The Orioles won again last night. In 15 innings, they defeated the Royals, rallying in the 9th to tie the game and then taking the lead for good with a Adam Jones homer in the top of the 15th. With the victory, the Orioles kept pace with the Tampa Bay Rays (who they are tied with), and extended their lead over the Yankees, who are now 3.5 games back. So we must ask: how are they doing this, and can they keep this up?
Maybe it’s the return of the classic logo…
One thing that really is standing out with the 2012 Orioles is how well the no-name pitchers are doing. Most of the All-Stars the Orioles have had since the retirement of Cal Ripken have generally been hitters: Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, etc. The only exceptions have been B.J. Ryan in 2005 (who flamed out after a few years in Toronto in the late aughts) and George Sherrill in 2008 (he now pitches for the Mariners), although Erik Bedard (who was slyly traded for Jones, Sherrill and others in 2009) could probably have been said to have been snubbed on at least one occasion. That likely will remain true this year: the Orioles will probably see Wieters (who should probably start) and Adam Jones make the All-Star Game this year if they keep it up. But it will be ignoring the no-name pitchers that are keeping them in the race this late in the season.
Take their bullpen. It is spectacular, and I, like most people, can’t name a single one of them without looking it up. Even I, who prides myself on trying to be at least vaguely familiar with everybody in baseball, is just that with the Orioles: vaguely familiar. I recognize the names when I see them, but if I were vacationing down in Maryland and ran into one of them in the Inner Harbor, I wouldn’t be saying “Oh, you’re Jim Johnson!” I would probably instead say: “Look where you’re going!”
And yet, Johnson is having a brilliant year. He has a 0.51 ERA and he leads the league in saves. And the rest of the bullpen has been doing great:
-Pedro Strop, who had been given to the Orioles as a player-to-be-named-later from the Rangers, has a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings.
-Veteran reliever Luis Ayala is the holder of 1.86 ERA and, along with Johnson, Strop and Darren O’Day, is one of four O’s pitchers with WHIPs (Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched) under one.
-Speaking of O’Day, he has the lowest WHIP of anybody in the Baltimore ‘pen: 0.873. Like Strop, he’s a cast-off from the Rangers: the Orioles picked him up off of waivers.
By comparison, the Baltimore rotation hasn’t been as good, especially at the top. Tommy Hunter (another Texas cast-off, arriving to Baltimore along with the immortal Chris Davis last season in exchange for Koji Uehara) is 2-2 with a 4.78 ERA. Jake Arrieta, arguably the best homegrown starter in the rotation, has also struggled, with a 5.21 ERA and a 2-4 W-L record. It leads one to wonder why Buck Showalter hasn’t promoted the two success stories in the rotation up a bit. Taiwanese import (via Japan) Wei-Yin Chen has yet to lose a game, and has a 2.45 ERA. Jason Hammel, a serviceable-but-unremarkable starter the last few years, is 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA.
In my eyes, the only chance the Orioles have of staying in the race in the long run is having the pitching hold up. This seems obvious, but it is true. No matter how well the Orioles hit, they cannot survive the apocalyptic struggle that is the AL East without pitching that can silence the Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox.
Whether they can is up for debate. Chen, for example, is still new to the majors, so it’s possible that the hitters just might not be used to facing him yet. Eventually, they will figure him out, and then, like every other pitcher, Chen will have to make more adjustments.
But if the Orioles keep this up- unlike so many of the previous years where they have teased the world with hot starts- the people who may need to adjust are the rest of the AL East, which somehow now finds itself even stronger.