Being in first place doesn’t feel as good as it should. As it stands Monday morning, the Orioles lead the American League East by seven games over the Yankees, with the Blue Jays a half a game behind them.
Prior to losing two out of three to the Indians, the O’s had won eight consecutive series, which is as good an indicator as any that a team is pretty much unfuckwithable. And yet, there’s still a bit of an uneasy feeling. Not about getting to the playoffs—that seems well in hand at this point (knock on wood), even if it’s just a wild-card spot.
But there’s something about the way this Orioles team grinds out wins—exciting though they may be to watch—that doesn’t bring too many good harbingers for October. The pitching and hitting have never been quite in sync. You get the sense we might not have seen these Baltimore Orioles at their best, but there’s also the lingering feeling they won’t take the necessary steps forward to really make a push for a title.
Save for a few stretches, the starting pitching has been on shaky ground most of the season, and halfway through August, we are again seeing some of the deficiencies in the rotation. Take away Chris Tillman, who has thrown 20.2 innings in three starts this month, and most of the starters have hovered around five innings pitched per outing. While the O’Day-Miller-Britton bridge to close out games has been absolutely money and covers this weak spot, the team can’t rely on that forever. The bullpen will be worn out when we’ll need them the most.
Fifty-million-dollar man Ubaldo Jiménez, the guy charged with getting the Orioles’ pitching over the hump when he was signed in the offseason, is still completely lost, coming back from a disabled list stint to give up six runs in 4.1 innings against his old team, the Cleveland Indians. If Jimenez rides the pine in the bullpen—there’s really no other place to put him—the rotation sets up as Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman, and Miguel González, who is currently pitching in AAA Norfolk. A solid group, especially with top prospect Gausman coming into his own, but a group that hasn’t demonstrated the consistency and stamina to win October baseball.
Then there’s the offense. It’s a group that still lives and dies by the long ball, and one of its best hitters, Nelson Cruz, has cooled considerably since his red-hot April and May. Impressively, they still lead all of baseball in homers, with 154.
But playoff baseball requires scratching out runs in clutch situations, and the Birds have never shown the patience to work counts and draw walks. As a team, they’re currently 28th in the majors with 298 free passes. Interestingly enough, the Oriole who takes the most pitches per at bat is first baseman Chris Davis, who still has trouble connecting with the ball when he actually gets a pitch he likes.
Let’s not even get into the sight of seeing third baseman Manny Machado falling down in a heap, clutching his right knee. We’re in real trouble if his injury is worse than the team is letting on.
You look at all these things and think, this team is leading the division by seven?! Maybe it’s wrong to compare the two, but the 2012 squad always felt destined to win. They hung onto every tight game and somehow reached for something magical in extra innings. It felt like destiny. This year, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen. There’s not that sense of comfort there. And yet, up by seven games.
Before you go writing me off as too much of a pessimist, let me say that having to worry about how our team is shaping up for a World Series run is the absolute awesomest problem to have. Remember 1998-2011? Christ, the biggest concern then was trying to figure out some sort of plan to get the organization out of the ditch and back onto the road.
Now we exist in an A.L. East where the Red Sox are utterly clueless and the Yankees can’t seem to buy their way out of their problems. It’s wide open for the taking and we find ourselves in the middle of August in the driver’s seat with any other competition slowly getting smaller in the rearview.
And there is this to be said about the 2014 Orioles: Despite their problems, they somehow find a way to surge ahead and win. It seems as if they will themselves to it—with a crucial go-ahead homer or a strong outing there or having a guy like Steve Pearce have the year of his life.
So maybe first place doesn’t feel as good as it should, but I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything.