If the season ended today, the Orioles would be a playoff team.
Yeah, you read that right. This weekend, Baltimore swept the Rays, the preseason darling of the abbreviated season, to pull into second place in the AL East. That would be good enough in 2020, when for the first time ever eight teams from each league, including the top two teams in each division, qualify for the postseason.
The purpose of the expanded postseason was to make pennant races more competitive. More playoff spots available means teams that otherwise would be rebuilding might play for the current season, too. Teams like the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels were among the AL teams most likely to benefit from the larger playoff pool.
Nobody thought the Orioles had a shot, but that’s the fun part of a 60-game season; every team has a shot. According to Fangraphs, the Orioles have a 5.0% chance to make the playoffs this season. Those are still the worst odds in the AL, but they’re up 3.6 percentage points from their preseason odds.
So what’s going on with the Orioles? They’ve been one of baseball’s best offensive teams. Among AL clubs, only the Yankees and White Sox have a better OPS than Baltimore’s .783. Not counting the Phillies and Marlins—the two teams that have played only three games because of Miami’s COVID-19 outbreak—the Orioles have the third best slugging percentage (.453) in the majors. Yes, the Orioles did play three games against the mediocre Red Sox pitching staff, but they also had to face Gerrit Cole on Wednesday and the elite Tampa Bay staff this weekend.
Second baseman and leadoff hitter Hanser Alberto, who quietly hit .305 last season, is batting .429 with a 1.145 OPS to start the year. He won’t maintain that level of production for the next two months, but he rarely strikes out and hits the ball to all fields. Six of Renato Núñez’s nine hits this year have gone for extra bases. Defensive whiz José Iglesias, a 30-year-old shortstop with a career 86 OPS+, is hitting .526 with five doubles in 19 at-bats.
Small sample? You bet. But guess what? The whole season is a small sample.
Let’s not kid ourselves; the Orioles will not make the playoffs this season. But they won’t be the worst team in the league either. And after losing over 100 games in each of the last two seasons, just being relevant again is an achievement.
• Aaron Judge has homered in five straight games, with his fifth and sixth home runs coming in Sunday night’s 9-7 win over the Red Sox as the Yankees completed the three-game sweep in the Bronx. Only three Yankees have had longer streaks: Don Mattingly, eight games in 1987; Roger Maris, six games in 1961; Lou Gehrig, six games in 1931.
• The Reds and Tigers played the first-ever doubleheader with two seven-inning games on Sunday. And it was pretty interesting. After a leadoff home run in the third inning, Detroit’s second pitcher in the first game, left-hander Tyler Alexander, came in and struck out the first nine batters he faced, a record for a reliever. Alexander was one strike away from fanning Mike Moustakas for his 10th in a row, which would have tied Tom Seaver for the most consecutive strikeouts, but he hit Moustakas with a 1-2 pitch. He then struck out Eugenio Suárez and was removed with two outs in the sixth inning.
That’s a dominant performance in any game, but because it was a seven-inning contest, this meant Alexander’s strikeouts accounted for 10 of the 21 outs Detroit recorded. His final line: 3 ⅔ innings, no runs, no hits, one walk, 10 strikeouts. The Tigers still lost the game, 4-3.
• In the second game of that doubleheader, Trevor Bauer pitched a two-hit shutout and struck out seven in Cincinnati’s 4-0 win. It was the fourth complete game of the season, though only one of them—Kyle Hendricks’ three-hit shutout on Opening Day against the Brewers—came in a nine-inning game.
Now that MLB is playing seven-inning doubleheader games this season, and some teams are going to have plenty of games to make up in this 60-game sprint, we could see even more complete games pitched in less than nine innings.
• Remember Corey Seager? The 26-year-old Dodgers shortstop won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and finished third for the MVP in 2016, followed that up with a strong sophomore season and then had Tommy John surgery early in the 2018 campaign. In the meantime, he went from MVP candidate to an after-thought. Until now. In nine games, Seager is slashing .361/.425/.694 with a 207 OPS+.
• Shohei Ohtani, the pitcher, had another concerning outing in his second start of the season on Sunday. Everything looked fine in the first inning; Ohtani's velocity was back and he needed just eight pitches to retire the side. But in the second inning, Ohtani struggled with his command, walking the first three batters of the inning before striking out the next two. He then walked two more Astros, which brought home two runs before Angels manager Joe Maddon finally removed him.
Inexplicably, Maddon allowed Ohtani to throw 42 pitches in the second inning in just his second start back from Tommy John surgery. His velocity dipped toward the end of his outing, a clear sign that he was fatiguing. Sure enough, Ohtani complained of a sore arm after the start and underwent an MRI. He is awaiting the results.
The Angels ended up losing, 6-5, in 11 innings. Two bright spots: 1) Mike Trout is back from paternity leave and will play in Tuesday night’s game against the Mariners in Seattle. 2) Albert Pujols crushed a 437-foot grand slam in the third inning for his 658th career home run, bringing him within two of Willie Mays for fifth on the all-time list.