Rays take on upstart O’s for division lead

Year after year, it’s been the same old story for the Baltimore Orioles: Hope springing eternal during camp in Sarasota, followed by a plop to the bottom of the AL East standings when the real games begin.

The arrival of no-nonsense veteran skipper Buck Showalter at the end of the 2010 campaign provided a tease with a sensational late-season finish. But after a promising start in 2011, the team that hasn’t won 70 games since 2006 once again plummeted to the cellar.

So what’s the deal this year?

At least some of the answer: The deals made by general manager Dan Duquette this past winter have helped make Baltimore the surprise team of the AL East and perhaps all of baseball thus far.

And suddenly Orioles fans are dealing with a strange new reality: A month-and-a-half into the season, their team is playing like a powerhouse in what seems like a year of transition in the notoriously rugged division.

The offseason moves – combined with standout play by such mainstays as catcher Matt Weiters, center fielder Adam Jones and right fielder Nick Markakis – have the O’s currently sharing the division lead with the Tampa Bay Rays at 20-12.

A month ago, who’d have guessed the Camden Yards weekend series that starts Friday night between Tampa Bay and Baltimore would be for division supremacy?

But that’s how it has shaken out, due in large part to an Orioles roster revitalized by the additions of a handful of pitchers: former Rays hurler Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.09 ERA) from the Rockies, reliever Pedro Strop (3-1, 1.50) from the Rangers, Wei-Yin Chen (3-0, 2.68) from Nippon in Japan and reliever Luis Ayala (1-0, 1.13), who pitched last year for the Yankees.

Those new arms have helped Baltimore go from the worst ERA in the AL last year at 4.89 to 3.35, second only to Texas (3.24) and six spots ahead of Tampa Bay (3.82).

In addition, the acquisition of former Rangers first baseman Chris Davis has paid big dividends – both at the plate and, amazingly, on the mound. Davis has added some additional clout in the middle of the lineup with a .283 batting average along with seven doubles and five homers. And he even pitched two scoreless innings of relief during Baltimore’s 9-6 victory at Boston in 17 innings Sunday.

The good news for the Rays is they’re catching the Orioles at an opportune moment, a mildly odd concept considering that any time used to be a plus.

Both Tampa Bay and Baltimore took some body blows in their last sets – the Rays dropped two out of three to New York, including Thursday night’s 5-2 rubber-match loss at Yankee Stadium; the Orioles were roughed up by the Rangers with three home losses in four games.

In a 14-3 setback on Monday, struggling lefty Brian Matusz was shelled for seven runs and 10 hits in five innings, dropping his record to 1-4 with a 5.91 ERA. Things didn’t go any better on Tuesday, as the Rangers romped 10-3, fueled by a record-tying four homers and a double by Josh Hamilton. Starter Jake Arrieta yielded a pair of those homers, exiting after 6 1/3 innings with nine hits and six runs.

Following a Wednesday rainout, the Orioles struck back in the first game of a double-header with a Hamilton-like power show of their own. They became the first team in AL history to begin a game with three consecutive home runs, with Ryan Flaherty, J.J. Hardy and Markakis giving Texas starter Colby Lewis an unwanted place in the record books as well. The O’s finished with only five hits total, but the other two were also homers off Lewis by Jones and Wilson Betemit. That display of muscle helped them win 6-5, before losing the nightcap 7-3.

One ramification of the rough series – not to mention the 17-inning marathon that preceded it Sunday – is that Baltimore has had to rely heavily on its bullpen, giving O’s relievers little time to get rested. That could play in the Rays’ favor during this series. Meanwhile, offensively, Baltimore has some impressive pop, leading the AL with 50 homers (one more than next-best New York and 10 more than Tampa Bay) and hitting .250, just ahead of the Rays at .247.

Players to watch include second baseman Robert Andino (.291), Jones (.289 with nine homers), Davis (.491 slugging percentage), Wieters (.283, seven homers), third baseman Betemit (.244, five homers), Markakis (.242, five homers) and Hardy (.238, eight homers).

Friday night’s matchup features Orioles newcomer Dana Eveland, called up from Triple-A Norfolk, against Jeremy Hellickson, coming off his worst outing of the season last Sunday against Oakland. Eveland takes the place of righty Tommy Hunter, another acquisition from Texas who has struggled to a 2-2 record and 5.41 ERA and was optioned to Norfolk after his loss Monday.

Hellickson traditionally rebounds well after poor showings, and the Rays could certainly use that Friday, having lost four of five games and two straight series. He’s 4-1 lifetime against Baltimore with a 2.23 ERA (including 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA last year). His last start against the O’s was a complete game four-hitter on Sept. 4 at Tropicana Field.

Saturday night, rookie lefthander Matt Moore (1-2, 5.71), who also struggled in his last outing, will face Matusz. The series concludes Sunday in a matchup between ace James Shields (5-1, 3.23) and Arrieta (2-3, 4.23).

From there, the Rays travel north for a pair of games against rising AL East power Toronto, sitting in third place behind Tampa Bay at 18-14. Meanwhile, traditional division heavyweights New York and Boston hold down the last two spots at 17-14 and 12-19, respectively.

The only bigger surprise than that? The Orioles playing this weekend for sole possession of first place.