Maybe the rest of the American League East should be thankful that the Baltimore Orioles haven't traded for Jon Lester (yet?). While there's still a chance division-leading Baltimore could land the Boston Red Sox ace in a potential deal that was talked about for much of Wednesday, the O's took care of what they could control by winning between the lines.
Baltimore won by the score of 4-3 behind Adam Jones, who hit his 21st home run to open the scoring, and rookie right-hander Kevin Gausman, who allowed just three runs on three hits—none until the fifth—in 7.0 innings.
Wednesday's win wasn't just any old double-yoo, though. The O's beat the Los Angeles Angels—owners of the second-best record in Major League Baseball—and hard-throwing righty Garrett Richards, who is one of the breakout stars of the game this season with a 2.74 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 144.1 frames.
In other words, this was a statement game for Baltimore, which is the most unexpected division leader in the majors outside of the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The Orioles have been better than the defending champion Boston Red Sox and retooled New York Yankees, and they've been more consistent all season long than the up-and-down Toronto Blue Jays and way-down-then-way-up Tampa Bay Rays.
Wednesday's win also continued what has been a hot stretch for Baltimore, which has won three straight and five of six as part of a 17-7 July that has given the Orioles MLB's third-best record at 60-46.
What's more, the O's—who remain 2.5 games up on the Jays, winners of five in a row—are getting it done both at home (28-23) and on the road (32-23), which is the mark of a good team.
As Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said of the exciting mound matchup between Gausman and Richards at Camden Yards on Wednesday, via Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com: "Two good guys, two good-looking pitchers. You're trying to win a game, but you're also a fan of the game and you see two guys like that pitching, and you say, ['Wow']. I wouldn't say 'fun,' but it's entertaining to watch. It's not entertaining to hit."
Speaking of hitting, the Orioles are doing plenty of that, as expected. Even with the season-ending injury to catcher Matt Wieters and the ongoing struggles of 2013 home run king Chris Davis (.199 average and only 17 homers), Baltimore ranks in the top 10 in the sport in runs scored (No. 10), OPS (No. 7) and home runs (No. 2).
A lot of that has to do with the big bats of Jones and Nelson Cruz. Getting third baseman Manny Machado back on track—he's hitting .365 with four homers since serving his five-game suspension at the start of July—has helped, too.
Which brings us back around to the Lester scuttlebutt that looked close to happening at one point Wednesday afternoon, prior to the team's victory over the Angels.
Nothing has happened involving Lester—yet. But even if it doesn't, and general manager Dan Duquette acknowledged it might not, via Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com, the Orioles always could try to bring in another solid starter for rotation depth.
That certainly would help, but as much as the conventional line of thinking around the O's often hits on their need for arms, it's worth pointing out that they are right in the middle of the pack in ERA (3.75, No. 16), batting average against (.253, also No. 16) and WHIP (1.31, No. 18).
That's not to say the pitching staff can't be improved—hence the activity around Lester—but Baltimore's five current starters, Chris Tillman (3.97 ERA), Wei-Yin Chen (3.92), Bud Norris (3.94), Miguel Gonzalez (3.77) and Gausman (3.70) all have ERAs under 4.00.
(Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez, the team's biggest offseason acquisition in terms of money, has a club-worst 4.52 ERA and currently is on the disabled list.)
Frankly, there's at least a chance Baltimore has found its ace in Wednesday's winning pitcher. After being taken No. 4 overall in 2012, the 23-year-old Gausman has started to figure things out at the big league level.
Despite being moved up and down between the majors and Triple-A this season, Gausman has the best ERA among those in the rotation and has provided a major boost with five quality starts in eight outings since becoming a regular in early June. His package of pedigree, stuff and poise gives him the potential to do for the Orioles what Michael Wacha did last year for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Still, Baltimore could use an upgrade here or there, namely in the five-man, at the back of the bullpen or at second base, where the team has had to rely too much on rookie Jonathan Schoop (.582 OPS).
If Duquette can find a way to address one or more of those areas, the Orioles could become more than just the AL East favorites. Instead, they'd be legitimate World Series contenders that the rest of the league, particularly the Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers and those Angels, would have to take seriously.
Not that they shouldn't already. Because Baltimore has been good and is getting better. Wednesday was just another example of that.
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