Fresh off a series victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, the Baltimore Orioles find themselves in virtually the same position they occupied on this date a year ago — three games above .500 and in third place in the American League East. With a 36-33 record, and only 3.0 games out of first, the Orioles are a hot week away from ascending to the top of a crowded division for the first time since the middle of April. Already in June, the Orioles have rolled to a 13-7 record, and have scored 15 more runs in 20 June games than the 95 they scored in 29 May games. June marked a jumping off point for the 2014 Orioles, who went on to win 96 games a year ago after hovering around .500 the first three months of the season. With very little changed between the 2014 and 2015 squads’ results to date, are the Orioles primed to go on a similar run and emerge as the favorites in the division?
The Orioles began the month of June with two straight losses to the Houston Astros to cap a five-game losing streak that dropped their record to 23-29. Since that low point, the Orioles have won 13 of 17 games, albeit against some weaker competition in the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Philadelphia Phillies. Those teams, however, are the type of teams that would-be contenders like the Orioles must beat up on, and they did. The Orioles are 4-2 against teams with winning records in that stretch, and very nearly swept both the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays in those series. Overall, discounting the 19-3 beatdown administered to the Phillies last week, the Orioles have outscored their opponents 91-65 this month. The pitching staff has pitched to a 3.47 ERA, while the bats have reeled off a .272/.325/.452 slash line with 27 home runs, a marked improvement from the .231/.287/.358 line of May.
A lot of things are going right for Orioles’ hitters this month. While they are still striking out over eight times a game, the power numbers have risen significantly thanks to the explosion of Manny Machado, who is putting up Bryce Harper numbers this month. Machado has been arguably the best player in the American League in June, with six home runs and a .378/.427/.634 line. Throw in four stolen bases, and it’s clear that the third baseman would be in the running to start the All-Star Game if not for the robots voting for the Kansas City Royals.
Of course, the return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters hasn’t hurt either. All Wieters has done in his 13 games since returning from Tommy John surgery, is slug .615 with seven extra base hits. He’s also been able to limit base-stealers to just a 50% success rate, although attempts against him have been limited. Another one of the Orioles’ injured All-Stars, J.J. Hardy has seen an uptick in production. Over the past 10 games, Hardy has raised his batting average from .211 to .241. Hardy’s power numbers continue to lag, much as they did a year ago, but with his average pointed in the right direction, there is hope that he can be a solid run producer from the bottom third of the batting order.
The Orioles may also be reaching a solution to their revolving corner outfield door. Travis Snider has swung a hot bat the entire month of June, and appears to be benefitting from more regular playing time. His slugging percentage has risen from .326 to .395 in a span of seven games. That spike could be attributed to facing lackluster pitching staffs in Toronto and Philadelphia, or it could be a more sustainable run for a player who slugged .438 a year ago for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The combination of Nolan Reimold and Chris Parmelee have impressed in a short timeframe, although it is unlikely the Orioles will be able to keep both, unless they are willing to part ways with Steve Pearce who has struggled all season.
The primary culprit to the bumps in the road for the pitching staff early on last season, Ubaldo Jimenez, has finally lived up to the hefty contract given to him by the Orioles last winter. Jimenez worked hard on his mechanics during Spring Training, and the result is a career-low walk rate. He is continuing to strike out a batter an inning, even in the face of reduced velocity, showing the quality of his pitches is still there. Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez have both managed to dodge the long ball fairly well, and along with Jimenez have made the top three in the Orioles’ rotation second-best in the division behind the Rays.
Now, for the ugly part. Chris Tillman and Bud Norris have been awful this season. Tillman was last seen coughing up a 7-0 lead on Sunday afternoon. The two pitchers, who combined to go 28-14 last season have disappointed massively this year. To be fair, though, most of the damage done against them has come at the hands of the Blue Jays and their nasty lineup. So, maybe it’s a bit too early to give up on them completely.
The Orioles’ bullpen has had its down moments this year, but with Chaz Roe, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton‘s ERA’s trending towards 1.00, the most crucial situations appear under control and in good hands. Brian Matusz has also showed more consistent form since returning from his suspension. There are also several fresh faces in Tyler Wilson and Mychal Givens that appear ready to be called upon if Brad Brach and Tommy Hunter continue their up-and-down seasons.
The Orioles are not a team without their flaws. If Norris and Tillman do not turn their seasons around, one or both will have to go. Kevin Gausman appears ready to slide into the rotation should that play out, but after being jerked around early this season, it is unclear how he will respond to the rigors of starting every fifth day. Another option, of course, would be to make a run at Cole Hamels, but the Orioles may find themselves up against more well-heeled opponents in a bidding war for his services. The lineup has hit the cover off the ball lately, but that has been against mostly weak pitching. The Orioles’ bats will not be tested again for a full series until the Washington Nationals invade Camden Yards for the final series before the All-Star break. A lot more will be determined before that series regarding the Orioles’ lineup, as Jonathan Schoop continues to rehab. With the combination of injuries to Schoop, Wieters, and Hardy, the Orioles have still not played a single game with their intended Opening Day lineup.
Flaws aside, the Orioles should still be considered a contender for the division title, even in light of their inconsistent play. The momentum that has been built in the month of June has come against weaker opponents, but the series victories over the Yankees and Blue Jays are something to hang a hat on. Over the remainder of June, the Orioles will play the Red Sox and Indians again, as well as the Texas Rangers. The Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, and aforementioned Nationals fall on the schedule before the break. The Orioles could not have asked for a better slate of opponents to grease the skids for a second-half jump up the standings. The lineup appears primed to continue its hot hitting, and the pitching staff appears to be on the right track with a few exceptions. It may have taken awhile, just as it did last year, but the Baltimore Orioles appear primed and ready to defend their American League East crown.