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Orioles return home at season’s turning point

The Orioles have silenced doubters thus far, but how long can they survive with a rotation full of average starters? (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON — It could have been devastating.

After dominating the first game out of the All-Star break for eight innings, on the road, against the best team in baseball, the Baltimore Orioles handed the ball to closer Zach Britton with a 4-2 lead. Five pitches later — after a swinging bunt single on an 0-2 pitch followed by a broken-bat bloop — he served up a walk- off, three-run home run to All-Star Josh Donaldson, as the Oakland Athletics stormed back for a 5-4 win.

That was how the O’s began the second half of the season, and a crucial 10-game west coast road swing against playoff-caliber clubs in Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle. But they regrouped in time to split the remaining pair in the Bay Area, take two-of-three in Orange County, and three-of-four over the weekend in the Pacific Northwest, finishing the trip 6-4.

That show of resilience left them three games clear of all competitors in the AL East (two-and-a-half following Toronto’s win Monday night) as they return to Charm City, and prepare for the most crucial stretch of the season so far, starting Tuesday night.

Baltimore gets 12 of its next 16 at home, but will face contenders in each and every one of those matchups. They host Los Angeles and Seattle for three apiece, head to D.C. for a makeup game from the Battle of the Beltways rainout, then to Toronto for three. Finally, they return home to play the St. Louis Cardinals for three, followed by the Yankees.

So far, they’ve handled all comers, and have silenced doubters by taking advantage of the rare year in which the Yankees and Red Sox are both down. Right now, Fangraphs projects the Orioles as an 87-win team, good enough to win the AL East by two games over the Blue Jays (it foresees the Yankees at 82 wins and the hard-charging Rays at 81). Baltimore has seven more games against Tampa Bay (four at home, three on the road), nine with Toronto (three/six) and 10 with New York (six/four).

Those intra-division matchups give the clubs challenging the Orioles a chance to make up ground, but so far Baltimore has held its own within the AL East. The O’s are 8-4 against the Rays, 6-3 vs. the Yankees, and 5-5 against the Blue Jays this season.

There are factors, other than their talent, that have helped. The Orioles have enjoyed good health, relative to the rest of the league, using only 18 pitchers so far this season, tied for the least in the American League. The league average has been 22, with the snake-bitten Rangers using a whopping 32.

But they also have been a bit lucky. The staff has allowed just 3.96 runs per game, good for third-best behind just Seattle and Oakland. But their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a more precise measure of pitching effectiveness than ERA, is the league’s second worst, clocking in at 4.21, just a hair better than the aforementioned Rangers (4.23). In contrast, the other AL division leaders — Oakland and Detroit — are at 3.67 and 3.73, respectively, while also posting stronger offensive numbers.

Wei-Yin Chen has led the Orioles staff with 11 wins, but his 3.92 ERA is the very definition of league-average. Chris Tillman has posted nearly identical overall numbers — a few more walks, a few less home runs — as have both Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris. All four starters have an ERA+ between 99-104.

Ubaldo Jimenez, who arguably has the highest clout of anyone in the rotation, has put up the worst numbers, and currently resides on the disabled list. Meanwhile, Kevin Gausman has shown flashes of brilliance, but also inconsistency while filling in.

Gausman

Gausman (AP)

Kevin Gausman has held opponents to one run or fewer in six of his nine starts, but has allowed five earned runs in each of other three. (AP Photo)

In essence, the Orioles are without a number one starter, or by most definitions, a number two. It’s the same problem they faced entering the season, but it has not caught up with them yet. Even if the O’s make the postseason, their formula would be hard-pressed to work once they get there, as underdogs in nearly every pitching matchup.

“Don’t you have to give yourself a chance against Detroit or Oakland?” asks Grantland’s Jonah Keri of Baltimore’s postseason outlook. “Are you really going to run Gausman out as your number one?”

In his weekly column, Keri included some calculations of cluster luck in regards to runs scored or allowed this season. While the Orioles have been somewhat unlucky offensively (by nearly 15 runs), their 42.47 runs-allowed luck is miles ahead of the next closest team, the New York Mets at 27.61. That’s a statistically significant mark, one that suggests they’ve outperformed their true talent thus far.

But the news isn’t all bad.

“When you talk about regression to the mean, it doesn’t mean they’re going to have bad luck from here on out, just league-average luck,” says Keri. “The best way to combat this, of course, is to just go get better pitchers.”

One solution would be to make a trade. But with both Jon Lester and David Price, the top two targets on the market residing within the division, the O’s would likely have to look elsewhere. A potential candidate? Maybe the Phillies’ A.J. Burnett.

“He’s an extreme groundball pitcher,” explains Keri. “With the strong defense on the left side of the infield, plus him being a Maryland native, it makes a lot of sense.”

Whether or not the O’s make a move, the next 16 days will go a long way toward answering whether they are built to make it to, and through, October.

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