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Even after weird week, strangest part of Orioles' season is their play

BALTIMORE -- The year 2012 has welcomed strange days that have nothing to do with any antiquated Mayan forecast and everything to with baseball at the extremes. The season has already seen a perfect game, a no-hitter and a cycle, three rare results that can't compete with what's happening with the Baltimore Orioles.

Consider the week the club has had:

• In Sunday's 17-inning game against the Red Sox Baltimore designated hitter Chris Davis -- who went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts -- ended up as the winning pitcher, while Boston outfielder Darnell McDonald was the losing pitcher. It was the first time two position players were the pitchers of record in the same game since 1902.

• In Monday's loss Rangers first baseman Brandon Snyder drove in six runs despite having four career RBIs in his previous 27 games.

• In Tuesday night's game Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton hit four home runs to tie an all-time, single-game major-league record.

• In Thursday's matinee the Orioles became the first American League team to hit back-to-back-to-back home runs to lead off their half of the first inning; also, Rangers starter Colby Lewis became the first pitcher in history to strike out at least 10 batters and give up at least five home runs. (Stranger, still, was that those five homers were the only hits he allowed.)

Seemingly as improbable -- based on recent history -- was that in the midst of this mayhem the Orioles, for a day, owned the best record in the major leagues and, right now, are 20-12 and tied for first place in the AL East with the Rays, who come to Camden Yards for a three-game visit this weekend. Not bad for a Baltimore franchise that has endured 14 consecutive losing seasons and last won 70 games (no high bar to cross) in a season back in 2006.

"The teams that I inherited in Montreal and Boston, we turned those around in the first year," said Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, who was hired in November. "We're on our way to turning the Orioles around too."

The Orioles are now 10 games through a 15-game stretch against the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Rays -- who collectively have won each of the last five AL pennants -- and have held their own. Baltimore went 5-1 in two series in New York and Boston against their annual tormenters, allowing only three runs to the Yankees while winning two games and then sweeping the Red Sox. Texas, however, won three of four games, thanks in part to Hamilton's herculean heroics, which included six home runs in the series.

The Rangers series may have been a bit of a reality check for the Orioles, as Texas has clearly separated itself as the best club in the league, which is an undeniable claim given that it has the best record, the most runs scored and the fewest runs allowed.

Baltmore's early success -- even if, as most expect, it does not last all season -- is nevertheless a tribute to progress.

At the forefront of this Baltimore renaissance has been the pitching staff. The Orioles' 3.35 team ERA ranks second in the AL, a full run and a half better than their mark last year and a night-and-day improvement over years past. One has to go back to 2005 to find the last season when the Orioles didn't rank 13th or 14th -- i.e. next-to-last or last -- in team ERA. (That year they ranked 10th.)

As important as ERA, which is an all-encompassing statistic of performance, are some of the Orioles' peripheral stats. Baltimore pitching has a 1.31 groundball-to-flyball ratio, which ranks only 17th in the majors but is the franchise's best rate since 1999. More impressively, the staff is issuing only 2.93 walks per nine innings, the Orioles' best since 1983. Those groundball and walk numbers suggest sustainability.

Manager Buck Showalter, who won his 1,000th career game last week, has overseen successful rebuilding projects with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers prior to taking the Orioles job in mid-season 2010 and he understands the development process. The rotation's lockers are typically arranged just to the left inside the Orioles' home clubhouse door, an area that, by chance, is directly across the hall from Showalter's office.

Showalter sees their hard work and their collaboration. He perceives the excitement and media frenzy surrounding each pitching prospect's arrival. He knows each will inevitably hit a rough patch at some point early in his career. And he sees the cycle play out from close proximity, culminating in a 14-8 mark to finish last September while only playing teams who had winning records.

"The good thing is they started biting back a little bit towards the end of last year," Showalter said. "Just about all pitchers go through a learning curve period in the major leagues. Developing starting pitching, especially in the AL East, is not for the weak of heart. You've got to do what's right for the long haul. What we're trying to do here is build something that stands the test of time."

The Orioles' two best starters so far this year have been Jason Hammel, acquired in a trade with the Rockies, and Wei-Yin Chen, an international free agent from Taiwan who pitched in Japan's Central League. Hammel has reclaimed his sinker in Baltimore, helped by leaving the thin air of Colorado, where the pitch's spin was distorted, and by receiving a tip about hand placement from pitching coach Rick Adair this spring. Chen has shown great command of his fastball and bite with his breaking ball.

And the incumbents -- draft picks Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, as well as Tommy Hunter, who was acquired in a trade with Texas last year -- have all made strides, even if their season numbers aren't as sparkling as the sub-3.00 ERA sported by Hammel and Chen. With the exception of Hammel, the other four starters are all either 25 or 26 years old.

"At 29 I never thought I'd be the old guy in the rotation," Hammel said. "With that number comes a little bit of experience and with where I'm at in my career, I can lend a helping hand to any of the guys."

Showalter maintains that what often separates the best teams from the merely good teams are the fourth and fifth starters and the 7-8-9 hitters in the lineup; the idea is that every team has its stars, but consistent production from the back end turns teams into champions.

On that note, the fact that the Orioles had notable competition for starting spots this spring bodes well for the club. Pitchers with major league experience -- such as Jason Berken, Brad Bergesen, Dana Eveland and Chris Tillman -- didn't make the Opening Day roster. Baltimore's coaching staff has seen the positive effect of that competition throughout the organization.

"It helps a lot," Adair said. "It keeps your attention as a player. When you have competition, your awareness on a daily basis is there, and your attention to details is a little more honed in."

Now the Orioles will need some of those pitchers as the club's depth is being tested. Hammel's next start has been pushed back because of a sore knee, so Eveland starts Friday night. To date the rotation had been remarkably sturdy. The five men who made the staff on Opening Day have made all 32 starts and have averaged about 6 1/3 innings per outing, the most length Baltimore has gotten from its starters since 2000.

"We've just been down in the zone better," catcher Matt Wieters said. "That's a big thing in order to get groundballs, to get deeper in games you need to get groundballs."

The rebuilt bullpen has also thrived. Newcomers Luis Ayala, Matt Lindstrom and Darren O'Day have teamed effectively with holdovers Pedro Strop, Jim Johnson and Kevin Gregg and as a unit the relievers have a 2.19 ERA, second best in the majors.

Two of those relief pitchers, O'Day and Strop, along with Davis, the first baseman/DH, were with the Rangers before their two AL pennants and have seen the rise of a franchise before.

"There are a lot of similarities between this Orioles team and the '08 and '09 Rangers teams that were kind of rebuilding with some younger guys who needed some experience," Davis said.

This isn't necessarily the end of the rebuilding cycle for the Orioles, but they've made major strides. Wieters, 25, and centerfielder Adam Jones, 26, are young stars in the making. Nick Markakis is a very good rightfielder. More talent is on the way, including starter Zach Britton (currently on the DL) and arguably the game's two brightest prospects in the minor leagues: shortstop Manny Machado and pitcher Dylan Bundy.

"I feel like the Baltimore Orioles now are a team that others have to contend with," Arrieta said. "We feel like we're just as good as any team in our division. I know it is early in the season, but we're confident that we can continue to keep up with anybody in baseball, as long as we pitch well."

That pitching and Showalter's ability to handle it are the bedrock of why Duquette said, "we have the foundation to stay in the race."

That the Orioles are genuinely uttering the phrase "stay in the race" shows just how strange this season has been.

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