BALTIMORE — Nearly 60 games into the 2015 season, we know the Orioles have their flaws.
They don’t have a great offense, a truth that became painfully obvious in May when they finished last in the American League in average and on-base percentage. The newfound presence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and the anticipated return of Jonathan Schoop before the All-Star break will help, but it’s a lineup that can’t be counted on to consistently win high-scoring games despite showing signs of life over the last week.
The early-season struggles of starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Bud Norris are now compounded by Miguel Gonzalez being placed on the 15-day disabled list with a groin injury, leaving plenty of uncertainty in what’s been a solid but unspectacular rotation.
Despite those shortcomings, it’s been the emergence of two phases of the game in which the Orioles thrived over the previous three seasons that has been the catalyst for a season-high four-game winning streak and six victories in seven tries. Manager Buck Showalter relied on superb defense and an exceptional bullpen to guide the Orioles to a three-game sweep over the scuffling Boston Red Sox and back to just one game below .500.
To be fair, the bullpen has performed at a high level since a rocky April in which it posted a 4.35 ERA. Since the start of May, Orioles relievers have pitched to a 2.38 ERA in 113 1/3 innings. And though being a man down for the first two games of the Boston series due to the Brian Matusz suspension, the bullpen allowed just one earned run in 12 innings against the Red Sox in the series.
“You can withstand it if the guys who come in to pitch out of the bullpen finish the job that they have to do,” said Showalter about using a six-man bullpen before rookie Mike Wright was recalled on Thursday. “If you have to bring another guy in to finish that, that’s where the problem comes. These guys have done a good job of finishing.”
To see strong contributions from closer Zach Britton and setup men Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is one thing, but the Orioles have received a major lift from the likes of Brad Brach and Chaz Roe in recent weeks. Despite allowing a solo home run to David Ortiz on Thursday, Roe pitching the eighth inning of a tight game against Boston is a bet few would have taken back in spring training. The right-hander currently sports a 1.38 ERA since being promoted from Triple-A Norfolk last month.
The balanced performance was particularly impressive in pushing the Red Sox further into the basement of the AL East. Showalter loves to see his relievers “pass the baton” when necessary, and that’s exactly what the group did as the Orioles earned their first three-game sweep of the season.
“I was kind of having that feeling this series and I hope we can continue,” said Brach, who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings on Thursday. “It just kind of seems that the excitement is starting to get there and everybody is starting to find their little niche. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”
Considering the bullpen has pitched so well for over a month, what has been the biggest difference over the last week when the Orioles have played their best baseball of the year?
If you watched the last few games, it wasn’t difficult to tell.
“Our defense,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who made several exceptional plays in the series and has seemingly put his early-season defensive woes behind him. “We’re playing the defense we’re supposed to be playing on the Orioles and this organization.”
Even the likes of Travis Snider and the returning Nolan Reimold got into the defensive act against the Red Sox as the Orioles played the type of defense we’ve come to expect over the last few years. On Wednesday alone, Adam Jones put together a convincing body of work for another Gold Glove as he made three sensational defensive plays.
We shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Orioles homered three times in Thursday’s finale — the long ball has been another key to their success since 2012 — but the vibe accompanying their overall play makes you wonder if things are slowly beginning to fall into place. Improved pitching and exceptional defense were the bread and butter that allowed the Orioles to take off in the second half of 2014 on the way to 96 wins and their first division title since 1997.
That doesn’t mean it will happen in the same way, but few anticipate it taking that kind of a winning clip to prevail in an ordinary division.
The offense will continue to be a concern and there’s uneasiness with the current rotation, but the Orioles hope their current winning streak is a harbinger of what’s to come over the coming days, weeks, and months. They’ll receive an ample test this weekend with the New York Yankees visiting Camden Yards on the heels of winning seven of their last eight.
Baltimore enters the weekend only four games behind New York and with an opportunity to climb back to the .500 mark for the first time since May 5.
“We have momentum until we leave the locker room and get back here tomorrow,” Showalter said after Thursday’s win. “The best team in our division so far this year is coming in. It’s tough because there are a lot of people having trouble beating them. Now, we have to try to see if we can.”
And you have to feel better about their chances than you did a week ago.