Orioles once again looking part of first-place club

June 29, 2015 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles pitched two shutouts, their top six relievers threw a combined 18 pitches, and Adam Jones finally made his return to the lineup on Sunday.

The Buck Showalter garden gnome giveaway was a huge hit.

And, oh yeah, the Orioles found themselves back in first place in the American League East for the first time since April 19.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona might have been asking himself why he waited until the ninth inning of Game 2 to get ejected after his team’s abysmal day, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for a better doubleheader. In tossing shutouts in both games of the twin bill — a 4-0 win in the opener and an 8-0 final for the nightcap — the Orioles did something they hadn’t accomplished since Sept. 6, 1974 when they twice blanked the Indians in a doubleheader at old Cleveland Stadium.

“It was big. It was a good day,” said Game 2 winner Chris Tillman, who pitched a much-needed seven shutout innings to help his own psyche after Ubaldo Jimenez tossed eight scoreless frames in the opener. “Ubaldo went out and did an outstanding job. There was a lot of offense today in both games. It was really fun to watch.”

On the same day they won the 5,000th game in club history, the Orioles came out of the weekend only reinforcing what many have begun thinking more and more over the last four weeks. They’re looking like a first-place club and woke up Monday morning in that very position, percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in a division where four clubs are currently separated by one game.

It’s a different season and a different club, but you couldn’t help but notice that the Orioles seized first place for good on July 3 last season. The similarities are there with an excellent defense, a stellar bullpen, and a revitalized offense hitting home runs, but even the starting pitching got into the act after struggling in recent weeks by allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings of work against the Indians.

Right now, the AL East is far from the poor division it looked to be six weeks ago as three clubs — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and New York — would have qualified for the playoffs if the season had ended on Sunday. Whether the Orioles will follow the same script of 2014 remains to be seen, but 18 wins in 23 games to move to the top of the division would have any club feeling good about itself.

“It’s a return for that, but it can be very fleeting,” Showalter said. “The only thing I look at is the loss column now and then. I don’t pay much attention to the other part of it.

“See if you can stay engaged and have a chance to roll the dice in September. That’s what it’s about. Position yourself to be in it in September and play meaningful games when the leaves start turning. It’s not that complicated.”

Continuing to win at a .783 clip as they have for more than three weeks isn’t sustainable, but the Orioles learned last year that it doesn’t take prolonged winning streaks to pull away from the pack if you consistently win series. If you combine the four games — two home and two away — against Philadelphia, Baltimore has now secured seven consecutive series wins.

Unlike the Orioles clubs from a few years ago, this group of players has the experience of bouncing back — like when they were six games below .500 earlier this month — that brings confidence the rest of the way. They know it won’t be this easy over the final three months of the season, and Showalter makes sure his players are prepared for that reality, never wanting them to be too high or too low after any result.

“We have the ups and downs,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who hit his career-high 15th homer on Sunday and continues sprinting toward superstar status a week shy of his 23rd birthday. “We started off a little slow. We had players injured, and we’re just getting back into it. Everybody’s starting to get healthy. This is just the midway point.

“There’s a lot more baseball ahead, a lot more slumps, a lot more games lost coming ahead, but we’ve got to stay focused and stay with the mindset that we have.”

The Orioles know they aren’t perfect.

Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are still sifting through a crowded corner outfield situation that will likely require parting ways with one or two options. As a whole, the group has been more productive in June, but the Orioles have to hope they’ll make the right decisions and the remaining pieces will continue getting the job done.

Tillman’s strong performance on Sunday was a step in the right direction as he and Bud Norris still have a long way to go to quell concerns over their immense struggles in the first half of 2015.

But these issues don’t feel insurmountable and certainly aren’t any worse than the weaknesses the other AL East contenders are facing. Even in winning 96 games and the club’s first division title in 17 years last year, the Orioles had their flaws.

It’s tough to ignore the similarities with 2014, even down to the contributions from unexpected sources such as Jimmy Paredes, Chaz Roe, and Chris Parmelee a year after Steve Pearce, Brad Brach, and Caleb Joseph emerged from the shadows.

“This team tries as much as we can not to think about last year,” said Chris Davis, who hit his club-leading 16th homer on Sunday night. “It was obviously a great year, but it’s over with. You have to turn the page and focus on what’s at hand. I think we’re proud of the way we’re playing right now and battling these last few days and playing with somewhat of a short roster.

“Guys have stepped up and have done a great job.”

And the Orioles have stepped to the top of the AL East as a result.