Nelson Cruz, Orioles Proving to Be Much More Than MLB's Best Home Run Show

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2014

Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Baltimore Orioles are the He-Men of Major League Baseball. They are the guys with cartoonish muscles and tree trunks for bats.

For entertainment’s sake, there are few teams that can rival what the Orioles are capable of providing fans—not just chicks—who still dig the long ball.

Quite simply, the Orioles mash. They lead the majors in home runs by a canyon—25 ahead of the second-place Colorado Rockies to be specific—and in an era when offense is down across the board, Baltimore can put up long balls in bunches.

The O's did it again Thursday, helping them to a 9-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in which the offense poured out six first-inning runs and hit three more homers.

They finished their latest homestand 9-2 and hit 22 total homers, sparked by five in the first game of the stretch that came on back-to-back shots and then back-to-back-to-back jobs.

It was the first time the Orioles hit consecutive home runs later followed by three consecutive in the same game since moving to Baltimore in 1954.

“The one thing that impressed the heck out of me with the Orioles is they took advantage of mistakes,” Reds manager Bryan Price told MLB.com Thursday. “If you gave them a mistake, they did damage and it was extra-base damage. It was doubles and homers.” 

While clubs constructed in this fashion can often be more novelty act than legitimate contender, the Orioles are not. They have enough pitching to effectively complement the powerful lumber and the gloves to complement the arms.

The evidence is in their magic number of 15 to clinch the American League East.

Consider this was a team that lost 93 games in 2011—manager Buck Showalter’s first full season in charge—and averaged 94 losses from 2006-11.

What's happening now is incredibly impressive in a division stacked with rich franchises and heady front offices.

The team’s most obvious weapon is its power. No surprise there. Nelson Cruz’s shot Thursday gave him 37 for the season, the top total in the majors, as he is clearly the No. 1 intimidating factor in the lineup.

Chris Davis has 25 home runs in a year when his overall numbers have crashed back to Earth, and Adam Jones has 24. Newfound power source Jonathan Schoop, who has homered in three consecutive games, has 15. The Baltimore Twitter account highlighted Schoop's tear: 

Mercy! In back-to-back-to-back games, Jonathan Schoop has homered! This one, a solo shot to LF, puts the O's up 7-2 in the 4th. #Birdland

— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) September 5, 2014

This has also been done without Manny Machado for a good chunk of the season, as he accumulated just 354 plate appearances before a knee injury ended his season last month.

Baltimore’s more hidden asset is its bullpen, especially at the back end where closer Zach Britton (1.84 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 33 saves) and setup man Darren O’Day (1.34 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings) have dominated with leads.

Even though there was a huge bullpen gag Thursday—Brad Brach allowed three runs in two-thirds of an inning in the seventh—the Orioles are just one hold behind league-leader St. Louis and walk the second-fewest hitters per nine (2.74).

The Orioles bullpen is also one of the best units when it comes to stranding inherited runners, and Andrew Miller and Brian Matusz are two of the AL’s best individually. Joe Polek on Sports added praise for the bullpen:

#Orioles have never had a shutdown bullpen like this. Starters just need to get thru 6 innings with a lead. If so, O's win!

— Joe Polek on Sports (@JPonSports) August 8, 2014

There is a dash of hyperbole in that tweet, but the starters haven’t been bad as a group. That is a bit surprising when you think how anonymous the rotation was coming into the season—and still is in many circles. Ubaldo Jimenez (4.96 ERA) is now pitching out of the bullpen with a $50 million contract in his back pocket.

Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and 23-year-old Kevin Gausman make up the rotation now that Jimenez has been banished after 20 starts.

Not counting Jimenez, the rotation earns a combined $10.4 million, as pointed out by veteran Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell last week. 

As for production, the rotation has been decent with the sixth-best ERA in the American League (3.80), but combine that with the bullpen and the league’s best defense by way of defensive runs saved, and it suddenly looks much better. 

The Orioles are flawed—they don’t get on base much and don’t walk enough—but they are clearly the best the AL East has to offer. And as we know, October is a roll of the oblong dice, and any hot group can rise to glory.

With an 8-2 record in its last 10 games, Baltimore could be a fairly complete team surging toward a trophy.

Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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