Orioles' road to success this season has taken some strange turns

The Orioles have spent a modest fraction of the 2014 season at the top of the American League East standings, but give them credit for great timing.

They moved into first place by percentage points Thursday night and took sole possession of the division lead without throwing a pitch or getting a hit Friday. However long their stay on top lasts, the fact that they were there July 4 means they have a pretty good chance to be somewhere other than on vacation in October.

Orioles fans can only hope that one of baseball's great truisms is actually true, since Independence Day has long been viewed as fair indicator of who will reach the playoffs and World Series.

This is not in any way counterintuitive. Of course, the teams that are in first place at midseason have a better chance of getting to the postseason than the teams that aren't, and history confirms that about 60 percent of teams since 1900 to lead their league or division July 4 were still alive at the end of the regular season.

So, the Orioles have that going for them, which is nice, but what is more interesting is how they got there.

The first half hasn't exactly been a cakewalk. They started the season without last year's Platinum Glove third baseman, and several other key players — including first baseman Chris Davis — lost significant playing time to injury before the team suffered its biggest setback of all when catcher Matt Wieters underwent season-ending elbow surgery.

Factor in the rollback in the offensive numbers of Davis, Machado and shortstop J.J. Hardy, and it's almost hard to explain how the Orioles have remained at or near the top of the standings for so much of the season.

The team's harsher critics will point to the soft overall performance of the division, which certainly has been a fortuitous development for an Orioles team that has not been at anywhere close to full roster strength at any time this year. But it's fair to balance that argument with the fact that the Orioles entered this weekend with a 22-16 record against their division rivals, so they've done a pretty good job of suppressing the competition.

What has really made a difference is the contribution of a number of players who were barely on the radar during spring training.

On Opening Day, could anyone seriously have imagined that the Orioles would be in first place July 4 with Zach Britton as one of the league's top closers, Steve Pearce as the team's hottest hitter and Caleb Joseph (the erstwhile "Mayor of Bowie") getting most of the playing time behind the plate?

That question was posed to manager Buck Showalter, who apparently is the only person on Earth who could have envisioned that scenario.

"It wouldn't have surprised me," he said. "We spend so much time thinking that this means this has got to happen … that happened, so this is going to happen … this guy was really great last year, so he's going to be a great again … this guy nobody's counting on, so he doesn't have good things in him. I try not to live in that world. You try to create an environment where there are no limitations on what somebody can do and can't do. Everybody in there, nobody puts themselves ahead of anybody and they know we've all got to pitch in and make a contribution."

Even so, the machinations necessary to put a couple of those players into position to succeed as well as they have makes it all the more unlikely.

Pearce had to be released when the Orioles faced a roster crunch in late April, but hung around town — and declined a waiver claim by the Toronto Blue Jays — waiting and hoping that baseball operations chief Dan Duquette could find a way to re-sign him and put him back on the roster. Since rejoining the club, Pearce has batted .340 with 10 home runs and 30 RBIs in just 159 at-bats.

Joseph came up to join Steve Clevenger (Mount St. Joseph) as the two fill-in catchers when Wieters began experiencing elbow problems, but figured to be sent back down when the Orioles acquired veteran Nick Hundley from the San Diego Padres because Clevenger provided a left-handed-hitting alternative. Instead, the club decided to keep both right-handed-hitting catchers, and Joseph's defensive ability has earned him regular playing time. He also has bounced back from a slow start to make a contribution at the plate.

The success of Britton was not quite such a surprise. He had made great strides under new pitching coach Dave Wallace during spring training, and his name did come up in speculation about possible alternatives if Tommy Hunter did not hold the closer role.

Duquette doesn't pretend to have known all along that things would turn out so well. He just needed a body when Davis suffered an oblique injury, and Pearce was the right fit. And he and Showalter certainly could not have predicted that Joseph would throw out more than half the runners who have attempted to steal against him since making his major league debut May 7.

"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," Duquette said. "That's a break for the Orioles, to be able to re-sign Pearce and have him produce like that. He's done a great job. He deserves all the credit. He's worked his tail for many years to get himself in a position to perform like he's performing now.

"Caleb has improved significantly as a catcher. He has improved every area of his game as a catcher. He has the capability to hit, but that's going to take a little longer. But he's always made the adjustments throughout his career."

In a division where injuries have played an outsized role in the performance of almost every team, depth might be the key that unlocks the postseason. It's the reason the Orioles were halfway to that goal July 4, whether that date is significant or not.

"The schedule is so demanding as are the physical demands that are on each player," Duquette said, "so we were fortunate that the players we had for depth have stepped up and taken the responsibility of primary roles."



Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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