AP Sports Writer
BALTIMORE - During the first 2 1/2 months of the Baltimore Orioles' surprisingly successful season, sports writers from around the country descended upon Camden Yards to find out why a perennial loser was suddenly a contender in the AL East.
The answer, manager Buck Showalter insisted, was not profound. He summed it up with one word: "Pitching."
Baltimore led the division as late as June 7 and still stands in second place with a 45-40 record, mainly because of a rotation that features newcomers Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, along with a bullpen anchored by All-Star closer Jim Johnson. With 26 saves in 27 opportunities, a 1-0 record and a 1.21 ERA, Johnson was arguably the team MVP in the first half.
Despite a 6-13 run leading into the All-Star break, the Orioles are still in position to secure a playoff spot. That might be a stretch for a team that went 69-93 last year, but at worst Baltimore has a decent shot of ending its pathetic run of 14 straight losing seasons.
Asked what the Orioles must do to make that happen, Johnson said, "Pitch. That's where it starts, pitching. It's all on our shoulders. If we make the pitches, we know our offense can score us some runs."
Baltimore stumbled into the break on the losing end of two straight shutouts, but right fielder Nick Markakis will return to the lineup Friday after missing five weeks with a wrist injury. All-Stars Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are two big reasons why the Orioles rank third in the AL in home runs, and the recent addition of slugger Jim Thome proves first-year vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette intends to be proactive in keeping the team in the thick of the playoff hunt.
The defense, however, has been suspect. Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit are liabilities at third base, and Baltimore has made more errors than any team in the majors.
"We've got to get back to playing the game of baseball, giving a team only 27 outs," Jones said. "That's how you win."
The Orioles have played most of the season without injured leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, who's back on the disabled list with a torn muscle in his right hip after missing 13 months with a concussion. His original replacement at the top of the order, Nolan Reimold, is out for the year after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk in his neck.
Not only that, but three of the five pitchers in the opening day rotation (Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta) are currently in the minor leagues, leaving Showalter to depend on untested starters Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez.
And still, Baltimore has a winning record. If the playoffs were to start now, the Orioles would be participating in the wild-card round.
"Overall, if people told us where we were going to be at the halfway point where we are right now, I don't think people would have believed it," shortstop J.J. Hardy said.
Chen is 7-5 with a 3.93 ERA. Hammel, obtained in offseason trade with Colorado, is 8-5. Unfortunately, that includes three straight defeats during Baltimore's 6- 13 slide.
"Every team has their peaks and valleys, and right now we're in a little valley," Hammel said. "But I'm very pleased. We've competed with the best of them _ went toe to toe with the Yankees and Red Sox in their place. We've done a lot of things right."
Can the Orioles return to their April-May form, or will they revert to their old ways in the second half?
"To be successful, it's going to start with the pitching staff," Wieters said. "On top of that, the lineup is going to have to pick it up a little bit."
Hardy added, "We've shown signs of being a really good team and then we've shown signs of being not so good. We need to get back to playing good baseball and being consistent."
The highlights of the first half were Johnson's performance, first baseman Chris Davis pitching two scoreless in an extra-inning win at Boston and the long- term contract signed by Jones, a two-time All-Star who has emerged as clubhouse leader. Jones is encouraged by Baltimore's play this summer, but knows the most important part of the season has yet to be played.
"This is a work in progress," he said. "We've still got a lot more hard work to do. I'm happy with how this team has competed every day, and we're still pushing forward. That's all you can ask for."
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