The Baltimore Orioles strolled into the All-Star break with a 52-42 record, a four-game lead in the American League East and winners of 10 of their last 13 games.
The rest of the division? Struggling.
Toronto (49-47) is just two games above .500, New York (47-47) is exactly .500, and Tampa Bay (44-53) and Boston (43-52) are both 9.5 games back of Baltimore.
“The idea that the American League East is really the best division in baseball is a little (questionable),” Baltimore Sun Orioles beat writer Ed Encina said on Ferrall on the Bench. “The other teams in the East have really struggled.”
Then again, the Orioles have had their fair share of problems, too.
“Chris Davis hasn’t had the kind of year that he had last year,” Encina said. “That’s been a talking point of the second half, whether he can rebound. Manny Machado was hurt, he didn’t start off well when he came back and had a suspension he had to serve. Also, the Orioles’ rotation really doesn’t wow you by any means, but they’ve been getting it done.”
Davis is hitting just .199 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs, while Machado is hitting .270 with nine home runs and 20 RBIs in 62 games.
No matter. The Orioles are in first place at the break for the first time since 1997 – which is also the last time they won the division.
“Just to give you a reference point, the Orioles dealt with 14 pretty dark seasons – 14 straight losing seasons,” Encina said. “(Being in first place right now has) got to speak well for history’s sake, but they’re definitely going to have to earn it.”
That’s because the Orioles open the second half with 29 straight games against teams that are .500 or better, including a 10-game West Coast road trip right off the bat. Baltimore plays three in Oakland (July 18-20), three in Los Angeles (July 21-23) and four in Seattle (July 24-27).
“When you look at how successful they’re going to be in the second half, I think it starts right off the bat,” Encina said. “Obviously those three teams in the West have all been really good. I think (the Orioles) have one of the toughest schedules (in the second half in all of baseball). If they do make it and maintain this lead, they’re going to earn it.”
For all the talk about Davis and Machado, however, Baltimore’s pitching staff might hold the keys to the division. Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez and Wei-Yin Chen have all been solid this year, but Kevin Gausman should give Baltimore a boost. The 23-year-old is 4-2 with a 3.29 ERA in seven starts.
“He’s been their stud prospect pitcher, (and) he’s going to be in the rotation now,” Encina said. “I think that’s really going to play a role. If that bullpen holds up and maybe you get a little bit more out of Chris Davis, (Baltimore should stick around). Top to bottom, that lineup is really good. It’s probably one of the better ones in baseball.”
Bur first things first. Baltimore needs to take care of business against Oakland, which will be sending Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Sonny Gray to the hill in this next series.
“Really, that trip is going to dictate the pace of the second half for them,” Encina said. “Even if they come out of that trip at .500, I think it sets a good tone for them. The teams in the (AL East), they’ve played well against all of them, (but) you never know. These teams all kind of have one run in them, (so) by no means is it over. I think they’ve got to play at least .500 ball out West to take advantage of the lead they’ve built up so far.”