Orioles enter the All-Star break in an unexpected position

The Orioles weren't favorites to win AL East this year. But they lead through the first half of the season.

The Orioles' final game before the All-Star break was a reminder of just how important strong starting pitching is, and how it could end up being the main factor in determining just how far these Orioles ultimately go in 2016.

Backed by seven innings of one-run ball by right-hander Chris Tillman – who went into the break with 12-2 record – the Orioles' 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gave them a 51-36 record at the break. They hold the best record of any Orioles team through 87 games since 1997, when the club opened the season 55-32.

The Orioles lead the American League East – a position few experts thought they'd be before the season began – leading the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays by two games. They will send five players to Tuesday's All-Star Game in San Diego, and a few more players appeared worthy enough to join them.

When the All-Star festivities are complete, the team will regroup for a workout in Tampa Bay on Thursday night at Tropicana Field, where they will began their second half Friday.

"I don't know if we even had halfway goals to be honest with you," said first baseman Chris Davis, who hit a two-run homer in Sunday's win. "I think it's always just kind of an overall goal: Where are you at the end of the year? I think we played well. I think there have been times that we've really shown we are a complete team and then there have been times when we've struggled. But I think the last couple of games, there, were good of us to kind of bear down and try to get away with two wins going into the break."

The Orioles closed the first half of the season with the type of wins they might need to pull out often down the stretch. Typically outslugging teams, the Orioles grinded out two wins against the Angels this weekend. On Saturday, their 3-2 win was just their ninth in 31 games when scoring three runs or fewer this season. And on Sunday, the homer-happy Orioles hit two home runs, but also scored the eventual game-winning run following a rare sacrifice bunt.

This year's Orioles are one of the best offensive teams in club history. They enter the break leading the majors with 137 homers, including a major-league high 28 by Mark Trumbo. Five Orioles starters – Trumbo, Davis (22), Manny Machado (19), Adam Jones (17) and Jonathan Schoop (14) – have hit 14 or more homers over the break. They also are tied for the second-best batting average in the American League; their .272 mark is tied with the Kansas City Royals and trails only Boston's .292 average.

"I don't know if anything's terribly surprising," Trumbo said earlier this week. "I mean, if you look at what we had in spring training, I was impressed up and down with the physical skills of everyone. Obviously, you need to have some continuity out there and play the type of baseball that you need to to be in this shape. But I think this team's by far one of the most talented, skills-wise, that I've been on. And if everyone kind of does their part, I think it shows in the standings and overall with the type of seasons that these guys are having."

Now for the ugly part: The Orioles starting pitchers own a collective ERA of 5.15, which ranks 14th out of 15 American League clubs. The Orioles' 34 quality starts – 11 of them belong to Tillman – rank tied for last in the AL. No other starter has more than eight quality starts, and while the Orioles are 16-3 in games Tillman starts, they are just 35-33 in games started by others.

"We've got to throw the ball a little better," said Tillman, who is 8-0 with a 3.23 ERA in 12 starts at home this season. "Get the ball to the bullpen with a lead. Those guys are good, real good. As long as you set them up the right way, you'll come out on top most times, I think. Every game, there's not one thing. There are a few things that stick out for us. We've just got to keep playing good baseball."

They boast the best home record in the AL (33-14) – going 11-1-3 in series at Camden Yards, including a 6-0-1 against AL East competition. But the Orioles' road record is four games under .500, and they finished their last road trip 4-5 despite earning two series wins. When the Orioles open the second half, it will be in the midst of a stretch of 16 of 19 games on the road.

"If we win more games than anybody in our division, whether it's home or away, whatever," Showalter said. "… It's hard to win on the road. The American League East is tough. I'm glad Toronto and all our teams are still engaged. They're going to play each other a lot. It's not going to be just us that's going to have to beat some people in our division. It's always going to be something. There's never been a perfect team or a perfect season or any team that thinks they have had one at the end of the year."

Before his players went separate ways following Sunday's win, Showalter reminded them of the pact he said the team made to itself nearly five months ago when it first assembled in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training. The focus is not on being in first place at the All-Star break, but on winning the final game of the postseason.

"It's obvious what's ahead of us, a lot of challenges," Showalter. "But we have a chance to play meaningful games every day. They were in April, OK? So, they've earned that and they want it. They want to be in that [pressure] cooker. That's the difference between them and a lot of people. They want to play. They want to be in the arena, not watching outside in. Everybody would like to be in it, but they don't have the ability that they have. They want that. Have to cross a lot of roads to get there, though. A lot of roads."

eencina@baltsun.com

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