Baltimore Orioles: 5 Things That Must Happen for Them to Win the AL East
Things are getting very interesting in Baltimore.
Don't look now, but the Orioles are the best team in the majors with a 19-9 record. They are coming off of a 5-1 road trip that included a series win in New York and the first franchise sweep in Boston since 1994.
Despite every prognosticator saying that the Orioles would not improve over last season, the birds have shocked the world. Strong play from unlikely sources are turning this franchise around.
The Orioles have a tough road ahead of them. There's a whole lot of baseball left, and the Orioles' upcoming homestand is against the three best teams in the AL: the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.
To make matters worse, they also go to Washington to face the Nationals, who are tied for the best record in the NL.
For an AL East title, the Orioles need to stay consistent. Here are five things that they should focus on to make it to the finish line.
Pitching (Part 1: Starting)
Let's start with the fun stats.
The Orioles team ERA in 2011 was 4.89. That was the worst in the majors. The team ERA in 2012 is 2.78. That's the best in the AL and second in the majors.
The key in this area, as in the rest of life, is sustainability. How long can the Orioles keep up this dominant pitching?
To clarify, the Orioles starters have been great, but they aren't the reason that the ERA is so low. That said, the starters have the ninth-lowest ERA in the majors at 3.38.
Some may say it is a mirage, but their WHIP ranks similarly.
Dan Duquette focused on his strikeout-to-walk ratio in the offseason, and it has jumped from 1.77 in 2011 to 2.32 in 2012.
The biggest difference has been Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen.
They are both pitching extremely well, and it's translating to wins. Hammel and Chen have been stingy when pitching, with ERAs of 2.09 and 2.76, respectively.
Jake Arrieta has also pitched very well after his elbow surgery, with a 3.52 ERA. His eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Yankees were nothing short of masterful.
Brian Matusz has improved lately, but he and Tommy Hunter could kick it up a notch to make this team even scarier.
Pitching (Part 2: Bullpen)
I mentioned the starters first, but it's really been the relievers carrying the load.
After allowing just a run in 12.2 innings on Sunday, the bullpen ERA is down to 1.52, which is by far the best in the majors (Texas is next at 2.13).
Once again, the Jeremy Guthrie trade has vastly improved this team, as Matt Lindstrom has pitched 13 scoreless innings. Jim Johnson and free-agent acquisition Luis Ayala have also refused to allow an earned run with 12.2 and 15.2 innings, respectively.
Buck Showalter and Matt Klentak's waiver claim of Darren O'Day has translated to 14 innings with 15 strikeouts and just a solo home run to account for run production against.
The Orioles have a superb bullpen, and the players have the talent to continue. Pedro Strop continues to look spectacular, and Troy Patton and Kevin Gregg have looked better after some shaky outings.
The best thing for the bullpen is to stay healthy. That falls on the starters to pitch deep and the offense to score before the 17th.
Now, let's move on to what puts fans in the seats: power.
The Orioles have put on a home run show so far, and they have all of the talent to continue to do so.
Adam Jones' three-run shot in the 17th capped a four-homer game for the team, leaving the Orioles second in the majors in home runs with 41.
The power has come mostly from Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, but others have chipped in with huge shots as well.
Nolan Reimold was off to a hot start before injury slowed him down. J.J. Hardy got off to a cold start, but his 5-for-8 with two homers against Boston might jump-start his bat.
With the way the O's are pitching, they don't need much offense, but the pitching won't always be there. Mark Reynolds needs to get going to keep the Orioles ahead.
The biggest thing for the Orioles right now has been the health of the team. It's a testament to Dan Duquette building the team's depth.
So far, the only player to move since Opening Day is Nolan Reimold, who just hit the DL. Stu Pomeranz will likely join the team as well for pitching depth after Sunday's marathon.
Otherwise, most of the injuries have come to depth players anyway. Brian Roberts, Tsuyoshi Wada and Zach Britton spent the first month on the DL, but Roberts and Britton are on the way back.
The keys have been the injury replacements. Robert Andino and Brian Matusz are the beneficiaries of the injuries so far. Andino is hitting over .300, and Matusz has improved after a couple of bad starts to make the team very difficult to beat.
Staying healthy will be key to building and sustaining a lead in the division.
It's no secret that J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds and Nick Markakis are struggling. As starters, they will need to improve to make sure they stay at the top of the league.
Hardy has been the most worrisome so far, because his average is very low, but his two-homer performance against the Boston Red Sox is a good sign.
Reynolds also broke a power drought with his first two home runs of the year in games one and two in Boston.
The improvements will be key.
Hardy and Markakis are at least playing solid defense, but they need to pick it up with the bats as well for the Orioles to stay hot.