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Orioles' first half much better than expected

Orioles' first half much better than expected
The Orioles surpassed just about everyone's expectations for the first half with a 45-40 record, good enough for second place in the AL East. (AP FILE PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

When the baseball season began three months ago, nobody gave the Orioles a fighting chance to survive in the American League East once again this year.

Nobody would have expected the Orioles to go into the All-Star break above .500, or to be in second place in the division in mid-July, and many thought a 100-loss season would be in the realm of possibility.

The Orioles proved they were better than those expectations, finishing the first half with a 45-40 record, the team's best at the All-Star break since 2005. Prior to that, Baltimore hadn't had a winning record at the break since 1998.

If the season ended today, the Orioles would earn the second wild-card spot and face the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a one-game playoff.

Throughout the first half, pitching has been the key to the Orioles' success.

Jason Hammel (8-5, 3.47 ERA) and Matt Lindstrom (1-0, 2.50) have made the trade with the Rockies for Jeremy Guthrie look impressive, although there was much criticism about it at the time. Taiwan's Wei-Yin Chen (7-5, 3.93) has been a big surprise, after not knowing how he would transition into the American game.

The Orioles' 2.75 bullpen ERA is first in the AL today. Pedro Strop (4-2, 1.67) and Jim Johnson (1-0, 1.21, 26 saves) have been a strong combination in the eighth and ninth innings all season long and the team is 33-0 when they lead after seven innings.

Baltimore has also been perfect in extra-inning affairs since dropping its first two to the Yankees back in early April.

On April 16, the Orioles went into the ninth down 4-2 against the host White Sox before Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones hit a pair of solo blasts to tie the game and send it to extras. Baltimore then scored six runs in the 10th to win, capped off by a Matt Wieters grand slam.

A Nick Markakis RBI single in the 10th sent the Orioles past the Angels 3-2 on April 22. Baltimore scored two runs in the 13th to beat the Red Sox on May 4.

May 6 will be the most memorable, when the Orioles downed Boston 9-6 in the 17th inning after two shutout innings pitched by first baseman Chris Davis, and a three-run homer by Adam Jones off Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald.

Baltimore has won nine straight extra-inning affairs dating back to that April 16 game.

Although the first half brought relevancy back to Baltimore baseball, it is impossible to avoid the fact that the team has had its share of struggles, particularly as of late.

All season long, the defense has been atrocious. Baltimore leads the majors with 75 errors and has a league-worst .977 fielding percentage. Wilson Betemit (13) and Robert Andino (12) account for one-third of the team's errors, and Wieters has already set a career season-high with eight errors.

Many players have been in a slump at the plate as of late. J.J. Hardy is hitless in his last 15 at-bats, and 9 for 81 in his last 20 games. Hardy's average has fallen to .224, almost as low as Mark Reynolds' .207.

Reynolds is tied with Robert Andino for the team-lead in strikeouts with 72, and Andino is hitting a paltry .231.

The starting pitching, as of late, has not been much better.

Other than Chris Tillman's brilliant start July 4 (8 1-3 innings, two hits) and Miguel Gonzalez's seven-inning one-run performance two days later, the starters have been lackluster lately. Chen has lost three of his last four starts and Hammel has lost his last three.

Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta has been optioned to Class-AAA Norfolk, along with Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, both of whom were in the rotation at the start of the season as well.

Dan Duquette, however, has not conceded the rest of the season. The Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations acquired Jim Thome from the Phillies in late June and continues to have the team in talks about acquiring a starting pitcher.

The All-Star break certainly came at the right time for an Orioles team that ended the first half on quite the skid. But for a hungry team that hasn't had a winning record in the last 14 seasons, the chance to finish above .500 is still very probable.

"We've definitely exceeded a lot of people's expectations," Reynolds told The Associated Press Sunday. "I mean, we're right in the thick of things, and anything can happen in the second half. We're definitely not done.

"We've got a lot of games left to play, and we've got a stretch right after the break where we're going to have to win some games, but we're looking forward to it."

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