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Inside MLB | Orioles overcome steep odds, in playoff hunt

Published: Friday, September 28, 2012

Updated: Friday, September 28, 2012 08:09

Following 15 consecutive losing seasons, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, despite their 89−67 record, don’t have the makeup of a traditional contender, and their characteristics might fail to convince many doubters that they can compete with the league’s elite clubs.

The Orioles have suffered devastating injuries to starting outfielders Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimond, starting second baseman Brian Roberts, and starting pitchers Jason Hammel and Tsuyoshi Wada among others, forcing manager Buck Showalter to perpetually shuffle his batting order and pitching staff.

Consequently, the Orioles have hardly dominated their opponents, having given up one more run than they have scored this season. Some critics attribute Baltimore’s success to luck, pointing to the fact that the O’s are a league−leading 27−9 in one−run games and 16−2 in games that go to extra innings.

Baltimore leads in almost no team or individual statistical categories either. They rank 20th in team batting average, 13th in runs scored, 17th in team ERA, and 17th in batting average against. No Orioles regular is hitting above .300, and no pitcher in the current starting rotation has an ERA below 3.00.

What’s more, the Orioles lack the star power that most other playoff contenders possess. The team’s only potential star player and its lone consistent hitter throughout the course of the season has been center fielder Adam Jones, who ranks eighth in the American League with 32 home runs, third with 101 runs scored, and 10th in the league with a .517 slugging percentage. But besides Jones, no Baltimore hitter really strikes fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers.

Therefore, it may be fair to call this team a fluke, a statistical anomaly that is defying logic and conventional wisdom and that stands little chance in a playoff series against American League powerhouses such as the Texas Rangers or New York Yankees.

But there’s no denying the success of this year’s team, especially at this point in the season. With six games to play, the Orioles currently stand 1.5 games behind the Yankees for first place in the American League East and two games in front of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for the second wildcard spot. Barring a collapse and a push from the Angles or the Tampa Bay Rays, who are three games back in the wildcard race, Baltimore should clinch its first playoff appearance since 1997.

The question then arises: how have the Orioles won so many games this season? How are the Orioles 22 games above .500 and in such strong playoff position despite their numerous, obvious deficiencies?

One possible reason might be Showalter, the presumed favorite for American League Manager of the Year. Known for his ability to turn around bad teams quickly, Showalter has worked his magic in just his second season in Baltimore, imploring the Orioles to believe in themselves and their ability since the beginning of Spring Training. Showalter should also receive credit for the tactical moves made to help enable Baltimore’s success in one−run and extra−inning games.

Another key factor has been the consistency of the Orioles’ bullpen. All−Star closer Jim Johnson leads the unit with 48 saves, good for first in the American League. But in addition to Johnson, Baltimore has gotten steady pitching out of setup man Pedro Stope and specialty relievers Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day, and Troy Patton. New general manager Dan Duquette, who spent eight years in charge of the Boston Red Sox from 1994 to 2002, stressed the importance of a quality bullpen during the offseason and did a stellar job assembling a group that has excelled throughout the season.

Finally, the Orioles have used the long ball to score runs in bunches and make up for their poor team batting average. Baltimore ranks second in MLB in home runs with 204, trailing only the Yankees. First baseman Mark Reynolds, despite hitting only .227, has been a key contributor with 23 homers. The same goes for outfielder Chris Davis, who is second on the team with 28 home runs but has struck out 160 times. Catcher Matt Wieters and shortstop J.J. Hardy have also contributed, slamming 22 and 21 homers, respectively.

Until the team’s great decline over the last decade, the Orioles had one of the greatest winning traditions in the league. From 1966 to 1983, Baltimore appeared in six World Series, winning three, and had a higher overall winning percentage than any other club. In 1997, the Orioles led the American League East for the entire season and were just two wins away from appearing in another World Series championship.

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