KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There's no way of knowing how these first four games after the All-Star break will ultimately be defined as part of this marathon baseball season, but one thing is for sure: For now, the Orioles have finally assembled the winning formula of consistent hitting, quality starting pitching and stellar defense.
Playoff teams usually reach a point in the second half when they kick into another gear and surge toward the postseason. Last year’s Orioles hit that point in August. Maybe, this year’s club is doing the same a few weeks early.
Fresh off a three-game sweep in Texas — in which they outplayed the Rangers in every facet — the Orioles won their season-best fifth straight game, opening their four-game series against the Kansas City Royals with a 9-2 win before an announced 16,362 at Kauffman Stadium.
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After tying a season high with 18 hits Monday, the Orioles have averaged 15 hits per game over their past three. For the first time this season, the Orioles received back-to-back eight-inning starts. They also have made just one error in their four games since the All-Star break.
“We are doing things that are giving us a chance to win,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “We talked about the things we did in Texas today in the advanced meeting that allowed us to be successful there in a tough place. ... We played game No. 100 tonight. And we are going to start dwindling here before you know it.”
The Orioles (57-43) are 14 games over .500 — a mark they didn't reach last season until Aug. 28. They have won 28 games on the road, most in the American League, and their .549 road winning percentage is second-best in the AL.
“Everything counts," Showalter said. "They don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wish.’ They are going to seize every moment and we will see how it works out.”
The Orioles are now just 2 1/2 games behind division-leading Boston, which lost to the Tampa Bay Ray, 3-0, on Monday.
“We're hitting on all cylinders: playing great defense, running the bases well, taking advantage of opportunities and cutting the other team down,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “It's little things like that that we pride ourselves on all year. We're rolling right now and hopefully we can [keep] it going.”
Seven of the nine Orioles starters had multiple hits Monday, including a three-hit game for Cuban rookie Henry Urrutia in his second major league start.
Davis drove in three runs, giving him 97 on the season to take over the major league lead from the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera. J.J. Hardy also drove in three runs, including a two-run homer — his 17th of the season and 150th of his career — in the Orioles' four-run sixth inning.
Since the break, the Orioles have burst out to leads early and not looked back, outscoring opponents a combined 16-1 over the first three innings in the four games. They have outscored opponents 23-9 overall.
“It takes the pressure off our pitcher, puts the pressure on them,” Hardy said. “We’ve been swinging a good bat since we came off the break.”
Making his fourth start since he was acquired in a trade from the Chicago Cubs on July 2, right-hander Scott Feldman (2-1) gave the Orioles their eighth quality start in their past nine games, allowing two runs on five hits over eight innings. He retired the final 10 batters he faced.
“It was nice to go eight innings, but I think the big thing was the offense coming out and putting up nine runs,” Feldman said. “They played some great defense for me. They were putting the ball in play a lot and being pretty aggressive. The defense was the key.”
Since the break, Orioles starting pitchers have a 1.86 combined ERA and have accounted for 29 of the 36 innings.
The Orioles chased Royals starter Wade Davis (4-9) from the game after just 22/3 innings. The right-hander allowed 11 base runners — seven hits, three walks and a hit batsman — in his shortest outing of the season.
The Orioles took a lead just two batters into the game. Leadoff man Nate McLouth — who reached base five times — drew a walk and then scored all the way from first when Manny Machado hit a ball down the third base line that got past third baseman Mike Moustakas for an error.
Machado, who went to second on the throw home, moved to third on Nick Markakis' single to center and scored on Chris Davis' sacrifice fly to left two batters later.
The Orioles had the bases loaded with no outs in the second inning but couldn't add to their lead. Machado and Markakis struck out, and Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain made a tremendous diving catch near the warning track to rob Adam Jones of extra bases.
Urrutia capped a two-run third with an RBI slap single to left to put the Orioles up 4-0. All three of Urrutia's hits went to the opposite field.
With the Orioles leading 5-2 in the sixth and runners on second and third, Davis ripped a two-run double to left field.
Two batters later, Hardy took a 1-0 pitch into the stands in left-center for the Orioles' 135th homer of the season, the most in the majors, to put them up 9-2.
“I think these four games have been pretty good,” Hardy said. “You go and play Texas, they are good team. The Royals are a good team. We are scoring runs and pitching. So, it’s a good start for us in the second half.”