After finishing with a record of 69-93 last season, nobody looked for the Orioles to be a playoff team in 2012. However, they have nearly reversed that record completely, as they stand 87-65 with 10 games remaining in the regular season. The team that has not had a winning season since 1997 now sits just one game back from the Yankees for the division lead, and one game up on Oakland in the wild card standings.
So how did the cellar dwellers make such a turnaround? Great performances from their bullpen, combined with clutch hitting, and renewed power in the middle of the lineup.
The Orioles bullpen is the best in baseball, backed by the O’s 27-9 record in one-run games. They may not have the household names of Jonathan Papelbon or J.J. Putz, or the velocity of Aroldis Chapman, but the Orioles have not lost a game this season when leading after seven innings.
Jim Johnson leads all of baseball in saves with 47; Troy Patton, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and the aforementioned Johnson all have appeared in over 50 games in relief, and all have ERAs under 3.00.
The Orioles are third in MLB with 194 home runs, led by Adam Jones with 31, and have five players with at least 20 homers on the year. Past Oriole teams have not had the same power numbers spread throughout the lineup. Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds all pose a long ball threat—not to mention the bat of Jim Thome off the bench, a player with 611 career home runs under his belt.
The Orioles have won their last 16 extra-inning games, including an 18 inning thriller against the Oakland A’s, where not a single run was scored between the top of the ninth and the top of the 18th.
If that’s not clutch, I don’t know what is.
The Orioles hitters certainly don’t have the best averages, as Jones leads the team at .287, but they have a knack for getting the big hits when they matter. There is not a player on the Orioles who personifies clutch better than Taylor Teagarden.
In minimal playing time this year, the back-up catcher is just 7-for-50 (a .140 average); however, five of those hits have been for extra bases, 8 RBIs have come as a result and several have been walk-offs.
In addition to these performances, the Orioles have also made some important roster moves which have proved to pay off. The Orioles called up two key minor leaguers; a veteran in Nate McLouth, and rookie phenom Manny Machado. Although neither have outstanding offensive numbers (both hitting .267), they have both provided much-needed support defensively.
Calling up Machado allowed the team to move Mark Reynolds to first base, where the error-prone third baseman now looks more like a Gold Glove candidate. McLouth provides stability in left field, as well as better numbers at the plate than Xavier Avery, all while still posing a threat on the bases.
Although one might question how much moves like these can make an impact, the O’s record is proof itself. Since adding Machado on August 8, the team is 26-14. That’s a .650 win percentage spanning 40 games.
The Orioles have also moved a number of starters into the bullpen, including Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter and Randy Wolf. This will provide great depth for the team heading into the playoffs, and provide Buck Showalter greater flexibility when going after specific batter vs. pitcher matchups. In addition, the Orioles called up prospect Dylan Bundy, who will also work out of the pen.
Although fans might be skeptical of a team which has a run differential of -6 on the season, the O’s have what it takes to make a playoff run. Playoff baseball typically comes down to pitching and having what it takes to win close games. With such a stellar bullpen, and the confidence to win close games, the Orioles have the makeup for playoff success.