There are all sorts of statistical reasons the Orioles spent most of June on a decidedly upward trajectory to the top of the American League East, but there's really no point in overanalyzing their impressive turnaround.
It hasn't been about the numbers, though they always have a story to tell in a sport that has long been obsessed with them. The resurgence of the Orioles comes down to a more intangible concept, but one that should be clearly apparent to anyone who watched the club stumble through April and May.
Stability is not sexy. It does not make headlines or highlight shows. It simply creates an environment where good fundamental baseball thrives and winning is a lot more likely.
The Orioles spent those frustrating first two months of the season plugging holes and juggling personnel. They spent the past month-plus with both J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters back from injuries, which shored up both an inconsistent defense and a underperforming offense.
Hardy came back first and quickly restored order to the infield. The week before he returned, the Orioles ranked in the bottom 10 in the major leagues in fielding percentage. They entered Saturday tied for first in the American League in that department and tied for third overall. That is not a coincidence.
The season started with Hardy on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and the infield took another hit two weeks later when Jonathan Schoop went down with a damaged knee ligament. Though the Orioles had brought in shortstop Everth Cabrera for just such an eventuality, the loss of two middle infielders and the unavailability of Wieters until June left them with just one-fourth of their once-vaunted up-the-middle defense.
Though Hardy isn't the kind of guy to take credit for the dramatic defensive turnaround, he can't deny that reassembling most of the original defensive alignment has had a huge impact on team chemistry.
"Stability is big in this game," Hardy said. "I think [Ryan] Flaherty's been doing a really good job playing every day at second base. Getting Schoop back soon is going to help a lot with being able to move Flaherty around a little bit more. Manny is Manny. He's been doing great, too. I don't know if that has anything to do with me or not, but ever since I've been back, Manny's been the Manny he's always been. I don't know what to attribute it to, but it has been good since I've been around."
If Hardy doesn't want to cop to his own importance, there are plenty of other guys on the team willing to do it for him.
"I think it's more of a mentality than anything else, knowing you have such a consistent player there day in and day out," Chris Davis said. "He's the captain of the infield. He's been here a long time. It's a role that he's really well-suited for. It just goes to show what kind of player he is, what kind of person he is and obviously how valuable he is to our team."
Of course, it's not just about the infield making every defensive play. It's about protecting the pitching staff and taking some pressure off the hitters.
Make no mistake. Every guy who takes the mound for the Orioles knows what it means to have Hardy at short and the rest of the defense following his lead. The same goes for Wieters, though backup Caleb Joseph has done a solid job in his absence and was a big reason the pitching staff performed so well on the way to the playoffs last year.
"I think the pitchers pitch with a little more confidence knowing you have a great defense behind you," closer Zach Britton said. "We're not a big strikeout pitching staff anyway. We pitch to contact, so anytime we have our best defense out there, it's important for us. J.J. coming back kind of stabilized the middle of the infield for us, and everybody coming back just kind of settled us down."
Wieters still hasn't moved back into the starting lineup full time. He has been sharing time with Joseph, who is the first to acknowledge how important Wieters has been since returning in early June and is not bothered by the notion that Wieters' return has helped stabilize the club.
"You have to consider, I've hit basically in the eight or nine spot since I've been here," Joseph said. "You add Wieters, with the knowledge he has with the defensive side of the game, and you add a middle-of-the-order bat with power, of course you're going to have some more stability.
"I think what we've been able to do — especially the last month — is really swinging the bats, and Matt's a big reason for that. It helps, too, that we get J.J. back and he's a very clutch hitter. He's really turned it on and gotten a lot of really quality hits for us. It's what this team needs to really make a run at it."