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Orioles hope to maintain first-half success

Baltimore leads AL East at All-Star break, looks to get back to postseason @Britt_Ghiroli

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles are in first place in the American League East, putting together some of their best baseball in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break to establish themselves as the team to beat.

Baltimore reached the 50-win mark in 91 games, its quickest since 1997, and ended the first half in impressive fashion with a 52-42 record. But the true test is keeping that up.

"If you look at the history of where people normally are to get to play in the postseason," manager Buck Showalter said over the weekend, "we're going to have to do a little better."

So, how do they do it? Here's a look at some of their first-half developments and five key storylines to watch in the second half as the Orioles try to make the postseason for the second time in three years.

Five key developments

1. Emergence of Pearce
Steve Pearce seems to have found a permanent home in the Orioles' lineup. The once-journeyman, who re-signed with Baltimore after he was placed on waivers and elected free agency, has already eclipsed his career bests in home runs and is batting over .300.

2. Joseph behind the plate
With Matt Wieters down for the season, Caleb Joseph -- and Nick Hundley -- have done an impressive job stepping in. While Hundley was acquired in a trade from San Diego, the 28-year-old Joseph is a rookie and a true success story of determination and hard work in the Minor Leagues.

First-half awards
MVP: Nelson Cruz
The All-Star designated hitter is having a career year, having already passed his season total of home runs from a year ago.
Cy Young: Bud Norris
He had a rocky start after the disabled list, but Norris was still the Orioles' most consistent guy in the rotation in the first half.
Top rookie: Jonathan Schoop
While Schoop's offense has had its ups and downs, the young infielder has impressed the O's at second base.
Top reliever: Zach Britton
Moved to the closer's role, Britton has stepped up for the O's. Setup man Darren O'Day also deserves a nod.

3. Britton as closer
Since his first career save in mid-May, Zach Britton has given the ninth inning stability. The lefty has been arguably the Orioles' most consistent arm since Day 1 of Spring Training.

4. Cruz for MVP?
Signed to a late deal this spring, Nelson Cruz has been worth every penny of the one-year, $8 million deal, already passing his home run total from last season. Cruz, an AL All-Star starter, is an early AL MVP Award candidate.

5. How open the AL East is
Injuries are everywhere in the first half with Toronto limping into the All-Star break given the injuries to Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie. The Yankees put star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list in another huge blow, and the Red Sox are rumored already to be sellers at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. All of those things obviously benefit the Orioles, who have withstood several key injuries.

Five second-half storylines to keep an eye on

1. Is Manny back to being Manny?
Manny Machado missed the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery, and a five-game suspension for his bat-throwing incident against Oakland didn't help the matter. But the 22-year-old is starting to get it going offensively, which could be huge for the O's moving forward.

2. Can Jimenez turn things around?
Signed to a four-year, $50 million deal this winter, Ubaldo Jimenez -- who is on the disabled list with an ankle strain -- has struggled mightily. The righty went 3-8 with a 4.52 ERA, and he is hoping to rebound down the stretch and reward the club's patience.

Second-half players to watch
Chris Davis
The slugger hasn't been nearly the force he was a year ago, when he hit 53 homers, and is capable of carrying the offense when he gets hot.
Kevin Gausman
In the Minors due to a roster crunch, Gausman has pitched well and could be a huge boon for the rotation down the stretch.
Manny Machado
Machado missed the first month of the season and dealt with a five-game suspension. He's shown signs of breaking out, which would be a scary thought for Orioles opponents.

3. Will Gausman get a chance to be a consistent part of the rotation?
One of the Orioles' top pitching prospects, Kevin Gausman has been yo-yoed back and forth between the Minor Leagues despite pitching well. Gausman's innings are being monitored with the intent, that he won't be shut down early.

4. The return of Crush Davis?
Chris Davis is coming off a historic year and enters the break with 15 homers compared to 37 a season ago. Like Machado, he has shown signs lately of putting it together offensively and is a huge part of this team's offensive firepower.

5. Can the Orioles win the division?
The most important storyline of the second half, of course, won't be answered until the season ends. Can the pitching hold up and the hitting come through? Baltimore has a tough three-city West Coast trip out of the break and will have to build on its first-half success to have a chance to get to October.

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli.

Baltimore Orioles, Zach Britton, Chris Davis, Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Adam Jones, Manny Machado