Buoyed by home runs and stellar in the late innings, the Orioles will look to continue their unexpectedly successful 2014 season.
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Regular-Season Record/Finish: 96-66, first in AL East
How They Got Here: On May 31, the Orioles were a .500 team, in third place in the AL East and with catcher and de facto captain Matt Wieters done for the season with an elbow injury. Three months later, they were 23 games over .500, nine games ahead of the second-place Yankees and on their way to the franchise's first division title in 17 years, even though they'd also lost All-Star third baseman Manny Machado to a season-ending knee injury along the way.
How did Buck Showalter's team do it? It's been a combination of factors. For one thing, the O's hit a lot of home runs, more than any team in baseball. Baltimore banged out 211 round-trippers, almost 30 more than second-place Colorado. For another, the Orioles play exceptional defense, especially in the outfield, where Alejandro De Aza, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis run down everything.
But beyond the stats, the O's seem to have a magical combination of players this season — much like last year's Red Sox — who pick one another up. Wieters and Machado went down, but Caleb Joseph and Ryan Flaherty have filled in ably. Chris Davis didn't live up to his MVP-caliber 2013 and saw his season come to an early end after a suspension for amphetamine use, but free agent pickup Nelson Cruz and journeyman first baseman Steve Pearce have more than compensated. With a payroll ($101 million) that's not even half that of the Yankees, the Orioles proved again that team chemistry matters.
Why They'll Win: Baltimore knows how to win close and late, with more one-run wins than any team in the AL and more extra-inning wins than any team in baseball. Give credit to Showalter, who excels at getting the right matchups in the late innings and has a top-flight bullpen at his disposal, featuring Zach Britton, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Andrew Miller. The Orioles may not be good enough to blow teams out regularly, but come the seventh inning most nights, they're in a fight. On top of that, the O's are also one of baseball's most sure-handed teams and one that won't give games away in October.
Do not discount the importance of Baltimore clinching the American League East title with two weeks to go in the regular season, as well. That has allowed Showalter a chance to rest some of his regulars and set up his rotation perfectly.
Why They Won't: The Orioles live and die by the home run, and that's usually not a good sign for postseason success. The 2009 Yankees are the only team in the last 10 years to lead the majors in homers during the regular season and go on to win the World Series. The team's on-base percentage is only .312, and Baltimore's overall run production lags behind all the other AL postseason teams except Kansas City. The Orioles will certainly miss Machado, their best all-around offensive player, especially if Cruz (140 strikeouts) and Jones (132) struggle to put balls in play in RBI situations. Offensive contributions from contact hitters like Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop will be needed.
If the old adage that power arms win in the postseason is true, then starting pitching could also be a concern for the Orioles, as their staff does not strike out many. Baltimore's pitchers were 24th in the majors in strikeouts, and the Orioles as a team had a strikeout-per-nine ratio of just 7.2, well under the league average of 7.7. The only postseason team that had fewer strikeouts and a lower ratio: the Royals.