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In tough matchups, O's rotation holding its own

BAL View Full Game Coverage TIMORE -- Asked Saturday about his sensational bullpen, Orioles manager Buck Showalter looked elsewhere. Before saying a word about the relief corps, which is the biggest reason the O's are in the playoffs for the first time since 1997, Showalter tipped his cap to a starting staff that's been considerably less lauded.

Showalter, it turns out, knows a thing or two.

Yet another Orioles starter turned in yet another solid game on Monday night at Camden Yards, as Wei-Yin Chen pitched a strong 6 1/3 innings en route to a 3-2 win in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. The badly needed win evened the series at one game each, and made it a best-of-three at Yankee Stadium starting Wednesday night.

It was the third straight postseason game where an unheralded Orioles starter was matched up against a big-name opponent and held his own. Chen was every bit as effective as postseason stalwart Andy Pettitte, who allowed three runs over seven innings.

The night before, it was Jason Hammel getting into the sixth with a tie game intact against former Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia. Two days before that, in the AL Wild Card game, Joe Saunders was at least the equal of Rangers rookie phenom Yu Darvish. They may be no-names, but they're doing all they can to help the O's keep winning.

"I don't think anybody in this clubhouse is looking for credit now," said catcher Matt Wieters, "but they've definitely been underestimated. We've had solid starters all year, and Wei-Yin's been a big part of that. They've been able to get deep in games and keep that bullpen fresh."

A year ago, Orioles starters ranked last in the AL in innings, last in ERA, last in strikeouts and 10th in walks. This year, they were ninth, ninth, seventh and sixth. That may not be dazzling, but it's a massive improvement that accounts for a good bit of the team's improvement from the cellar to the postseason.

Chen is a significant part of that. On a constantly shifting staff, where eight pitchers made at least 10 starts and 12 made at least two, Chen took the ball 32 times. That's 12 more than any other Baltimore starter, and one of the guys who finished with 20, Tommy Hunter, is pitching out of the bullpen these days.

The left-hander, who hails from Taiwan, pitched 192 2/3 innings of dependable ball, rarely dominating but regularly keeping the Orioles in games. He was especially effective with extra rest, as he had on Monday night. In the Game 2 win, Chen allowed two runs (one earned) on eight hits with three strikeouts and a walk. He threw a career-high 112 pitches.

"Today I just wanted to go deep," Chen said through an interpreter. "I didn't want to think too much. I just wanted to face one batter, one batter and another batter. I didn't want to think too much, and I just kept going."

He was in trouble at times, but the dangerous Yankees were never able to break through.

"Their guy did a great job making pitches when he had to," Pettitte said. "We had a lot of guys in scoring position, we had a lot of opportunities, we just weren't able to take advantage of it."

Coming into the postseason, conventional wisdom held that the O's had the weakest starters -- and by any analytical measure, they do. There's no equivalent to Sabathia or Darvish or the Tigers' Justin Verlander. But the Baltimore rotation as currently constructed is not the same as it's been all year long. The full-season numbers probably don't tell the whole truth of what Showalter has at his disposal.

Chen has been the only constant. Hammel made a case for an All-Star berth in the first half of the season, but missed nearly the entire second half due to a knee injury. He's back now, adding quality that had been missing.

Rookie Miguel Gonzalez, who starts Game 3 on Wednesday, has thrived in the rotation and former top prospect Chris Tillman was excellent down the stretch. Both have some peripheral stats that indicate reason to worry about regression, but they've gotten the job done. Tillman and Saunders would seem to be the leading candidates to start Game 4 in the Bronx.

They're not nationally known, but they're good enough to keep hanging in. And if they can maintain the formula, Baltimore will be in excellent shape. The O's bullpen is no secret, with one strong arm after another preceding Jim Johnson and Showalter flipping all the right switches. If Baltimore's starters can keep the team even, there may yet be more games at Camden Yards this month.

"They expect that out of themselves, and they've done a great job delivering," said outfielder Nate McLouth. "These games are decided by the slimmest of margins, and they've been huge for us."

Baltimore Orioles, Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel, Joe Saunders, Chris Tillman