By Andrew Koch
The Orioles entered their series in Chicago against both the White Sox and Cubs with a seven-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East, and a 7.5 game lead over the New York Yankees. Baltimore is poised to clinch its first division title since 1997, a fact that’s not lost on the team’s staff, as box office representatives began sending out information on purchasing postseason tickets for season ticketholders while the Orioles were on their road trip to Cleveland and Chicago. What makes this season even more magical is the run Baltimore has been on since June.
During the first two-plus months of the season, Baltimore was struggling with consistency from both the offense and the starting rotation. The struggles of the starters to pitch deep into games put a strain on the bullpen. In early June, the Orioles found themselves in second place in the East, six and a half games behind Toronto. Baltimore took over first place in the division on July 4, and has not only stayed atop the division since, but also managed to put some distance between them and Toronto and New York. The Orioles’ surge has been keyed by more consistent starting pitching, and a consistently strong bullpen, even though the offense continues to struggle with consistency.
The Orioles rotation has been led by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen (12-4, 3.76 ERA), and right-hander Bud Norris (11-7, 3.69 ERA) as the most consistent starters. Ace Chris Tillman struggled with consistency in the first half of the season, including starts in Pittsburgh and Texas where he only lasted only one inning. However, in his last 11 starts, Tillman has a record of 4-1 with a 2.35 ERA. In the bullpen, Tommy Hunter was taken out of the closer’s role after blowing two straight saves in April, and has been replaced by Zach Britton, who’s flourished as the stopper. Britton has a record of 3-2 with a 2.08 earned-run average, and has converted 26 saves in 29 chances.
The Orioles have gotten a mixed bag with their offseason acquisitions. On the positive side, Nelson Cruz is leading the league with over 30 home runs after signing a one-year deal as a free agent coming off a 50-game suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs last year with Texas. Outfielder Delmon Young has been solid despite limited playing time, hitting .297 with some flashes of power.
On the downside, outfielder David Lough, who was signed to provide some speed off the bench, has hit only .213, and has only stolen seven bases in 12 attempts. The biggest disappointment has been righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, who was signed to a four-year, $50 million contract at the beginning of spring training. He was 4-9 with a 4.83 ERA in 20 starts before going on the disabled list on July 13 because of a sprained right ankle. After starting in his return from the DL on August 9, manager Buck Showalter has announced that Jiminez will be moved to the bullpen as young righthander Kevin Gausman has proven to be a viable Major League starter. Showalter has also been able to manage productive platoons in left field with Cruz, Young and Lough, and at second base with Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty. Caleb Joseph has gotten regular playing time following Matt Wieters’s season-ending Tommy John surgery, and set a team record for catchers by hitting home runs in five straight games. However, the offense has been led by the steady hand of right fielder Nick Markakis, who’s in the top five in the AL in hits, and has made a habit of getting a hit to lead off games.
The Orioles will wrap up August and start September with an 11-game home stand that will feature four games against Tampa Bay, four games over Labor Day weekend against Minnesota and three against Cincinnati. After that, Baltimore’s final 22 games will be against their AL East rivals. The Orioles’ final home stand will be 10 games: four against New York, including a day- night doubleheader on September 12 to make up the Aug. 12 game that was rained out; three against Toronto; and, following a day off, Fan Appreciation Weekend on Sept. 19 through 21 against Boston. Baltimore will spend the final week of the regular season on the road for four games in New York and three in Toronto on the final weekend of the season.