O's poised to take over division race as midseason approaches

The Orioles have experienced just the opposite of a "June swoon" this month, and their resurgence after an injury-marred spring could not have come at a more pivotal time in the American League East.

The entire division has experienced a dramatic competitive turnaround since June 1, which means the Orioles would have been left far behind had they not awakened with the 13-4 run that carried them into their current three-game series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.


Instead, they arrived in Boston as part of a tight pack of four teams that have all played well over the past three weeks and are all probably looking down the road with reason to think they'll be around at the end.

Some of them may be fooling themselves.


The Orioles are not.

There are all sorts of reasons to think they're poised to take over the division race as they approach the midpoint in the season. Here are just a few:

Pitching in reserve: How many teams have so many healthy starters that they can afford to temporarily sideline last year's winningest pitcher (Wei-Yin Chen) just to make sure he's stronger down the stretch? The Orioles also sent out top prospect Kevin Gausman after Saturday's solid start and Tyler Wilson after his impressive, bullpen-saving, 5 2/3-inning relief outing on Friday night at Rogers Centre. Those moves might seem controversial, but they are a sign that the Orioles are well-insulated against whatever pitching misfortune they might encounter in the second half.

Buck's 40-man strategy: Buck Showalter is the master of roster manipulation — to the point where there has been talk over the past few years of baseball-wide rule changes to rein him in. He has essentially proven that a team can access its entire 40-man roster without any long-term negative consequences. Of course, that sets him up for some criticism about the handling of certain players, most notably Chen and Gausman of late. But it's difficult to argue with the success he and Dan Duquette have had squeezing every ounce of major league production out of the upper levels of the organizational depth chart.

Spelling relief: The Orioles have one of the best and most durable bullpens in baseball, and that was fully on display over the past three weeks. The bullpen pitched 26 2/3 innings last week and fashioned a 1.67 ERA. And that looked like a steep comedown after the otherworldly performance of the relievers the week before (one earned run in 24 1/3 innings). The big question, of course, is whether all that work will come back to haunt the Orioles later in the season. That's possible, but middleman Brad Brach is the only Oriole among baseball's top 30 relievers in innings pitched and Zach Britton is in the middle of the pack among baseball's top closers in appearances and innings.

Getting better all the time: If anyone doubts the impact of the rash of early season injuries on the overall performance of the club, just look at the clear impact of J.J. Hardy's return to the middle of the infield. Through mid-May, the Orioles ranked 20th in the majors in fielding percentage, but have climbed to second in the league and sixth overall in little more than a month. The return of Matt Wieters also has had a clearly positive effect, though Caleb Joseph deserves tremendous credit for reducing the impact of Wieters' injury over the past two years. Jonathan Schoop should be back soon, which should add some offensive punch, but Ryan Flaherty is just fine defensively at second base.

Tradeable depth: Maybe this won't sound so good if Eduardo Rodriguez has another strong outing against the Orioles on Thursday night, but Duquette showed last season that he isn't afraid to trade a quality player for help the club might need late in the season. The Orioles could be the rare contending club with a solid starting pitcher to deal, though it would more likely be pending free agent Bud Norris than another one of the club's top prospects.

Of course, there also are some potential pitfalls ahead. The nagging shoulder injury that has sidelined Adam Jones remains an issue and the coaching staff has to figure out what's going on with Chris Tillman. There's also plenty of roster intrigue just ahead as the front office figures out how to make room for all those returning players.


If that's cause for some fan discomfort, try to remember what it was like a few years ago, when having too many good players for the 25-man roster never seemed to be a problem.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at