Starting pitching likely will determine Orioles' fate
Going deeper into games key for hurlers
Chris Davis and the Baltimore Orioles were a huge hit before the all-star break.
Davis mashed a major-league leading 37 homers, and the Orioles sent the ball over the fence 132 times, 17 more than any other team.
Thanks heavily to an offence that ranked third in the majors in scoring, the Orioles hit the break with a 53-43 record and very much in contention to reach the post-season for a second straight year.
"Obviously our power has been a huge aspect of our success," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "Hopefully that continues, but you can't always count on three-run homers."
Good hitting has gotten the Orioles this far. Strong pitching, especially from the starting rotation, will likely determine their fate over the final 66 games.
"Last year we got deeper in games with our starting pitching," manager Buck Showalter said. "If we do that, we'll have fun the rest of the way. If we don't, it will be a challenge. A lot of things feed off that."
The longer the starters go, the shorter the relievers pitch. It's that simple.
"I don't care how good you are offensively or defensively," Showalter said. "If you're constantly pitching a lot of innings out of your bullpen, you're not going to like the results."
The Orioles played much of the first half without injured left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and never really had a fifth starter after Jake Arrieta proved incapable of handling the assignment from the outset. Baltimore employed 13 starters before the all-star break, including Freddy Garcia, Jair Jurrjens, Josh Stinson and Rule 5 draftee T.J. McFarland.
Chen has returned from the disabled list, Scott Feldman was added to the mix via trade earlier this month, and now the Orioles hope to have a solid rotation in Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, all-star right-hander Chris Tillman, Jason Hammel and Feldman.
"I'd like to see our rotation with the current pitchers healthy pitching their regular turn," vice-president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "Let's see where that takes us. If they can pitch consistent innings, I know our bullpen can do a good job."
Actually, the bullpen has been spotty thus far. Pedro Strop, who shined last year as a setup man, went 0-3 with a 7.25 earned-run average before being sent to the Cubs with Arrieta in the trade for Feldman. Jim Johnson, who converted 51 of 54 save opportunities last year, has already blown six chances.
A year ago, Baltimore went 29-9 in one-run games and won 16 straight in extra innings -- a feat that can be attributed to a steady bullpen. This season, the Orioles are 13-14 in one-run games and 5-3 in extra innings.
Blame the bullpen. Johnson does.
"We need to pitch better. We know that," Johnson said. "Myself, I'll be the first one to tell you I need to pitch better. But yeah, that's where it all starts and that's what makes a winning team."
The Orioles didn't know much about winning until last year, when they ended a run of 14 straight losing seasons by going 93-69 and earning a berth in the American League wild-card game. After beating Texas, they took the New York Yankees to the limit in the division series before falling.
Because of the team's dry spell from 1998 through 2011, and in light of its uncanny success in close games last year, some suspected Baltimore's 2012 performance to be a fluke. If nothing else, the Orioles shot down that theory during the first half.
"I don't think any of us in this clubhouse thought it was a one-year thing," outfielder Nate McLouth said. "But it's understandable why people would think that."
The Orioles are in third place in the AL East and trail Tampa Bay and Texas in the wild-card race, but Baltimore is certainly in the hunt.
"'We've kept around," said centre-fielder Adam Jones, one of the team's five all-stars. "The record we have now is the record we deserve. We're right in the middle of it. It's not going to be easy, but as long as we stay around and play well within our division, we're OK. You hang around and give yourself a good chance to roll the dice in September and see where you stand. That's what we did last year."
Who knows? Maybe Davis can carry the team on his massive shoulders all the way to the World Series.
"He's having a record-type season to this point," all-star shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "A lot of people wondered how long he can keep it going, even after the first month, and he's kept it going for another 2 1/2 months. If he keeps it going, then we're going to see something really special. If not, he's one of the best hitters in any lineup in the big leagues as is."
The Orioles resume play Friday in Texas, then venture to Kansas City for a four-game series before hosting the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox for three games. By the end of that stretch, Baltimore will have only 56 games left and should have a good idea where it stands.
"Whoever comes out of the break playing the best baseball, they get that push going into August and then September," Jones said. "Basically, we've got to maintain our offence and get better at the key elements of the game, continue to pitch and play defence. That's where it starts. Right after the break, we've got to play better baseball. I think that's how everybody in this clubhouse feels."