Opening post-break weekend reminder of Orioles’ tough road ahead

July 22, 2013 | Luke Jones

Opening post-break weekend reminder of Orioles’ tough road ahead

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The Orioles couldn’t have asked for a better weekend in Arlington.

A three-game sweep in which they outplayed the Texas Rangers in every facet of the game lifted the Orioles to a season-best 13 games above .500 and seven victories in their last eight games.

Watching Ron Washington’s club repeatedly kick the ball around the field and run itself out of innings provided a new appreciation of how fundamentally sound the Orioles have been throughout the 2013 season. Three quality outings from Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman reminded how the top three-fifths of the Baltimore rotation can compete with just about anyone in the American League.

But as the dust cleared and the Orioles landed in Kansas City to begin a four-game series on Monday night, a look at the AL East standings showed just how difficult the final two months of the season will be.

Possibly their most impressive series of the season moved the Orioles only one game closer in their chase of the division-leading Red Sox after Boston took two of three from the Yankees at Fenway Park. And Baltimore moved no closer to the white-hot Tampa Bay Rays, who swept the Blue Jays in Toronto to give them 13 wins in their last 14 contests as the hottest team in baseball.

Those realities aren’t meant to bring fans down from their weekend high, but they offer a snapshot of how incredibly small the margin for error will be over the final 63 games of the regular season in the Orioles’ bid to advance to the postseason for the second straight year. Of those remaining games, 35 will come against teams with winning marks and only 28 against clubs sporting records below the .500 mark entering Monday’s action.

The old adage of needing to beat the clubs you’re supposed to beat while holding your own against top competition might not be enough to prevail in a division that sports four teams with winning records in the final week of July. Even the underachieving Blue Jays have been a thorn in the Orioles’ side this year, winning seven of the 13 games the clubs have played this season.

The Orioles are a remarkable 33-22 against teams currently owning a winning record while going just 23-21 against clubs who sit below .500 on July 22. Of course, that deviates from the aforementioned mantra for success and speaks well for the Orioles’ ability to rise to the challenge of playing the top teams this season, evident by their combined 9-4 record against Texas and Detroit, the two teams who’ve won the last three AL pennants.

But the Orioles do need to take better advantage of their opportunities against sub-.500 clubs down the stretch and that will start with the Royals in Kansas City this week. To say they need to at least take three out of four would be an overstatement — Tampa Bay and Boston face off in a four-game set of their own beginning Monday — but anything less just makes the climb that much taller in September. With the season-long performance of the Red Sox and the play of the Rays over the last month, there is no time for a breather or to go into cruise control against the lesser competitors in the league.

The eyeball test suggests the Orioles are a better team than the 93-69 outfit from a year ago as they certainly hit better and play better defense than the 2012 club. Their starting pitching appears to be coming together in a similar manner to the way it did in the second half last year, which will help a bullpen that hasn’t been as dominating starting with closer Jim Johnson and his six blown saves.

But the division is better than it was a year ago from top to bottom and Buck Showalter’s club hasn’t been as fortunate, going just 13-14 in one-run games after last year’s historic 29-9 mark. That was to be expected and shouldn’t be misconstrued as a knock on what the Orioles have accomplished this year, but there is no consolation or handicap for the smaller amount of good fortune, either.

An impressive three-game sweep over the Rangers was the perfect way to start the proverbial second half for the Orioles, but the weekend showed how steep the climb will be to win their first division title since 1997. The Orioles will have their opportunities against Boston and Tampa Bay — they have 12 games remaining with the Red Sox and seven with the Rays — and those clubs will experience slow spells at some point, but the challenge will be to capitalize while minimizing their own pitfalls in the process.

As well as the Orioles have played entering their 100th game of the season Monday night, they haven’t been quite good enough in the AL East. The standings say as much, though they would be the second wild card if the season ended today, putting them in the unenviable position of being the road team in a one-game playoff like they were last year.

But the Orioles are fully within striking distance, meaning it’s time to steamroll the clubs who don’t own such a luxury.

Because they’re not going to be able to count on very much help in their quest.

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