MLB Coverage: The Lurking Orioles Face Crucial Stretch

The Baltimore Orioles have been lurking in the American League playoff race for several weeks now, sitting just outside either first place in the AL East, or the final wild-card spot. The schedule stretch the Birds have coming up likely means that one way or another, the lurking won’t continue much longer, and TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage looks to break down the team’s recent form.

Baltimore is 67-56, 4 ½ games back of Boston in the AL East, and three games back of Oakland for the last wild-card. Tampa Bay is prominent in both races, wedged in between the Orioles and Red Sox in the division, and holding down the first wild-card berth. Baltimore’s big schedule stretch starts with a three-game home series against Tampa Bay tonight. Oakland comes to town on the weekend. Then it’s a nine-game road trip with stops at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and concluding with fellow wild-card chaser Cleveland.

Offense has carried Baltimore through much of the year, although the runs have slowed since the All-Star break. The Orioles are still sixth in the American League in runs scored in that timeframe, but considering they’re third for the season as a whole, this is a bit of a bump in the road.

In that regard, first baseman Chris Davis is a microcosm of the team—with a stat line of .353 on-base percentage/.588 slugging percentage he’s swinging what is a good bat by any reasonable standard…except the standard Davis himself set in the first half when he hit 37 home runs by the break.

Expecting Davis to continue at that surreal pace was never reasonable, and what has to disturb Baltimore manager Buck Showalter is that other players are slumping. Manny Machado’s numbers since the break are a poor .279/.385, and Nick Markakis similarly struggling. Nate McLouth and J.J. Hardy aren’t getting on base consistently.

Finally, Matt Wieters is still not hitting, continuing what’s been a tough year for the catcher offensively, and it was the anticipation of better production from Wieters that could offset the return of Davis to the realm of humanity.

If you were pessimistic about the Orioles in June or July, this would be the result you were waiting for—the team’s on-base percentage has never been its strength and teams that rely heavily on power go through stretches where there’s a power outage. Although after last year’s Super Bowl maybe one shouldn’t mention power outages anywhere near the city of Baltimore.

But there’s a flip side to every coin, and this one is the reason the reason the Orioles have continued to lurk, rather than fall off the radar. That’s some improved pitching.

Baltimore’s team ERA got as low as 12th in the American League well into the first half, a completely unsustainable showing for a contender, regardless of the offense. But the combination of improved performance, returns to health and new acquisitions have moved the O’s into the middle of the league if we again use the post-All Star break as our measuring stick.

Chris Tillman is locked in and pitching like a true #2 starter, posting a 2.88 ERA in five starts. Wei-Yin Chen got back from the disabled list, and has posted a respectable 3.79 ERA in his six times to the mound. And the front office went out and acquired Bud Norris at the trade deadline, and Norris has given a manageable 3.91 ERA in his own four starts.

That’s starting pitching good enough to either make the playoffs, or if you miss, to at least do so with 90-92 wins, which falls into the “just tip your cap to the other team” territory. What’s hurt the Birds is that Jim Johnson is still coughing up saves. The closer has blown three since the break, including one in the finale last week at Arizona that resulted in a series sweep.

The easy thing to say is that this will turn around—and maybe that’s true. But it’s also been a season-long problem, so the “everything will work itself out” line that makes sense in May, isn’t as easy to fall back in the latter half of August.

Baltimore remains one of the most interesting teams in the American League, in the sense that it’s very easy to devise scenarios that have them winning the AL East and ultimately the World Series, or slumping and ending up with an 84-win non-playoff year. This can go either way.

We’ll know by the conclusion of September 4, when that aforementioned schedule stretch comes to an end. The timing works well for fans in Charm City—it’s the next night that the Ravens open the NFL regular season, so fans in Birdland will know whether baseball is going to be a hot topic in September.