It's only April, but competition in AL East already in midseason form

Orioles and Boston Red Sox in midst of key four-game series at Fenway Park, while Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees wrapped up four-game series Sunday at Tropicana Field

There is still a winter chill in the air, and the American League East race has already gotten hot and heavy.

The Orioles and Boston Red Sox are embroiled in an intense four-game series at Fenway Park that is building toward Monday’s emotional crescendo. The Tampa Bay Rays spent Friday and Saturday pounding some of the starch out of the first-place New York Yankees before losing in 12 innings Sunday for a split in their four-game series.

By most accounts, it’s going to be like this all season. The division is loaded — as usual — and the schedule features at least one head-to-head AL East series in 23 of 26 weeks. In other words, the fun never stops on a road to the postseason that has five open lanes.

That’s why the Orioles didn’t get a lot of love from the oddsmakers at the start of the season. The people who blow up their hard drives trying to predict that sort of stuff figure the AL East will be playing tug-of-war all year from one end of the standings to the other.

It certainly looks that way. The Orioles and the Red Sox have been mixing it up like this since the rivalry took a dramatic turn on that crazy final night of the 2011 season, when the “Curse of the Andino” knocked Boston out of the playoffs and sent the club into a yearlong tailspin.

So, no one should have been terribly surprised when things got a little chippy Saturday after Bud Norris buzzed a fastball too close to Red Sox catcher David Ross. It didn’t matter that the errant pitch could not possibly have been intentional, since Ross was ahead 2-1 in the count and a walk or hit batter would have pushed the potential winning run into scoring position.

Sometimes, logic takes a day off, especially when you’re the defending world champions and — to that point — you had a 7-10 record.

The Orioles, meanwhile, came into Saturday’s game feeling pretty good about themselves after recovering from a difficult first week to move back above .500 with an uplifting victory in the series opener. The minor dust-up, which really was just a quick burst of temper by Ross and a stand-your-ground moment for Matt Wieters, gave both teams a chance to puff up their chests and pull together before resuming another intense early season game.

Three weeks into the new season, all we’ve really learned is what we already knew. Everybody in the division can play and everyone has something to prove. The Yankees might look like the over-the-hill gang, but they’re sitting on top of the standings — one game ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays, who finished in last place with a top-10 payroll in 2013 and have moved up to sixth on the major league salary scale this year.

The Red Sox own the trophy, but they’re trying to repeat and retool at the same time. The Rays were the darling of a lot of preseason prognosticators, but their vaunted pitching staff suddenly is riddled with injuries.

The Orioles should see opportunity splashed all over this pockmarked competitive landscape, and they will be in great position to take advantage if a few things go their way over the next couple weeks.

They need Manny Machado to have a smooth ride through the latest phase of his rehabilitation program and fill-in third baseman Jonathan Schoop to make a successful switch to second base when Machado is ready to return. They also need new starter Ubaldo Jimenez to get his groove back a lot sooner than the All-Star break.

What they don’t need is any talk of keeping Schoop at third base and using the return of Machado as an opportunity to shop pending free-agent shortstop J.J. Hardy. There will be plenty of time for that in July if — as it is becoming apparent — the club is not willing to pay anywhere close to market value to keep its Gold Glove and Silver Slugger shortstop for three or four more years.

The Orioles soon could field a lineup so talented that it has Hardy batting eighth and Schoop batting ninth, which — with a little pitching — could put them in position to make some serious headway in the division over the next couple months.

With the Rays banged up, the Red Sox struggling and a sizable chunk of divisional competition soon to be in the rearview mirror, opportunity is about to knock.

In the tough, balanced American League East, it’s both early in the season and later than you think.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts “The Week in Review” on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

 
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