Resurgent Orioles Suddenly in Playoff Hunt

Following a thumping three-game sweep at the hands of the Chicago Cubs immediately after after the All-Star Break, the Orioles slipped to a season-high seven games below .500, and appeared to be heading towards the trade deadline as sellers.

There was talk of offloading the likes of Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Welington Castillo, while Manny Machado’s name was also being thrown around for discussion – by myself included. The team appeared low on confidence, was unable to find a starter capable of keeping the game close, and the offense had lost its spark. Aspirations of another playoff berth – the fourth in six seasons – seemed so unlikely that some┬áTwitter users leaped to extreme measures, and all that was left to salvage from the season was securing a handful of talented prospects to restock an empty farm.

Then, in true Orioles fashion, the perennial underdog bit back ferociously and made those foolish Twitter users very, very nervous…

A four game series sweep of the Texas Rangers was followed by a competitive series against the American League’s best team, the Houston Astros. While losing the three game series, a late comeback which fell agonizingly short in game one could’ve easily seen the tables reversed. The team traveled to Tampa Bay next, in a crucial three game set. Despite losing two of three, the result of game two also could’ve been switched as another comeback bid failed. A series win in Texas followed where the Orioles bats sparked to life, before heading home and sweeping the Royals on the back of some phenomenal starting pitching – something which has deserted the ball club in recent months.

Suddenly, 11 wins in 16 games has seen the team improve its record to 53-54 and in a very close wildcard race, they somewhat miraculously now sit just 2.5 games out. With 55 games remaining, there’s hope – and plenty of it.

Over the 16-game stretch, the team has enjoyed nine quality starts from its rotation, with just Wade Miley failing to produce one over this stretch (he’s failed in all three attempts). More recently, this week the team has strung together five consecutive wins and during which, the rotation has allowed just three earned runs in 35 2/3 innings of work.┬áThe team has also scored 95 runs, at an average of almost six per game, and while hitting 23 home runs throughout the resurgence, they’ve also come up big in the clutch, hitting a collective .353 (47-for-133) with runners in scoring position. They are no longer relying so heavily on the long ball.┬áCastillo (.400), Seth Smith (.364), Jonathan Schoop (.359), (Machado (.349), and Caleb Joseph (.310) are all hitting above .300 in these 16 games, while Trey Mancini (.293) isn’t far behind. The lineup through 1-9 is producing more consistent results than it has all season.┬áDefensively, we’ve also seen a spark, with Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis and co. all producing web gems, and the team’s committed just six errors over this stretch, returning to the solid defensive lineup we’ve become accustomed to since 2012.

The team made two trades just prior to the deadline, with the sparingly-used Hyun Soo Kim (along with other minor pieces) heading to Philadelphia for veteran arm Jeremy Hellickson. The other move saw the team acquire shortstop Tim Beckham from the Rays in return for prospect Tobias Myers. There’s hope that the first overall pick in the 2008 draft can ultimately replace injury-prone veteran J.J. Hardy who is unlikely to remain in Baltimore. The moves, in particular that of Kim/Hellickson, weren’t well received by the Orioles’ fanbase, however after Hellickson’s seven shutout innings last night, the mood has changed dramatically.

As seen since 2012, the Orioles offense will score enough runs more often than not to win most games, however the team has been plagued by poor starting pitching most of the season. Hellickson, while far from spectacular, sures up a shaky rotation and gives Buck Showalter some options. Easing the workload of young Dylan Bundy is something being considered, while the likes of Miley and Jimenez are clearly on notice. Miley especially needs to improve or his head will be on the chopping block.

Encouragingly, over the next 20 games the Orioles play 17 against teams below .500, with series’ against the Tigers, Angels, and Athletics all awaiting. The remaining three are against the Mariners in Seattle, a team also hovering around the .500 mark. There schedule is more than favorable and if they can capitalize, they really throw themselves right into the playoff mix as the end of August arrives. As rosters expand, not many managers in baseball can match the craft of Showalter and his ability to extract the best out of his players. A strong September could see the team achieve anything.

While there’s a very long way to go and caution must be employed when speaking of the Orioles with the rotation it possesses, the last two weeks have seen the team move suddenly from non-contender to contender, and with hope comes belief. We can’t be so foolish as to count them out again.