow, and shouldn't. They're waiting on some things just like we have had to do. The challenge is to be ready for whoever."
"If you brought that up in an advance meeting and said that, they'd look at you like, 'Hey, everybody can beat you.' Sometimes it's the unknown starter, unknown relief pitcher, unknown position player. That's why it's important to have great [organizational] communication."
Still, there's a big opportunity here, and everyone knows it. The Yankees are vulnerable, and so is every other team that the Orioles are looking down on in the standings right now. There's another big test looming on the other side of the break — when the Orioles go on the road to face the heart of the tough AL West — but they might be peaking at just the right time.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.