If I were to tell you, at the beginning of the 2012 baseball season, that the Baltimore Orioles would be fighting for first place in the American League East going into July, would you believe me? How about that they have won seven of their last ten? Probably not but it is the truth. Manager Buck Showalter has the team 39-28, two and a half games behind the New York Yankees in the toughest division in baseball. The Boston Red Sox are currently in last place with a 33-33 record and eight games behind first place which should give you a little bit of a glimpse into how well the AL East teams have been playing this year.
The Orioles have been anchored by closer Jim Johnson. In four full seasons prior the 2012, Johnson had 21 saves. In 29 games this year, Johnson already has 20 saves with a 1.21 ERA and an amazingly low 0.67 WHIP. It has been close to impossible to do any damage against Johnson. He has pitched in 29 2/3 innings surrendering only 15 hits and 5 walks. In 2011, he proved that he had turned a corner and started to really produce at the back end of the Orioles bullpen but more as a 7th or 8th inning guy. This is his first year as a full time closer and he is thriving.
The Orioles other three top relievers are 27 year-old Pedro Strop, 29 year-old Darren O’Day, and 34 year-old Luis Ayala. They have combined for a 1.62 ERA in 85 games and 94 innings overall. Although Strop leads relievers with 18 walks, O’Day and Ayala have four and five walks respectively. These guys make it easy for Showalter, when deciding to bring in a reliever, as long as their starters make it through the 6th inning because he knows who he can count on in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings and he does not have to worry about giving a guy a day off every now and then. Reliever Matt Lindstrom, who has not pitched since May 10, is currently on a rehab assignment that could see him go to Double-A in the next couple of days and make his way up to Baltimore.
Speaking about their rotation, until recently they were one of only three teams to have only five pitchers start games for them. Dana Eveland stepped in for a spot start recently but besides him it has been all Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Wei-Yin Chen, Tommy Hunter and Brain Matusz. The oldest of the five, Hammel, at 29 years of age has led the rotation with a 7-2 win-loss record, 2.87 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in 13 games and 81 2/3 innings. The other four have struggled a bit, combing for an ERA that is hovering around 5.00. However, they are still quite young; Arrieta and Chen are 26 and Hunter and Matusz are 25.
The Orioles possess a lineup that strikes out more than it walks but that hasn’t deterred center fielder Adam Jones from having an All-Star caliber season with a .307/.356/.577 slash line along with a team leading 18 homeruns, 39 runs batted in and 9 stolen bases. They are without right fielder Nick Markakis who suffered a broken hamate bone in his right wrist but, after surgery on June 1st, he should be back within the next two-three weeks. Recently, second basemen Brian Roberts has made his way back into the lineup. He is now 34 years old and it is hard to tell what he can bring to the lineup. 1B Chris Davis, who has also dabbled in right field, has surprisingly hit for .288/.335/.507 which makes it seem that he now has a better handle of the strike zone and increased bat control. His strikeouts are still high (63 K in 233 PA) but he is putting the ball in play at a much higher rate than he previously has.
Defensively, players have had to make adjustments on the run. First basemen Chris Davis, as mentioned before, has played right field while Nick Markakis is recovering from wrist surgery. Robert Andino, the second basemen while Brian Roberts was on the disabled list, is now platooning with Wilson Betemit at third base.
Baltimore focuses heavily on their bullpen which could come back to bite them in the second half of the season. Their starters need to begin to consistently pitch six innings to give the bullpen a break. Furthermore, the Orioles could shop for another starter and an outfielder or designated hitter such as Philadelphia Phillies bench player Jim Thome and Arizona Diamonbacks starter Joe Saunders. Even if they do not acquire another player, Showalter has his team of youngsters learning how to win in arguable baseball’s toughest division.