The Orioles are chugging into the All-Star break in easy reach of the division leaders and exceptionally fortunate that is the case. What that means for the rest of the season is, well, unclear.
That the club is in contention is borderline miraculous considering what hasn't happened. Look at the four hitters from whom the most was expected. Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux are well off their 1992 paces. Cal Ripken is 50 points below his career average. Glenn Davis is drinking dinner through a straw.
There's more, too. At his current pace, Harold Baines will have his lowest homer and RBI totals since 1981. Poor ol' Leo Gomez can't hit his big toe.
And the starting pitching, oy. Ben McDonald is 5-8. Rick Sutcliffe should be. Mike Mussina's ERA is much higher than last year's. Arthur Rhodes pitched poorly for six games and went on the DL, where, by the way, Anderson, Devo, Davis, Baines and Gomez also have spent time.
Combine all those sporting traumas and what do you have? A disaster, right? A dull, mud-splat of a season, right?
Well, it should be. But it isn't. The Orioles have somehow survived. They were close to cratering when they were 10 1/2 games out and sleepwalking through May, but they got hot. Real hot.
It's a crazy thing. The blueprint with which they began the season is ancient history, utterly irrelevant, buried deep in manager Johnny Oates' trash can. But an entirely new blueprint, improvised on the run and inconceivable two months ago, has pushed the club into contention.
Who would have thunk it? The big hitters are Mark McLemore and David Segui, neither of whom has ever been an everyday player for an entire major-league season. Two key pitchers are Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela, neither of whom had won a major-league game since 1990.
It's a blueprint so unlikely that it would have been dismissed in spring training as an April Fools' Day joke. Jamie Moyer leading a drive for the postseason? Mark McLemore leading the team in RBI?
Of course, those players aren't the only reasons the club has survived its shaky first half. Jeffrey Hammonds and Chris Hoiles are coming up big. Gregg Olson hasn't been this sharp since 1990. The Orioles are second in the league in fielding. Second in ERA. Defense and pitching, particularly a hot bullpen, has held them up.
In all, it has been a short, strange trip into contention. There are two ways to interpret what it might mean for the rest of the season. Do you see a glass as half full or half empty? Let's find out.
The optimistic line of reasoning is as follows: Having survived with so many top players having subpar performances, the Orioles should soon start terrorizing the league. Devereaux is bound to start raising his game. Cal isn't really a .227 hitter, is he? It's inevitable that Baines gets hot. Combine them with Segui, McLemore, Hoiles and Hammonds, and you've got a fast, fearsome lineup.
The same logic applies to the rotation. Sutcliffe, struggling every time out, can only get better. Mussina certainly can improve on his last month. Rhodes will be back soon, adding an arm that could make a huge difference. McDonald is bound to start winning. Add Fernando and Moyer and the Orioles suddenly have the deepest rotation in the division.
But then there is the pessimistic line of reasoning, which goes something like this: You can't expect all of these players having off years suddenly to take off together, and if they don't, the club is perched on flimsy cornerstones. Moyer and Fernando? McLemore and Segui? They're wonderful surprises, but don't the Orioles need all parts functioning to catch more talented Toronto?
In fact, with so much production coming from so many strange places, it's a huge piece of luck for the club to have lasted this long without falling apart. Trading for a big bat is a must, and even that might not enough.
(Memo to Orioles: Whatever you do, don't trade Rhodes. Yes, he looked suspect before he got hurt. And yes, you're winning without him. But he's young and has unlimited potential. And Moyer and Fernando won't be here in two years. You'll need pitching. You'll need him. Badly.)
Anyway, so there you have it: two interpretations of one team's quirky first-half performance. Which is on the mark? In which direction are the Orioles headed? Hey, this is baseball. No one knows. The only certainty, as Yogi Berra might have said, is that it could go either way.