Optimism remains as surprising Orioles survive brutal 15-game stretch

May 16, 2012 | Luke Jones

It was just over two weeks ago when emotions were flying high following Wilson Betemit’s game-winning three-run homer to complete a dramatic ninth-inning comeback against the Oakland Athletics.

The win put the Orioles at 14-8 and in a tie for first place in the American League East. But, what awaited next would presumably be the reality check to knock the club and fans off their early-season pedestal.

The eternal optimists and pessimists alike knew the next 15 games against New York, Boston, Texas, and Tampa Bay would paint a clearer — but by no means definitive — picture of who the 2012 Orioles really were early in the season. Most paying close attention to the last decade-plus of Baltimore baseball figured the good vibes of April would turn to uneasiness by the time the middle of May rolled around.

Instead, the Orioles’ 5-2 win over the New York Yankees on Tuesday not only salvaged a split in a brief two-game series but  capped a 9-6 record over the brutal stretch. Instead of potentially finding themselves below the .500 mark and in the familiar basement of the division as many feared two weeks ago, the Orioles stand at 23-14 and are still tied for first place — deadlocked with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Making the feat even more impressive was the amount of turbulence the Orioles experienced along the way. Outfielders Nolan Reimold and Endy Chavez, infielder Mark Reynolds, and relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom landed on the 15-day disabled list. Two extra-inning games in Boston left the bullpen taxed and injuries began surfacing, forcing executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette to make 22 individual roster moves over a seven-day period last week.

Two weeks ago, who would have predicted Bill Hall, Steve Tolleson, and Xavier Avery would comprise the bottom third of the lineup in Tuesday’s win over CC Sabathia? If you did, you certainly wouldn’t have expected the Orioles to remain atop the division.

Yet, the cracks in the armor are impossible to ignore. In addition to the injuries, the pitching that had carried the Orioles through the first five weeks of the season looks vulnerable, both in the rotation and in the bullpen.

Starters Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been the biggest surprises of the young season, but Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter need to find more consistency to pitch deeper into games and stabilize the rotation. Otherwise, a bullpen that’s been outstanding through the first six weeks of the season will continue to wear down and become less effective as the seasons progresses.

The infield defense at the corners continues to be abysmal as manager Buck Showalter hasn’t found a viable duo at first and third on which he can rely. The poor defense has put unnecessary strain on young starting pitchers on top of their struggles on the mound.

Even with those warning signs, the Orioles continue to win and haven’t suffered more than two consecutive losses since the second series of the season when the Yankees swept a three-game series in Baltimore.

There’s no disputing the Orioles have benefited from the injuries hammering Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay in the division. In order to compete, we knew Baltimore would not only need to exceed expectations but those divisional opponents would have to come back to the pack a bit.

Through May 15, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Unlike those clubs, however, the Orioles aren’t capable of overcoming shaky starting pitching, poor defense, and more injuries. Their margin for error simply isn’t high enough in the toughest division in baseball.

Resiliency has been the keyword of the 2012 season through 37 games, and it’s found the Orioles in an unfamiliar position of prosperity.

Will it continue?

As was the case on the day of that walk-off win against Oakland, no one knows, but with every game and every series and every difficult stretch in which the Orioles find a way to get the job done, they recruit more and more believers.

Including themselves.