Had you known in March that ...
• Manny Machado would miss the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery;
• Matt Wieters would play less than 30 games before being shut down for the year to elbow surgery;
• Chris Davis would spend time on the disabled list then not even hit his weight;
• J.J. Hardy would lose his power stroke;
• Tommy Hunter would lose the closer’s job;
• Ubaldo Jimenez, the club’s key pitching acquisition in the offseason, would be a first-half bust;
• and that over half the starting rotation would also spend time on the disabled list ... you would have bet your eye teeth that the Baltimore Orioles would be holding last place of the brutal American League East at the All-Star break.
Fortunately for you, insider trading isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Fortunately for you, you held on to those eye teeth because the AL East is, indeed, brutal, but in a far different way than it was supposed to be.
All of those things have happened to the Orioles — Machado missed the first month, Wieters is finished for the season, Davis spends his evenings ventilating third-base dugouts with his mighty whiffs, Hardy has just three home runs, Hunter couldn’t hold the closer’s job, Jimenez is 3-8 with a 4.52 ERA, and most of the Orioles pitching staff, including Davis at first, has spent time on the DL.
Yet when the second half of the season opens on Friday, it will be the Orioles who sit in first place of the American League East by four games — five in the All-Important Loss Column — because, as Joe Garagiola once said, “Baseball is a funny game.”
Let’s begin with Nelson Cruz. The guy is a bonafide big league hitter and is enjoying another good season in 2013 when he tests positive for performance enhancing drugs. Unlike Ryan Braun, he comes clean, says he was wrong to do it, apologizes and serves his 50-game suspension.
It all comes in his free agent year and when the winter comes, there are either no takers on Cruz’s asking price or no takers on a convicted PED user. So, in late February, the Orioles throw him a one-year, $8 million bone and bang — Cruz hits .287 with 28 home runs and 74 RBI and is named one of three starting Orioles All-Stars.
Then there’s Steve Pearce, who has always been good enough to be the 26th man in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston, the Yankees and Baltimore again. Yet after breaking spring training as one of the 25 on the big league roster, even the Orioles, on his third time with the club, release him again on April 27. But in one of those wink-wink MLB good old boy hands-off agreements, no other team puts in a claim, and on April 29 the Orioles sign him as a free agent.
That would be Steve Pearce, or Steve “Bleeping” Pearce, as a Pirates fan I know now calls him, hitting .316 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI, not to mention playing solid defense in left and at first.
But we could go on an on. Ever hear of Caleb Joseph before last month? Now you know he’s done a pretty good job holding down the catcher’s position along with Nick Hundley in Wieter’s absence. Delmon Young brings veteran pop off the bench. Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty aren’t hitting for high averages, but they have big hits and play excellent defense at second.
That’s the biggest thing the Orioles do first, last and middle since Buck Showalter took over as manager. They catch the ball and they don’t make mistakes to take themselves out of games. The starting pitching has been spotty, but is improving. And now that Zach Britton has established himself as filthy in the closer’s role, and Hunter has gone back to his best role of setting up, the bullpen has been absolutely lights out.
Through it all, though, this club has been steadied and led by right fielder Nick Markakis and All-Star center fielder Adam Jones. For no matter how much Jones makes you want to pull out your hair, particularly late in games (and he does that a lot), there can be no arguing with his performance. The numbers don’t lie in baseball, even when you can’t figure for the life of yourself how they got there, and Jones always has the good numbers and does the job in center field.
As for Markakis, as he’s had to do for most of his career, he’s hitting out of position, this time in the leadoff spot. Yet he is the catalyst for an offense that has the potential to go berserk in the second half. Defensively, he is the best right fielder in the league, bar none. If he were an NBA team, he would be the Spurs (sans titles, of course). He is as professional as they come and quietly plays the game to near perfection.
So while baseball is a funny game, it is also the most truthful game. No crying? There’s plenty of crying in baseball, there’s just no lying. Nothing is hidden over the course of 162 games. The Orioles just have good players and a good manager. Just how good will be determined over the final and most truthful 68 games.
Still, if you knew then what you know now? Those eye teeth would be history.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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