Despite flaws, Orioles remain in playoff hunt
The Baltimore Orioles have defied logic this season in a manner that transcends their unlikely stature as a playoff contender.
Baltimore has been outscored by 49 runs, committed more errors than any team in the majors and ranks last in stolen bases. In addition, the Orioles have already lost two leadoff hitters to year-ending injuries, rank 23rd with a .245 batting average and currently employ a makeshift starting rotation that includes two rookies and a 24-year-old with an 11-17 career record.
Yet, instead of stumbling toward a 15th consecutive losing season, the surprising Orioles (62-53) trail the AL East-leading New York Yankees by only 5 1/2 games and are in second place in the wild-card race. If the postseason began today, Baltimore would be a participant.
''From what I understand, this team has some people scratching their heads,'' manager Buck Showalter said.
The Orioles are seven wins away from matching last season's total. They're 22-19 within the division after going 28-44 in 2011. And, with a 32-25 record on the road, they've already improved upon last year's 30-51 mark.
Baltimore has been successful because of its ability to win the close ones. The Orioles are 22-6 in one-run games, including an 11-game streak that began in late June. They've also won 12 in a row in extra innings.
Much of the credit goes to a bullpen with two exceptional performers in the back end. Setup man Pedro Strop (4-2, 1.24 ERA) has a run of 16 consecutive scoreless appearances since July 3 and All-Star closer Jim Johnson has 34 saves in 37 opportunities. Throw in the consistent performances of Luis Ayala (4-3, 2.56), Darren O'Day (6-0, 2.51), Troy Patton (1-0, 2.58) and Matt Lindstrom (1-0, 2.51), and no wonder Baltimore is 47-0 when leading after seven innings.
''Obviously our bullpen is a lot better, statistically,'' Showalter said. ''That's something that would stare out at you. And a lot of it's got to do with the way Jimmy's anchored the end of it.''
Who saw this coming? Perhaps no one except the Orioles themselves.
''I said this in spring training: Don't be surprised because we're going to have a great bullpen this year, and now you can see the numbers,'' Ayala said.
This team has far more depth than last year's club, especially in the starting rotation. In 2011, Showalter had to use Chris Jakubauskas, Jo Jo Reyes, Rick VandenHurk and Mitch Atkins as emergency fill-ins. Now he's got options such as rookies Miguel Gonzalez and Steve Johnson, both of whom have done well. And that's important, because the Orioles are operating without three members of their opening day rotation - Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, who are in the minors, and Jason Hammel, who's been sidelined since mid-July with a knee injury.
Fortunately, Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen (10-7) quickly made the adjustment from playing in Japan and Chris Tillman has gone 4-2 since arriving from the minors with a 7-15 career record.
Nick Markakis assumed the leadoff role by default after both Brian Roberts (hip) and Nolan Reimold (neck) had season-ending operations. Markakis, who has been a part of losing in Baltimore since 2006, is elated over the turnaround.
''It's a little bit of everything,'' he said. ''We've got a bunch of new guys in here. Everybody's been contributing, especially when we've had guys go down, including myself. They've come up and filled some big shoes. We've had a lot of big hits and a lot of big innings from guys that aren't even here right now. That's what it takes to get to where you want to be.''
The list of contributors includes 20-year-old Manny Machado, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft. Machado never played above the Double-A level before last week, and in only four games with Baltimore he's hit three home runs, driven in seven runs and played flawlessly at third base.
These are not the same old Orioles.
''It's a lot different coming to the ballpark,'' All-Star center fielder Adam Jones said. ''Our pitching has kept us in ballgames when our offense has been bad at times. It's fun to see some guys grow up. A couple years of up and down, then get the chance up here and do it, succeed. We've got a good mix of talent.''
First-year vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has done a fine job of filling out the roster via trades and free agent signings. The Orioles didn't get any stars during the offseason or at the non-waiver trade deadline, but deals that landed Hammel, Lindstrom, catcher Taylor Teagarden and second baseman Omar Quintanilla certainly have helped.
''It's not about names, it's about the guys that want to work hard and make this a successful team,'' Ayala said.
And who better than Showalter to herd it together? Now in his second full season in Baltimore, the no-nonsense manager has crafted a turnaround similar to those he orchestrated previously in Texas, Arizona and New York.
''Guys are held accountable,'' Jones said. ''They see what Showalter is doing. He ain't going to just sit there and watch you (stink).''
Four months ago, the Orioles might have been satisfied with merely ending their 14-season run of frustration. Now, that's not good enough.
''The culture change that has evolved in the last couple years, obviously Buck is a big part of that,'' Johnson said. ''The personnel is a part of that as well. It's enjoyable, but when we look at it we're not satisfied. We have a goal of where we want to be, what we think we can be.''