With a pair of games on national television against a Cleveland Indians team riding a franchise-record 15-game winning streak this weekend, the Orioles find their playoff chase thrust into the spotlight in a major way.
Dan Shulman will be on the call with analysts Jessica Mendoza and Aaron Boone for the series finale on Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, and spoke to The Baltimore Sun on Friday about how both teams arrive at this three-game set at Progressive Field and whether the Orioles' chances of a playoff spot are considered as bright nationally as they are internally.
From an Orioles standpoint, this is a team that has surprised people as to how they've done what they've done over the past five years, but when you look at where they are now and how they got here, what's your perception of where the Orioles stand and the season they've had?
Dan Shulman: They're certainly fortunate, as a lot of teams are in the American League this year, that if you're a couple of games above .500, you can be in the wild-card race. But to me, there are a lot of similarities between the Orioles of this year and the way they've been for most of the past several years. They've got a ton of power, and generally speaking, they've got a good bullpen. Starting pitching … has been a pretty big weakness for them in recent years.
But especially at home, they really slug, and you don't want to get in a slugfest with the Orioles. I think they've got some really good strengths, but I think the starting pitching is what's really held them back from being a better team.
And on the opposite side, Cleveland is on one of the best runs this game has seen in a long time right now. What stands out as you prepare for them?
I think they're amazing. They're doing this with a bunch of guys injured, too. They're a so-called small-market team, they don't have a huge payroll, they have four or five guys on the disabled list that are pretty key for them, and they've won 15 in a row. It's remarkable. If you look around the diamond, they've just got a lot of depth. They've got guys who can move around and play different positions. [Francisco] Lindor is one of the best young talents in the game. [José] Ramírez has made himself into an MVP candidate. They've got so many different outfielders, so even with the injuries they have, they can always put some credible guys out there.
The bullpen is great, even with [Andrew] Miller having been on the DL, and the starting pitching for the most part has been absolutely sensational over the course of the winning streak. [Corey] Kluber may have overtaken [Chris] Sale now for the lead in the Cy Young race. They're legit. I don't think they're a fluke. They were great last year. Obviously, you don't get to Game 7 of the World Series without being great, and I'm not saying they're necessarily going to win it this year, but on paper, I think this year's Indians team is better.
You mentioned the tight AL wild-card race. What do you think distinguishes a team in these last three weeks, and does the fact that the Orioles have this three-game series in Cleveland, four games in New York, and a lot of other division games put them at a disadvantage?
I think they're at a bit of a disadvantage because their schedule does appear to be a little bit harder, and I think 15 of their last 22, if I'm not mistaken, are on the road. And they've got a big home-road split. They're a better home team than road team, so I think the schedule suggests they're at a bit of a disadvantage. But overall, I think it comes down to who plays the best over the last three weeks of the season, whether it's them, the Twins, the Angels, or whoever it is. None of these teams are great.
If we go back a few years to a team that's 71-69, we're not talking playoffs at all. We're talking September call-ups and 2018. The system has done, I think, what it was intended to do. It's kept a lot more teams and a lot more fan bases in the race longer, but I don't think it's any secret. For them to get there, they don't need great starting pitching. They just need decent starting pitching to give their offense and their bullpen a chance to win some ballgames.