Both teams are 20-12, tied for first place in the East, two games above Toronto, and one game behind Texas for best record in the AL. The big spending Yankees and Red Sox are in 4th and 5th place respectively. After this weekend series in Baltimore, one team will be entrenched at the top. A series sweep would give the winning team a 3-game lead over the other, while a 2-1 series win would only give the victor a single game lead, depending on how Toronto fairs against the Minnesota Twins.
The Tampa Bay Rays were the Cinderella team of the AL East a few years back, and have somehow managed to stay relevant despite having to compete with the free spending Yankees and Red Sox for AL East dominance. They’ve stayed near the top of the standings this season, despite superstar Evan Longoria missing all of May thus far. They caught up to the streaking Orioles thanks to MVP frontrunner Josh Hamilton and AL juggernaut Texas taking 3 of 4 games from the limping O’s the past few nights. The Rays have mostly won on the strength of their pitching staff.
The surprising Orioles come into the series exhausted after playing 39 innings against Boston in 3 days (13, 9, & 17 innings games) and a 4-game set against the brutal bats of Texas, including last night’s doubleheader (18 innings). This strain has quieted the Orioles bats somewhat, and overextended their pitching staff, resulting in a revolving door of AAA pitchers coming and going the past few days.
The injury bug has also been biting. Baltimore is without it’s hottest hitter, LF Nolan Reimold (.313, 5hr, 10RBI in 16 games), who is on the DL until 5/16 with a herniated disc in his neck. They are also without their best starting pitcher, Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.09ERA, 38SO in 38.2 innings), who won’t return until Monday due to nagging knee soreness. OF Endy Chavez, who was filling in for Reimold, was put on the DL last night with an oblique strain.
Fortunately, the Orioles are also coming into this important series with something to prove after being mauled by the AL favorite Rangers. The young Baltimore team has gained a lot of confidence so far this season. Veteran Manager Buck Showalter brought a winning/“never quit” attitude to town with him, and it’s really trickled down to his players. For the first time in 14 years, the Orioles are going into each game believing they can win, and keep believing until the final out is recorded, even if they are down on the scoreboard.
Despite only winning 1 of 4 in the Texas series, Baltimore put on a homerun clinic in the 3rd game, making history by homering in their first 3 at bats of the game, and five times total. Had the O’s played Texas at a point in the season where they weren’t so overextended, things might have turned out differently. The Orioles are coming off a series win over the Yankees and series sweeps over Boston and Toronto, and are still atop the standings. This weekend, they hope to continue their dominance over their AL East foes in their first 2012 series with Tampa.
Outside of the Texas series, with League home run leader Josh Hamilton teeing off on everybody, the Orioles pitching has been excellent. They still have the 2nd best team ERA and bullpen ERA behind Texas, and a respectable starting rotation ERA as well. The team’s pitching stats were tainted somewhat by facing the hottest hitting team in baseball 4 games in a row, and by having to send quite a few minor league players to the mound in the series due to the two extra innings games against Boston and the injury to Jason Hammel.
Starters Chen and Hammel continue to dominate, while Hunter and Arrieta are hit or miss, while struggling Brian Matusz will most likely be replaced by Zack Britton in early June. Relievers Johnson, Ayala, Lindstrom, Strop, and O’Day continue to be almost unbeatable, Patton is improving, while Kevin Gregg continues to be shaky at best. Just called up reliever Stu Pomeranz has yet to give up a run this season in 19 Minor League and 4 Major League innings.
The Orioles have the most homeruns in baseball with 50. Adam Jones leads the way with 9, J.J. Hardy has 8, Matt Wieters has 7, and 4 Orioles are tied with with 5. Late inning heroics and a shutdown bullpen have brought Baltimore to the top of the 2012 standings. Just called up infielder Steve Tolleson made some nice plays last night in his Orioles debut, providing some much needed defensive stability at 3B.
To start the 3-game battle for 1st place, the Rays will send 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson to the mound, coming off his worst start of the season. Hellickson has pitched well against the O’s last year (4-1, 2.23), but did not pitch well at Camden Yards (1-1, 5.11).
The pitching scrambling Orioles will counter with journeyman Dana Eveland making his Orioles debut. Eveland is 3-2 with a 2.21ERA this Season in 6 starts for AAA Norfolk.
© 2012 Denim McDemus