The Orioles Are Hot, Hot, Hot, but Can They Sustain Their Run at the AL Wild Card?

Their starting pitching is among the league's worst, but the Baltimore Orioles are using their bats and their bullpen to make an unlikely charge toward the second AL Wild Card spot.
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How hot are the Orioles? Baltimore has won seven of their last eight, sweeping the Red Sox and Mariners after winning two of three against Oakland, scoring 71 runs in that span. Even with an 11–8 loss against the Jays last night, they may be on the verge of supplanting the Yankees (who play four against Boston through Sunday) in a wild-card spot by the time New York comes to town for three on Monday. That’s no small comeback for a team that stood seven games under .500 a month and a half ago.

But before discussing what, exactly, about the Orioles has helped them get here, maybe the initial question is best asked another way: How bad is the rest of the AL wild-card field? It has been an odd baseball season in so many ways, and as September arrives no oddity seems quite as substantial as the stubborn parity on the junior circuit. 

With the Yankees losers of three of four, the Mariners losers of five in a row, and the Orioles, Twins, and Angels streaking in the other direction, the eight teams with credible shots at the wild-card game are separated by five and a half games in total. The Rays are still hanging around; so are the Rangers. Overall, more teams are in the hunt than out of it. 

It’s still something of a shock to see Baltimore in that group, all things considered. This year had been shaping up to be the end of the run of surprising success the O’s have had since Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette figured things out in 2012.

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The pitching staff, which had been reliably average pretty much every year of that streak, thanks to great bullpens and weak rotations, fell off. Closer Zach Britton, unhittable in 2016 after being mostly unhittable in 2014 and 2015, missed two months with an injury before returning in a highly hittable form. (Closer aside, the bullpen is still as good as ever.) In 2016, Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman combined for 60 starts—351 innings of 3.70 ERA ball. This year, Tillman missed the first month of the season and has pitched to a 7.91 ERA since returning. Gausman has had his health, but only last weekend did he get his ERA under 5.00. The rest of the rotation, excepting some improvement from Dylan Bundy, is just as bad as it was in 2016.

And the offense, as of six weeks ago, was flailing too. Third baseman Manny Machado, the team’s best player, seemingly had forgotten how to hit—he had a .216/.289/.423 line at the end of June. First baseman Chris Davis missed a month to injury and when healthy repeated his disappointing 2016. J.J. Hardy, the shortstop, hit .211 with no power for two-plus months and then broke his wrist. DH Mark Trumbo was having his worst season in years. At the all-star break, the Orioles stood 11th in the AL in runs scored and sixth in homers, both of which would have been their worst full-season marks since 2010, if they held. 

Somehow, though, the hitters came around. Since the break, Baltimore as a whole is hitting .293/.343/.504 (the batting and slugging marks lead baseball) and they have scored more runs than anyone else in the AL. Catcher Welington Castillo is having the best month of his life. So is shortstop Tim Beckham, snatched from the Rays at the deadline. Machado is Machado again. And 25-year-old second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who had been picking up the slack all season long to little notice, kept his pace up. He enters September with a .306 average and 30 homers; a strong finish ought to net him downballot MVP consideration.

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The team hasn’t needed Trumbo or Davis to do much of anything, which is well enough, because they haven’t done much of anything. If only Baltimore could clone fine rookie first baseman/outfielder Trey Mancini (.294/.344/.518) twice over and give Davis and Trumbo’s at-bats to the new Mancinis, then the O’s would really be somewhere.

Baltimore’s case shouldn’t be overstated. The rotation really is horrendous behind Bundy (who’s more than 40 innings past his career high and may soon hit a wall) and Gausman (who may yet go south again). Putative deadline upgrade Jeremy Hellickson has a 6.55 ERA in six starts, and Ubaldo Jimenez has a 6.85 ERA and has gone more than five innings in less than half of his starts.

Whether the Orioles land in the playoffs, and whether they progress when they get there, is a function of when the pixie dust wears off. If it’s November 1, who knows, they could push the Dodgers to seven. If it’s September 1, they’ll finish 10 games under .500. If it’s October 1, well, it’ll be a snoozer of a wild card game.

A playoff picture like this one by and large serves as a billboard for the genius of the second wild card system. None of this bunch would have deserved the deference that was offered wild-card teams from 1995 to 2011; a steep disadvantage in the division series is appropriate. Then again, perhaps the clubs in this bunch don’t even deserve to be part of anything advertised as “playoffs” at all. We don’t win anymore… Perhaps the FTC can get involved? 

Until then, though, the 68–66 Baltimore Orioles stand two and a half games out of a playoff spot on August 31, and they’re hot as hell.