Cumberland Times-News

Mike Burke - Sports

August 7, 2012

News from NFL training camp will have to wait

As the summer sails deeper into August at a far too brisk pace, as football training camps, from the pee wees to the pros, bustle in preparation for the coming season (and by the way, what kind of heat acclimatization policy does pee wee football have?), it continues to be a source of amazement that the three big league baseball teams within a two-hour drive of Cumberland continue to be in contention. They are in contention, mind you, not only for long awaited .500 seasons, but for places in a season that has become so taboo in these parts, it almost worries you to even consider the possibilities for fear of jinxing what has become a downright entertaining summer.

Yes, the Baltimore Orioles, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals are all in the running to play postseason baseball in the fall. Of the three, the Orioles’ place in the sweepstakes would appear to be the most tenuous, with five solid teams contending in the A.L. West and Central, and with the Tampa Bay Rays, boasting the return of third baseman Evan Longoria, seemingly poised to make their trademark late-season run in the East.

On top of that, there is neither rhyme nor reason, other than having one of the best bullpens in baseball, as to how or why the Orioles even have a winning record in the first week of August. They can’t hit with runners in scoring position, with the exception of Wei-Yin Chen, their starting pitching is being held together by a thread, and they are likely the worst defensive baseball team in North America, with the possible exception of the Houston Astros, who Monday night handed the Nationals a victory with a defensive disaster that would have made Chico’s Bail Bonds shortstop Tanner Boyle throw his glove to the ground in disgust.

Yet there the Orioles were Tuesday morning in the standings, 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the A.L. East, and tied with Oakland, one-half game behind Detroit and Los Angeles for the second wild card spot. Their success thus far is a testament to the fine offseason work of general manager Dan Duquette, the managing of Buck Showalter, the bullpen and a refusal to ever give in, as they have played to the best records in baseball in one-run games (21-6) and extra-inning games (11-2).

In the Nationals, you have arguably the best team in the National League, and it would be just as tempting to wonder how, given the key injuries they have had to play through all season. But when you consider their pitching is the best in baseball, their manager is Davey Johnson and their player development is as good as anybody’s in baseball, it’s really not that amazing at all.

Although they hold only a 2 1/2-game lead in the N.L. East, the only real intrigue surrounding the Nats would seem to be when the plug will be pulled on Stephen Strasburg’s season. On one hand, it’s a no-brainer because you don’t want to jeopardize a talent and a potential career the magnitude of Strasburg’s. However, deep postseason runs are never guaranteed, as Baltimore found out when Johnson was forced out as manager in 1997. Is there some coincidental karma involved now that Johnson’s the skipper in D.C.? That will be for G.M. Mike Rizzo to determine, but he has been adamant that Strasburg will be shut down before season’s end.

The Pirates, who find themselves behind the Reds in the N.L. Central (3 1/2 games entering Tuesday) and who have the Cardinals breathing down their neck (2 1/2 games) for the second wild card spot, have been an exhilarating burst of fresh air for baseball and for baseball in Pittsburgh, thanks to great pitching, the managing of Clint Hurdle and to the electrifying play of center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who, if the season were to end today, would be the MVP of the National League.

From this perspective, along with rookies Mike Trout, who would likely be the A.L. MVP, and Bryce Harper, the Pirates and their revitalized fanbase have been the best story in baseball. They have the sixth-best pitching in baseball, but it will be their hitting, which enjoyed a bit of a revitalization of its own recently, although still ranked 22nd, that determines how far and how long the Buccos play this season.

The same, of course, is true of the Orioles, who are ranked 21st in offense. Matter of fact, there are plenty more holes to fill in Baltimore than there are in Pittsburgh, but the fact is it’s August 8th, and both the Orioles and the Pirates are still in the hunt.

So as the rest of the world becomes further enthralled with the excitement and wonder of the Summer Olympics, we’ll keep watching baseball here in these parts, thank you. The Summer Olympics, after all, come along every four years. In Pittsburgh and Baltimore, summers like this one have been 20 and 15 years in the wait.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com

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