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YORK -- The last time the Orioles came to the Big Apple, for a three-game series in the Bronx in May, baseball was just starting to notice them. They were a nascent first-place club hitting the ball hard and getting quality starting pitching, and it was easy to see what could go right, easy to envision how they might parlay three good weeks into a surprising season.
When they headed to New York for their latest visit, things were going at least as well, maybe even better. They'd won seven of eight, the last two by shutout against a very good Braves team. They were firmly in playoff position, leading the American League Wild Card race and just 1 1/2 games behind the similarly surging Yankees in the AL East.
Upon arriving in Queens, though, the bandwagon hit a few potholes. They were swept by the Mets, dropping the last game by a 4-3 count, revealing the downside of the 2012 O's. The cracks in the façade became quite evident in a frustrating three-game series. Though they've done an admirable job of navigating baseball's toughest schedule thus far, the risks for the Orioles are as clear as the potential rewards.
They can hit the ball out of the park, as when Wilson Betemit cranked a two-run no-doubter in the eighth. But when they don't, a low team on-base percentage means they struggle to score runs -- as evidenced by one other run in the entire series. They've gotten superb bullpen work, but the rotation has been very shaky, increasing the degree of difficulty for the relief corps. And due to injuries and the absence of the designated hitter, the defensive unit that manager Buck Showalter trotted out on Wednesday was subpar.
As one of baseball's truest adages goes, you're not as good as you look when you're winning and not as bad as you look when you're losing. The O's likely aren't going to win 95 games, but they're also not going to turn into a pumpkin overnight.
It's most definitely not time to blare the sirens for a team that's still second in the division and first in the Wild Card race. But it's not too soon to have some worry about a club that has already shown more than many people expected it to.
An all-or-nothing offense can work. Witness the Blue Jays, who have found great success by swinging aggressively and hitting a ton of home runs. The O's are a bit of a Toronto Lite, with a similarly free-swinging approach and a bit less thunder. They entered Wednesday with the sixth-most runs and third-most homers in the AL, despite ranking 11th in the league in batting average and 12th in OBP.
"We have guys one through nine that can hit the ball out of the ballpark," said first baseman/DH/outfielder Chris Davis. "I think at times it's been something we've relied on, but at the same time, we have a lot of guys that can hit. I think there's a lot of good hitters in this lineup, and I don't think we've showed nearly what we're capable of this year yet."
The rotation remains a legitimate worry, though. Matusz had a third straight shaky start after a run of eight mostly strong ones, and only Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel have been consistently effective. That puts pressure on the bullpen, which has thrived thus far but has been asked to provide an awful lot.
Showalter insists that the 'pen will be just fine. He notes the number of relievers who have shared the load. He also goes to great lengths to avoid having relievers warm up without getting into games, something he considers to be the greatest cause of bullpen injuries. Showalter is more worried about finding a way to wedge rehabbing right-hander Matt Lindstrom into a busy mix than about the potential for burnout.
"So many guys are pitching well, it's more of a challenge for me to keep the ball in their hands to remain active," he said. "We look at it the other way. ... When you have five or six guys pitching at a high level -- and hoping to get Lindstrom back, who's pitching real well -- that's a good problem."
That surplus can change in a hurry, though. Especially without innings in bulk from the rotation. There's no better way to keep an effective bullpen than to have a durable rotation, and the Orioles' starting five is taking on some water.
They rank 12th in the AL in quality starts, and over the last 29 games they're averaging fewer than 5.8 innings per start. Showalter's argument about preventing pitchers from fruitless warmups is a good one, but struggling starters are still a recipe for a bullpen to wear down over time. The O's would do very well to add a starter if one can be had. But of course, so could every other team.
Yet even with all of that, even with concerns in the lineup and the rotation, and even playing in baseball's best division, the O's have won 39 games -- fourth-most in baseball. They're in fine position, and no matter what else happens, those wins aren't going to be taken away.
The worries are real, and they're mounting. But the opportunity is still real, and still present. The race between them figures to be interesting to watch.