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Orioles pass first test of daunting stretch

BOSTON -- Nobody said it was going to easy, and perhaps no other early-surging club understands that better than the Orioles.

Baltimore, winner of eight of its last 10 games, kicked off a brutal 15-games-in-16-days stretch by putting together back-to-back victories over the Yankees for its first series win in the Bronx since September 2010.

But Wednesday's win, a 5-0 game dominated by starter Jake Arrieta's eight scoreless innings, was met with tempered enthusiasm by a young club still eager to prove it's for real. The Orioles are off to a somewhat surprising 16-9 start, and they are well aware of this trying stretch -- which includes series against the Red Sox, Rangers, Rays and Yankees again -- and the early-season test it will provide.

"It's definitely [a challenge where] we know what we are up against," right fielder Nick Markakis said. "We just need to continue playing good ball and I think we'll fare OK."

Markakis, the second-longest tenured player on the team behind second baseman Brian Roberts, has never been part of a winning club. The 28-year-old -- who homered for the first time since April 7 -- will certainly go a long way in helping the Orioles hold their own.

Wednesday's win moved the team to seven games over .500 for the first time since July 19, 2005, and while the O's are well aware of the difficulty of their upcoming schedule -- and the perils of playing in the American League East -- they aren't consumed by it.

"It's nice to beat teams in your division and gain that full game [in the standings]," catcher Matt Wieters said, "But a win is a win in this league. And you're going to have to go out there and win a lot of them to make the playoffs."

"Every team we play is a tough team," added pitcher Brian Matusz, who picked up his first win since June after tossing a solid 6 1/3 innings Tuesday night.

The 25-year-old Matusz, who looks to be headed in the right direction after an unspectacular 2011, is part of an Orioles rotation that has helped sparked this success with nine quality starts in the last 10 games. The starting five of Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, Wei-Yin Chen, Arrieta and Matusz has posted a cumulative 1.65 ERA over that span, giving quality innings to keep the bullpen -- which had the best ERA in baseball entering Thursday -- firing on all cylinders and provide the offense with a chance to work.

"You could call us blue collar or whatever," Hammel said of a staff that is without a bona fide ace.

"But every one of us is hoping for the other to succeed and we are kind of building our own competition where we try to get better than the next. Because we are holding ourselves to a different standard than what was in the past. We want to go out and win, and if we are pitching well enough, we can keep that momentum going. That's what a successful team needs."

Hammel is a big part of that momentum, going 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in his first five starts and holding opponents to two earned runs or fewer in each of them. As a staff, Baltimore has held the opposition to two or fewer runs in each of the last five games and nine of 10. The latter three contests marked the first time Baltimore tempered the Yankees in the Bronx since 1978.

While the '78 Orioles boasted a staff headlined by Jim Palmer and the late Mike Flanagan, the current contingent of O's hurlers doesn't boast big names, but their evolution together has been evident.

"I think it has a lot to do with the maturity of our young pitchers, myself and Matusz included, as well as Tommy," Arrieta said. "Hammel is not a young pitcher, but he's new to this team ... it's up to some of the young guys like Matusz and myself to really start to show our maturity and really pitch these type of ballgames."

So far, so good. On the heels of a September surge, which made national headlines given the Orioles' role in upending the Red Sox's playoff hopes, Baltimore posted its first winning April since 2008.

The O's have vastly improved a woeful starting staff that forced last year's bullpen to pick up the most innings in the Majors, and offensively have shown the ability to come back in the later innings, most notably in a sixth-run 10th inning in Chicago. Closer Jim Johnson and late-inning relievers Pedro Strop and Luis Ayala have combined to convert all 10 save opportunities so far.

The Orioles are playing with confidence and ability, lending a different feel to the clubhouse even as they embark on a tough two-week stretch.

"The mindset has always been there, it's just a matter of executing it," Markakis said. "We have a great group of guys, and everybody wants the same thing and we are playing well together. We are playing like a team should play.

"It beats the [heck] out of coming to the park when you are losing."

Baltimore Orioles, Jason Hammel, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters