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Orioles won't slow down despite big division lead

Baltimore not taking for granted likelihood of its first AL East title since 1997 @HalBodley

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Orioles flew into Tropicana Field on Friday for a weekend set against the Rays, breezing toward the American League East crown with a comfortable 9 1/2-game lead.

Take no prisoners. Their first division title since 1997 is a virtual given.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Orioles flew into Tropicana Field on Friday for a weekend set against the Rays, breezing toward the American League East crown with a comfortable 9 1/2-game lead.

Take no prisoners. Their first division title since 1997 is a virtual given.

This juggernaut -- with its potent offense, underrated but dominant pitching staff and skillful skipper -- owns the biggest lead among any of the six division leaders. Only the indestructible Angels have a better record in Major League Baseball.

Now wouldn't it be something if the Orioles and the Nationals make it to the World Series? Just an idle thought. The O's haven't been to the World Series since they beat the Phillies in 1983.

But wait a minute.

September baseball can become treacherous, a minefield-in-waiting for teams that might be coasting down the stretch.

Just ask the 1964 Phillies, or more recently the 2011 Boston Red Sox, who had a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay for the AL Wild Card on Sept. 3, lost 18 of 24 and went home. It was the biggest September collapse of all-time.

The Orioles shrugged off their 3-0 loss to the Rays and the buzzsaw that is Alex Cobb on Friday night because their lead remained at 9 1/2 games with 22 to play.

"Cruise control isn't in this group's vocabulary," O's manager Buck Showalter responded when I asked about the pitfalls of taking it easy down the stretch. "When you want something as bad as this group does … they're very mature about what they're in the midst of and how much is still to be played -- how fleeting it can be in a short span."

And then, looking at me with those piercing brown eyes, Showalter added: "They don't take anything for granted. I can't say I've always felt that way, but with this group, I do."

Credit Showalter and executive VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette for obtaining and putting these players in a position where they can succeed.

That the Orioles could perform so well with season-ending injuries to catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado is amazing.

With their current success, the national media has taken an enormous interest in the O's because, in a sense, it is a team to be loved.

Walking through the clubhouse before Friday's game, the atmosphere was light and happy. Obviously being in first place helps, but these players enjoy the journey.

"They haven't changed anything," said Showalter. "They realize what comes with [success]. But they understand why it's happening, because they created it. It's like an autograph -- they have to worry when people stop asking."

To solidify the bullpen, Duquette obtained middle reliever Andrew Miller from Boston on July 31.

"Coming here has been great," said Miller. "This is a welcoming group -- staff to players. Winning was the most important thing when I got here, and everyone went out of their way to make me comfortable. It's been an easy team to fall in to."

Duquette said signing free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz, who leads the Majors with 37 homers, to the bargain price of $8 million, "was helpful, but developing a good pitching staff over the last couple of years has been important. Our starters are much more consistent this season than they have been.

"We've been able to score quite a few runs late in games; our guys grind out their at-bats."

Added Duquette: "I don't know how you replace a player like Machado, because he's so talented on both sides of the ball, but players like Steve Pearce have helped pick up the slack."

And then there's Showalter.

"He does such a great job," said Duquette. "He demands the players catch the ball [and] gets the point across that's it's important to work hard and win today's ballgame. He understands how to manage a ballclub, all facets of it."

Yet riding high entering September can also change as October approaches.

"September is an eternity for most teams," said Showalter. "It inches by. Because of the way the rosters are set up [with additional players], September is a whole different game."

Rays manager Joe Maddon cannot picture any type of collapse by the Orioles.

"You're seeing exceptional individual performances within that group," he said. "When it comes right down to clinching, it might be different. But as you're nearing that point, you'll see guys with some really extraordinary performances, guys rising to another level mentally."

Maddon firmly believes that when you come out of August to September "and you have a shot at winning the division, you get a second wind. You find different levels of energy, and I think that's what's happening with the Orioles."

Maddon said Baltimore's pitching doesn't get the credit it deserves.

"Buck does a wonderful job and they've earned the right to be in the situation they're in," said the Tampa Bay skipper.

With 22 games to go, look for Showalter to rest players and do a lot of lineup juggling to achieve the best matchups. This is where his talent shows through. And above everything else, Showalter has a tremendous ability to put the game in perspective.

After all, it's baseball, not brain surgery.

Yet for the O's and their fans, 1997 was a long, long time ago -- a faint, distant memory.

And as the song goes, it's a long, long time from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September.

For the Baltimore Orioles, these are the most important days of the year.

Right now.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for Follow him on Twitter @HalBodley.