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Five factors in the Orioles' bid for a playoff spot

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The Orioles are in a good position to capture a playoff spot again this year. It'll come down to these factors

The Orioles led the American League East for much of the season and have long seemed to have a stranglehold of at least a wild-card spot, but all that matters is the state of things at the end of the season.

The Orioles, while now on the playoff bubble, find themselves in as good a spot as any of those other bubble teams with a week left in the season.

Their six-game road trip to Toronto and New York begins with the Orioles holding a 1.5 game advantage over the Detroit Tigers for the second wild card, and with three chances to close a gap on the wild card-leading Blue Jays.

The math is relatively simple. As long as the Orioles keep winning, their season won't end Sunday, thanks to the cushion built by spending most of the season atop the division and in a playoff spot.

That's easier said than done, considering the task ahead, but manager Buck Showalter said over the weekend there was some small solace in that knowledge.

"There's something to be gained by winning every game you play," Showalter said." There's something to be lost by every game you lose. Still, [I'm not] looking at all the things you shoulda, woulda, coulda done to make it a little easier. I look at all the things our guys have done to have this opportunity."

With that in mind, the Orioles have a straightforward path ahead. Here are the five biggest factors that will determine whether they will return home from New York on Sunday disappointed or leave Yankee Stadium with more baseball to be played.

1. Can they overcome the starting pitching deficiencies in Toronto?

This one will be answered relatively quickly. Kevin Gausman gets the start Tuesday in Toronto, where on July 29, when he last pitched there, he allowed three home runs in the first inning of an eventual Orioles lost.

After Gausman, it's Chris Tillman on Wednesday, with Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo all available for Thursday. Combined, those five have allowed 22 earned runs in 25 2/3 innings at Toronto, with what Showalter called some "stinkers" weighing down those collective numbers. At one point or another, the Blue Jays have teed off on pretty much every Orioles starter at the Rogers Centre.

Showalter said he'd be weighing a lot of factors that go into the decision for the third starter of that series.

2. Are the starters all healthy?

Health is a relative thing when it's the end of September and pitchers began in February throwing a baseball as hard as they can every five days. But just how limiting are some of the Orioles' starters' physical issues?

Gausman says he's fine after what was described as the beginning of an intercostal muscle issue in his rib cage area, and he came through a bullpen session well since that cropped up last week. Tillman's shoulder bursitis, which limited him for most of August, hasn't been a concern of late, but Showalter waited to declare him a starter for Wednesday until after he took a bullpen session, because of how mechanically off he was in his last start Thursday.

Showalter often attributes a saying to pitching coach Dave Wallace that the team with the freshest pitchers come October is the one that wins. That wouldn't be the Orioles this year.

3. How will the bullpen be used?

With the return of Darren O'Day and the hot streaks of relievers Mychal Givens and Brad Brach (one earned run allowed each in September), Showalter's late-inning options to bridge a victory to closer Zach Britton are plentiful. Three of the team's last four wins have featured stellar relief behind a short start. But rest for the bullpen might become an issue.

So often this year, Showalter has stayed away from his top relievers when the Orioles are behind, instead opting for a long reliever. In September, he's had expanded rosters to cover those games. But will there be games when he goes to a more reliable hand to keep it close and give the offense a chance? Will that impact what they have available when there's a lead to protect? It's unlikely much will change in the last week of the season, but if you're pulling out all the stops, this is one way to turn around a losing situation.

4. Who is going to carry this team offensively?

Of course, that all stems from the theory that the offense can turn it around. They did Friday, erasing a late deficit in an extra-inning win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but this hasn't been an offense capable of striking quickly or terribly often.

In September, as a team, the Orioles are batting .229 with a .717 OPS while averaging 4.2 runs per game. They're near the top of the league this month with 36 home runs, but as has been the case for most of the second half, everything else is slipping.

Many players are slumping this month, most notably second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who's batting .156 in September. It continues to be boom-or-bust for right fielder Mark Trumbo, first baseman Chris Davis, and designated hitter Pedro Alvarez.

One or two of those players firing like they did at their best points this season would go a long way toward making this week a bit less stressful for the Orioles.

5. Will the rest of the league cooperate?

It's not all on the Orioles, though they can go a long way to help their own chances. There's still a fair bit of scoreboard-watching to do. Among the teams chasing them for a wild card spot are the Detroit Tigers, the Seattle Mariners, and the Houston Astros.

With three games this week in Houston against one another, the Mariners and Astros will be playing with high stakes this week. Seattle finishes up with four games against the lowly Oakland Athletics, while Houston finishes with three games in Los Angeles against the Angels.

Detroit has four games at home against the Cleveland Indians, who have clinched the AL Central but are still playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Tigers then finish the season at Atlanta for the Braves' final three games at Turner Field.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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