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Perched atop AL East, O's have overcome plenty

Baltimore cruising toward playoffs thanks to Showalter, Duquette and perseverance

To see the Orioles leading the American League East by 10 games might lead one to a couple of conclusions.

First, this season has been easy. What's stressful about a 10-game lead? Second, the Orioles surely escaped the kind of crippling injuries that have hit the Yankees, Rangers, Braves and others.

Nope and nope.

The Orioles were five games out of first place on June 16 and trailed both the Blue Jays and Yankees. They didn't climb atop the AL East for good until July 5 and led by a mere 1 1/2 games on Aug. 31. Until the last few weeks, they were assured of nothing.

Injuries? Catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado have missed 180 games. Neither will play again this season. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has missed 16 games and is currently sidelined with a back issue.

These are three core guys. When people talk about club's leadership and work ethic and resilience, Wieters and Hardy are at the top of that list. At 21, Machado has a chance to be one of baseball's special players.

None of these losses have slowed the Orioles. Whether it was first baseman Chris Davis shifting over to third for a few games or Caleb Joseph coming up from the Minors to become the No. 1 catcher, the O's just kept going.

They've used 42 players in all, including 20 pitchers. They've still played their best when the games matter most. They've hit 19 more home runs than any other Major League team since the All-Star break. For the season, Nelson Cruz (39), Davis (26) and Adam Jones (25) are first, ninth and 12 in the AL.

Baltimore's rotation is 19-9 with a 3.18 ERA since Aug. 1. That rotation is the place people tend to point to when they portray the Orioles as a team not built for October. But if you measure October potential by a season's worth of performance, the O's are capable of playing with anyone.

Chris Tillman has emerged as the living, breathing definition of a No. 1 starter, having gone 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA since the All-Star break. The Orioles are 22-9 when he gets the ball. Every other starter -- Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman -- has been solid.

In short, this is a club without a weakness, a club that has soared past every challenge. In running up a 10-game lead, the Oroles revealed a couple of things about themselves you probably already knew.

Buck Showalter is a great manager, a brilliant psychologist and leader and a master tactician. He works every angle, leaves no stone unturned. Showalter's players know he has their backs and that he will put them in position to succeed and give them every chance to do just that.

Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, is among the best in the business at finding talent -- not just spending for it, but surrounding himself with great baseball people who search for sometimes overlooked players and envision them contributing to a winning team.

In turning those players over to Showalter, the O's know he will look at them with an open mind and see them for the things they can do rather than the things they can't.

And some thought this little Showalter-Duquette marriage might not be made in heaven.

Showalter hadn't managed a game in four years when Orioles owner Peter Angelos hired him 105 games into the 2010 season. At the time, Baltimore was headed toward a 13th straight losing season. Two years later, the O's won 93 times and were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Showalter would be the first to tell you that the Orioles had a good core of talent in place and that in guys like Jones and Wieters and Jim Johnson, he didn't just have talented players. He had guys who were burning to win.

"They'd had their noses bloodied," Showalter said, "and they were tired of it."

Showalter worked his genius from the beginning. He taught and talked and taught some more. He drew lines. What had been acceptable yesterday would not be acceptable today. Showalter had to send some guys packing.

And then Duquette, 10 years removed from his last big league job, arrived before the 2012 season. He, too, was seen as something of a gamble by Angelos.

Duquette has been brilliant. In the last three seasons, the O's have been ranked 15th, 15th and 19th in payroll. To make the postseason twice in three years with those payrolls is a tribute to Duquette finding bargains like Miguel Gonzalez (Mexican League), Steve Pearce (waivers) and Chen (international free agent).

Duquette's predecessor, Andy MacPhail, already had the franchise headed in the right direction, but Duquette and Showalter applied the finishing touches.

Now, one of the country's great baseball cities is excited again and one of its most beautiful ballparks is rocking. The Orioles are drawing close to 30,000 fans a game at Camden Yards and will finish with their highest home attendance in nine years.

And the best stuff may be yet to come.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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