The Baltimore Orioles have passed the mid-season mark sitting on a comfortable perch — first place in the American League East with a four game lead (five in the loss column) over the Toronto Blue Jays. It's difficult to know whether to be overjoyed or deeply suspicious.
Oh, we knew the birds had the necessary credentials to contend for a playoff spot going into the season after a third place finish in the division last year and second place the season before. Not even the devastating injury to All-Star catcher Matt Wieters requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery could entirely dampen expectations of O's fans who have finally put all those years of last-place finishes behind them.
But Baltimoreans are a baseball savvy lot, and while certain front office decisions have gone well — home run-hitting Nelson Cruz has been this season's Chris Davis and perhaps the best off-season pick-up of any team, and unheralded Steve Pearce has been nothing short of phenomenal at the plate — the starting pitching is not exactly causing fans to invoke the names of Palmer, McNally, Cuellar or Flanagan. It's not just that they don't have an ace on the staff, it's that they don't seem to have much of a face card either.
So far, the most effective starter has been, well, take your pick. On paper, rookie Kevin Gausman looks the best with the lowest earned run average among the starters with a 3.29, but he's unproven and might not even remain in the rotation. Veteran Chris Tillman, the pitcher who started Opening Day, has been an innings eater, but his 4.11 ERA and 7 wins against 5 losses isn't exactly striking fear in the hearts of opposing batters.
Can a team make the playoffs, let alone go deep into October, with such a starting rotation? And that's not even mentioning that the big pitching pick-up of the off-season, Ubaldo Jimenez, has been largely atrocious and is currently on the 15-day disabled list with an ankle he sprained in the parking lot of his apartment complex.
The bottom line? Maybe. While it's far more common for so-called Cinderella teams to have great pitching and so-so offense, there have been a few that succeeded with the reverse. The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won it all after only posting 83 victories in the regular season and a team ERA of 4.54, which was ninth among the 16 teams in the National League. By that standard, the 2014 Orioles pitching staff looks pretty good with a team ERA of 3.83, ranked fifth in the American League.
Still, it's easy to see the Orioles as pretty lucky to this point. A wave of injuries has proved so devastating to their divisional opponents that the O's seem to have gained first place mostly by attrition. The team's won-loss record would gain them no higher than third place in the American League West and no better than a share of first everywhere but the National League East. At the current pace, they may wind up with 89 or 90 wins, but oddsmakers give them only a 6 percent chance of winning the World Series.
Add in some tough road trips in the coming months, and it's doesn't take a Peter Schmuck to recognize that the Orioles and their fans face a challenging second half. At least the games will be entertaining: the O's hit home runs, win one-run and extra-inning games and play defense like few teams in either league. Fans don't need a catchy slogan to recognize the considerable skills of Buck Showalter who has demonstrated a certain genius for juggling line-ups and calling on relief pitchers.
Remember when all you wanted, Orioles Nation, were meaningful games in August and September? We'll have them, and that ain't bad. So let's go to war, Miss Agnes. Judging by the All-Star Game, there's no shortage of talent in the American League, which won 5-3 behind a certain Yankee shortstop who will remain nameless but is thankfully set to retire after this season. As Mr. Showalter famously observed about his team, "I like our guys." So does Baltimore. Now, let's go win about 50 more baseball games.
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