As the Baltimore Orioles were capping a series win over the Detroit Tigers, the season was personified in nine innings. The Orioles, tied with the Oakland A’s behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League wild-card standings, erased a 5-0 deficit with gutsy pitching and timely offense to win the final two games of a series that began with a controversial loss.
Wei-Yin Chen, who leads the team with 12 wins, gave up five runs in the top of the first inning. But he held the Tigers scoreless for the next 4.2 innings, before turning the ball over to “The Orange Curtain”—or the bullpen, as most would call it
This opportunistic offense scored four runs in the top of the second, thanks to a three-run blast from Chris Davis. The Orioles then scored three more runs in the third to basically put the game on ice.
The Orange Curtain kept Detroit scoreless over the last 7.1 innings that sent them to Texas tied atop the AL wild-card race.
Therein lies the recipe for the Orioles contention in the American League’s postseason hunt. Statistically, this is an average team that has been outscored by over 40 runs on the season. There is no guarantee for a quality start from a pitching staff with an ERA over four runs per game each night.
Despite three American League All-Stars, the team is clearly the sum of its parts.
Consider: the team lost its most consistent starting pitcher Jason Hammel in his first start after the All-Star break. Adam Jones has been stuck on 24 home runs for the entire month of August, but he's hitting .293 over that span, despite his power outage.
Chris Davis recently had a three-home run barrage against the Toronto Blue Jays and has been an unexpected power generator, with 23 on the season. Davis power has been an unexpected surprise given that Mark Reynold's hasn’t found his power stroke this year.
Orioles starting pitchers aren’t going to wake up the echoes of the Cy Young staffs of the '70s and '80s. Their 4.13 ERA is pedestrian at best.
Chen and Hammel were as good a one-two combination Baltimore has seen since 1997, when David Wells and Mike Mussina helped them lead wire to wire before Hammel‘s injury. Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz have been replaced in the rotation by Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton. For the last month, Gonzalez and Britton have consistently given Baltimore quality starts, taking some of the pressure off the bullpen.
However, Buck Showalter has masterfully worked his bullpen, which is third in the American League with its 3.07 ERA, led by closer Jim Johnson, who leads the league with 43 saves.
Showalter’s penchant for creating the right matchups once the perilous starters get beyond the fifth inning has been brilliant. He has been able to bridge the middle-inning gaps by working Darren O’Day, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom and Luis Ayala. And Baltimore has not lost a game this season when leading after the seventh inning because Pedro Strop has been the perfect set-up man for Johnson in the eighth.
Perhaps Showalter’s greatest job, in what could be an AL Manager of the Year season, is keeping the team level. In his second full season, he has created a culture where they live in the moment and never get too high or too low.
Each game has a life of its own, which is why they haven’t been mired in the month-long losing streaks that have defined their last 15 years. There is no one superstar who opposing teams can focus on pitching around in the lineup, and there is a different hero every night.
A season with no promise in March has given hope to the Charm City fanbase that the Orioles can play at least one postseason game in October. However, there are four other teams within two games of first place in the wild-card race, and on paper, Baltimore appears fifth-best. However, for those who remember the days of the miracles on 33rd Street before there was Camden Yards, there is a sense that the Orioles Magic is back.