Clearly, the American League has been turned upside-down over the first half of the 2014 season. The AL West now features three of the five winningest teams in the league, and the AL East has not lived up to preseason expectations -- except in Baltimore, of course.
That’s why the three-city West Coast road trip that starts Friday night in Oakland will be a major test of the legitimacy of the Orioles as the top team in the AL East.
The Orioles arrived at the All-Star break with a four-game lead over the second-place Toronto Blue Jays -- which is the second-biggest division lead in the major leagues -- but the first-half demise of the defending world champion Boston Red Sox and a Tampa Bay Rays team that was considered a preseason favorite has thrown into doubt the overall quality of the division.
The Orioles have gravitated to the top of the standings and built their lead on the backs of those AL East teams (26-18), while playing slightly below .500 (21-22) against the rest of the league.
Maybe that doesn’t bode well for this grueling 10-game trip to Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle -- especially with the Angels on a terrific roll right now -- but the Orioles have made a habit of playing up to their competition (and sometimes down to it) this year.
The Athletics are the only one of these three teams that the Orioles already have played this year, and Oakland won two of three at Camden Yards by taking the rubber game of the series in what was Ubaldo Jimenez’s worst outing of the season (2 1/3 innings, six earned runs, five walks).
Oakland has the best starting pitching in the league and will send its two newest additions, right-hander Jeff Samardzija and former Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel, in the first two games at whatever they’re calling the Oakland Coliseum this week.
It doesn’t get any easier from there, with 10-game winner Sonny Gray (2.79 ERA) taking the mound Sunday, but the Orioles have spent the first half confounding everyone with their counterintuitive performance against the (statistically) best and worst starters in the league. So, who knows?
The Orioles rotation has been on the upswing. Chris Tillman, who will start Friday, has a 2.47 ERA in his last seven starts and Wei-Yin Chen, who will go Saturday night, has won six of his last seven decisions and leads the club with nine wins. Kevin Gausman, who apparently will heretofore be a regular member of the rotation, will enter Sunday’s start on a terrific run during which he has surrendered no more than one earned run in five of his last six starts.
If you want more reason to believe the Orioles will hold their own over the next 10 games, consider that they have played better on the road than at home this year, though their record on the road against nondivision opponents is just 11-12.
Pitching is always the key, but they’ll need to score some runs against three of the four biggest run-differential teams in the majors.
The positives: Manny Machado appears to be gathering steam at the plate, and the Orioles have moved up to eighth in the majors in run-differential (+26).
The negatives: Chris Davis is batting under the Mendoza line (.199), Jimenez has pitched himself out the picture for the moment, and the Orioles scored just 12 runs in their last five games.
Which brings us to the big question about this road trip. How many games do the Orioles have to win to consider it successful ... or at least acceptable?
Considering the won-loss records of the three opponents, fans probably should be very satisfied if the Orioles come back with a 5-5 record. Barring a huge push by the Blue Jays or the Yankees over that period, even a 4-6 record in the 10 games should keep them a couple games ahead of the division.
Of course, the challenge doesn’t end there. The Orioles will spend the next month facing the Angels and Mariners again when they get home. They'll follow that homestand with the rain makeup at Nationals Park, a road series against the Blue Jays and visits from the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals at Camden Yards.
The schedule never really eases up this year, but you’d have to think that we’ll know a lot more about this team’s postseason prospects by mid-August.