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Banged-up O's keep bouncing back

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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BALTIMORE, Md.

The standings say the Baltimore Orioles are in a three-way race with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

The standings lie.

The Orioles indeed are in a three-way race. But their true foes are neither the Yankees nor the Rays. Baltimore’s adversaries are Injuries and Logic.

As in: How is a team so debilitated, and so flawed, tied for the American League East lead this deep into September?

The list of the Orioles’ infirmed grew by one Tuesday. But so did their win total. The Orioles are baseball’s answer to Monty Python’s Black Knight: They lose limbs. They keep fighting. In fact, they excel at it. On the night starter Jason Hammel ominously reinjured his right knee, the Orioles thumped the Rays, 9-2.

It is as if the baseball gods huddled in spring training and decided to grant the Orioles an otherworldly success rate in one-run games (25-7) in exchange for a scourge upon their roster. You know, just to see what would happen. Sources with knowledge of the baseball gods’ internal discussions tell FOXSports.com that they, too, are unable to explain what the hell is going on at Camden Yards.

“People want to form too many equations,” Orioles star Adam Jones blithely lamented, shaking his head. “Just watch it. There’s no secret to how we’re doing it. We’re just doing it.”

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In the anticipated series opener with Tampa Bay, Buck Showalter’s lineup featured a left fielder who was released after hitting .140 for the Pirates this year (Nate McLouth), a right fielder who toiled for the Guerreros de Oaxaca and Long Island Ducks during the 2010 and 2011 seasons (Lew Ford), and a 20-year-old third baseman who hadn’t played above Class A until this year (Manny Machado).

But you’d be a fool to dismiss the Orioles’ lineup as an anomaly sheathed in bubble gum and duct tape. They have talent — and a legitimate chance to win the division — even as they expand their budget for training-room icepacks. The 2012 Orioles have played 141 games, and they are 79-62. That’s a significant sample size — and a lot of wins.

The Orioles’ starting rotation may be mediocre, but they play clean defense and protect leads with a sturdy bullpen. Showalter has fostered a competitive attitude that Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon praised and B.J. Upton compared to the Rays’ pennant-winning ethic in 2008. The Orioles also are familiar with a time-honored baseball concept known as the “home run.” When in need, they know how to drop a souvenir into the first few rows. The Orioles have socked more homers than every team in baseball except the Yankees and White Sox. (They added three Tuesday, including a pair by J.J. Hardy.)

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Four Orioles have hit 21 or more home runs: Jones (29), Chris Davis (25), Hardy (21) and Mark Reynolds (21). The White Sox are the only other AL team that can make that claim, and Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters (19) is poised to join the group. “I think we feed off each other,” Davis said. “We’re very relentless.”

The Orioles are averaging a robust 6.3 runs per game in September, and they probably will need to maintain that type of production if they want to make the playoffs. Hammel departed in the fourth inning and later compared the pain in his right knee to the way it felt in a July 13 start against the Tigers; that’s alarming, since the July outing in question precipitated surgery and an absence of more than six weeks.

“I thought we had cleaned it up,” said a somber Hammel, who plans to visit with a doctor Wednesday. “I’m hoping it’s just scar tissue. I’ve been told scar tissue can react like that. But it’s frustrating, because it felt exactly the same.”

The Orioles didn’t need this — certainly not now, with the team still processing the fresh news that reliable right fielder Nick Markakis is gone for the remainder of the regular season with a broken left thumb. Showalter has yet to announce who will start Thursday, let alone over the weekend. First-half sensation Wei-Yin Chen has faded recently, and right-hander Chris Tillman is working his way back from elbow trouble.

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So, you can understand why Showalter wore a look of agony and dread when Machado (who is new to third base) slid awkwardly while in pursuit of a Matt Joyce foul ball in the sixth inning.

“I just watched to see if he’d get up and hope that — ah, I’d better not say it,” Showalter confided. “You just kind of look away, with all your players — not just Manny. You like to see them get up and go back to their position.”

(In this instance, he did.)

While it’s true that the Orioles have shortcomings, it’s not as if the Yankees and Rays are perfect. New York is 27-29 in the second half. The Yankees have lost CC Sabathia’s last three starts, and questions linger about whether he is truly healthy. The Rays are baseball’s preeminent pitching team but struggle to score runs. Tampa Bay’s biggest free-agent acquisitions — Carlos Peña and Luke Scott — have had little impact on their lineup.

So, in spite of the injuries, the Orioles are in a favorable position: They have the tools to win, but they aren’t burdened by the expectation that they have to do it. Nor do they need to worry about explaining how they have arrived at this juncture — which might be the toughest task of all.

Tagged: Orioles, Yankees, Rays, Jason Hammel, Chris Davis

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