CHICAGO – Sometimes when you're in the middle of the baseball season, it takes a day off to take a step back and really look at what's going on.
The Orioles will open their three-game interleague series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field Friday leading the American League East by nine games over the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays. They are a season-high 21 games over .500 and have the best record in baseball since June 30, going 30-13 in that span.
Now take a step back to June 29, when the Orioles had just dropped three of four to the Tampa Bay Rays following a 12-7 loss at Camden Yards. On that Sunday afternoon, the Orioles' bullpen allowed nine runs, breaking open a 3-3 game. Miguel Gonzalez only went 4 2/3 innings after walking four and allowed three runs on eight hits. Evan Meek and Brian Matusz struggled in relief.
At that point, the Orioles were just three games over .500, with a 42-39 record. The rotation was full of question marks and inconsistency. The bullpen was picking up too many innings.
How things have changed. Since June 30, the Orioles pitching staff has a 2.89 ERA, the fourth-best mark in the majors in that span.
When Kevin Gausman takes the mound Friday night, he will attempt to build on a run of the four straight quality starts since Ubaldo Jimenez allowed six runs over 4 1/3 innings last Saturday in Cleveland.
It's been a landmark year for the starting rotation. On Wednesday, Wei-Yin Chen won his career-high 13th game. Two days earlier, Bud Norris set a new career-high with his 11th win. Gausman has the opportunity to earn his eighth win. Last year, it took Gausman six appearances – and a move to the bullpen – to get his first victory.
"I think what they're interested in is doing a win thing for the Orioles," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "They're all trying to contribute and hold up their end of the bargain and pass the baton the next pitcher, the next bullpen guy, the next starter. … There's a lot of phases of our team that are capable of picking up something that might have down night."
A couple of observations from down on the farm:
-- The Orioles' acquisition of Andrew Miller has undoubtedly made the club's bullpen better, giving it a lock-down lefty that affects the game with his presence alone.
Miller will undoubtedly play a significant role if the Orioles are able to make a deep run in the postseason -- he owns a slider that left-handed hitters have nightmares about -- but the trade that brought him to Baltimore won't be able to be truly evaluated for a while.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette admitted it was a tough call to trade left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to the Red Sox in order to acquire Miller.
Rodriguez entered the season as the organization's third-best prospect, according to Baseball America, trailing only Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. But Rodriguez went 3-7 with a 4.79 ERA at Double-A Bowie, struggling to get back to form physically after a knee injury.
Since the trade, Rodriguez has shown the stuff that made him one of the Orioles' top prospects. He threw seven shutout innings for the Red Sox's Double-A team in Portland, Maine, on Thursday night.
He is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA in four starts since the trade and has allowed just two earned runs in 24 1/3 innings. He's also allowed just 18 hits, walked six and struck out 28 batters.
-- Triple-A right-hander Mike Wright struggled this season to build on his breakout 2013 at the Double-A level. He's just 5-11 with a 4.83 ERA on the year, but he's finishing his season out very well.
Wright, who was one strike away from throwing a no-hitter Thursday, lost nine of his first 10 decisions this season, but has held the opposition to two or fewer earned runs in each of his last six starts. He's also gone seven or more innings in four of his last six starts.
What's been the key? A big part of it has to be improved command. Over his first 19 starts, Wright had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.0 (66 strikeouts, 33 walks). But over his last six outings, he's posted 30 strikeouts and just five walks (a 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio).