With 22 games left of the regular season, the Baltimore Orioles enjoy their place in the rear view mirror of the New York Yankees in the race for the AL Eastern crown. However, with the devastating loss of Nick Markakis and a murderous stretch of contending teams in the final three weeks of their season, the Orioles dream season may end in nightmarish fashion with the Tampa Bay Rays passing them in the division and for a wild card spot.
In his first meaningful September, Markakis was the catalyst for the Orioles offense before breaking his thumb in game three of last weekend‘s series with the Yankees. He led the AL in hits since the all-star break at the time of his injury and was as productive as Derek Jeter at the top of the lineup. Though he wasn’t the typical leadoff hitter, Markakis drove in runs and set the table at the top of the lineup in an atypical fashion.
He will be missed this week when the Rays invade Camden Yards. Despite the unbelievable starting pitching the Orioles have gotten over the second half of the season, this will not be the same offense they faced in Tampa last month.
Evan Longoria has been the same catalyst for the Rays as Markakis was for the Orioles. Longoria, however, is a legitimate run producer in the middle of the Rays lineup, even after he struggled to find his rhythm because of a lengthy stay on the disabled list. Over the last week Longoria has hit .316 with 2 HR, which is not good for a pitching staff that has been vulnerable at times this year.
The biggest challenge for the Orioles right now is trying to contain B.J. Upton. He blistered the league, hitting .412 last week with 4 HR, hitting .407 overall for September. This is not good news for a team that just lost the glue of their offense, Markakis.
Though most in Charm City are just happy to have a team in the hunt this September, the reality is that the series against Tampa sets the tone for the final stretch of the season. By the end of the week, Baltimore could find themselves where the Rays are currently—not in the playoffs—after the series at Camden Yards.
Last week was about the promise of trying to sweep the Yankees and get to first place in the division. This week is about finishing no worse than .500 in a six game stretch against teams that are their bookends in the wild card race.
After three games in Tampa, the Orioles head to Oakland for the most critical weekend series of year. If the they can take three of those first six games, the road trip could pay dividends in Seattle where they have enjoyed success this year.
Baltimore will play all AL East teams after leaving the pacific northwest to finish the regular season. They'll end the season with three games at Tampa, although Boston and Toronto may prove to be difficult before they get there.
Although Baltimore has enjoyed being in the Yankees rear view mirror all season, the Rays are now officially in their blind spot. With Longoria and Upton producing, and the A’s enjoying a magic carpet ride of their own, Baltimore’s task of winning the division is becoming increasingly daunting.
Losing Markakis, however, is the blow that makes the hill a steeper climb for the Orioles to keep a wild card spot. These next few weeks will test the resilience that has defined them this season.