For the Orioles, the American League East is suddenly there for the taking

August 09, 2014|Peter Schmuck

Suddenly, it seems like it's all right there for the taking, and everyone — the Orioles, their fans and maybe even their closest competition — senses the leaves are going to turn orange and black in the fall.

The Orioles moved to six games ahead in the American League East on Saturday with a resounding, 10-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, in which they flexed their considerable muscles for the second day in a row before a national television audience.

The Orioles now have the third-best record in baseball and the biggest lead of any of the six divisions. Neither happened overnight, but it still seems like the club has shrugged off a large measure of doubt in very short order.

There was a point three weeks ago when they were staring ahead at a solid month of top-tier competition, and you couldn't help but wonder which way the American League East race was going to go.

Sure, the Orioles entered the All-Star break with a four-game lead and their starting rotation feeling its oats. But as they headed off on a 10-game West Coast road trip, a lot of fans were hoping they could squeeze out just a handful of wins against the top three teams in the AL West and come home still clinging to first place.

Everyone remembers that ugly first night in Oakland, when Athletics slugger Josh Donaldson launched a walk-off, three-run homer against closer Zach Britton to get the second half of the season off to a particularly discouraging start, but what has happened since then has dramatically altered the perception of the club both at home and around baseball.

The Orioles have gone 15-6 to add some cushion to their division lead, and they've pulled out of a lengthy offensive slump to reel off six wins in their past seven games. The past two wins were so one-sided, and so timely with the club's 60th-anniversary celebration, that it's hard not to feel like there is something Oriole-magical in the air.

Manager Buck Showalter isn't about to get caught up in any premature playoff hysteria, but he understands where his team is, what it has been doing lately and why all this excitement is starting to build.

"We understand the number of games left and the opportunity we have,'' he said, "and I don't think the guys want to let a day pass without getting closer to their goal."

There isn't anything otherworldly going on here, but, for whatever reason, a lot of things seem to be falling perfectly into place right now.

For example, the once-slumbering offense erupted Friday with a six-homer performance that included a couple of Earl Weaver specials before a postgame celebration featuring actual fireworks and a heartwarming tribute to the great players and teams of yesteryear.

Really, how does anyone explain the unwieldy chain of events that has brought the Orioles to the point where the the finish line is coming into view as they play some of their most intense and exciting baseball of the season?

The club lost All-Star catcher Matt Wieters to Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery after only 26 games, creating a hole in the lineup that nothing short of a blockbuster trade figured to fill. No problem. Double-A Bowie mainstay Caleb Joseph has played impressively behind the plate and on Saturday became the first catcher and first rookie in Orioles history to homer in five consecutive games. Veteran catcher Nick Hundley also has made a solid contribution.

If that wasn't enough early-season uncertainty, Showalter had to abruptly change closers when Tommy Hunter struggled in mid-May, so unproven Zach Britton stepped in and has converted 24 of 27 save opportunities. Perhaps more impressive are his nine straight saves since Donaldson's deflating home run.

First baseman Chris Davis has struggled mightily to regain the swing that made him last year's major league home run and RBI leader, but the Orioles got by early on because unheralded contributor Steve Pearce stepped into the breach. Now it's starting to look like both Davis and Nelson Cruz may be getting ready to rock again.

The fans certainly sense something. More than 80,000 of them showed up for the first two games at Camden Yards against the Cardinals, lured by the festivities Friday and by the "Wild Bill" cowboy hat promotion Saturday. Former World Series Most Valuable Player and current Orioles broadcaster Rick Dempsey was definitely feeling it when he put on one of the hats in the eighth inning and led the crowd in a deafening "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" chant from his MASN booth.

Showalter isn't ready to join in on this burst of heightened playoff-race awareness. If he is feeling the gathering wave the fans hope will sweep the Orioles into the postseason without further suspense, he'll say only that the club's recent surge against several of the best teams in baseball hasn't changed his already high opinion of his club.

"They don't have to do that for me to be impressed by them,'' he said. "I'm impressed by them every day, by the blinders that they've got on about what they're trying to do here. They just don't want to let outside influences [affect them] or what, on paper, should and shouldn't be done. … This is the big leagues. These guys are volatile every time you go out there, and if you let your guard down, there's going to be someone there to pop you back to reality."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.