Thanks to a 15-8 mark since June 20 and playing some of their best baseball in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break, the Baltimore Orioles are in first place in the American League East. As the second half of the season gets started, the O’s own a four game lead in a weak A.L East. Solid play allowed the Orioles to reach the 50-win mark in 91 games, its quickest since their wire-to-wire division title in 1997, and ended the first half in impressive fashion with a 52-42 record.
The Orioles will kick off the proverbial second half of the season with a 10-game West Coast road trip that won’t be easy and playing poorly could derail everything the Orioles accomplished before the break. The O’s will start against the best team in baseball then face the hottest team in baseball before ending the trip against the most surprising team in the league. Starting tonight, the Birds will face the Oakland A’s for a three game series. Money Ball 2014 style is 59-36 with a .621 winning percentage, both, are tops in the majors. In fact, the A’s have five more wins than the next best team that does not play in their division. After the three game stint in Oakland, the Birds move onto to southern California to play the hot Los Angeles Angels. With a 9-1 record in their past 10 games, not only are they the hottest team in the league but only the A’s possess a better record in baseball.
Baltimore then travels north up the west coast to Seattle where they finish up the trip with a four game series vs. the upstart Mariners, who, if the season ended today, would be the second wild card playoff team. They have one less win than do the Orioles.
There will be no rest for the weary. The Orioles will host the Angels and M’s for a very brief six game home stand immediately following this west coast trip. Orioles’ fans are likely to know whether or not to focus all of their attention to the other birds in town sooner than later. By the time the cities NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, play their third preseason game on the third weekend in August, O’s fans should know exactly which direction their Orioles are flying this season.
As of July 18, the Orioles do not play a team with a losing record until they face the White Sox in Chicago exactly one month from today. Aside from the A’s, Angels and Mariners, the Birds will face the Nationals (1 game), Blue Jays, Cardinals, Yankees and Indians. They will play the majority of those games away from the friendly confines of Camden Yards, which may not be a bad thing. Baltimore is only 26-23 at home this season and 26-19 away from the Charm City. The Birds will play 17 of their next 29 games away from home and if they continue with the trend of playing .577 baseball on the road, then O’s fans should expect nine or 10 wins over those 17 games and that would be just be fine with Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
WHERE IS THE FAITH?
However, even after having the success he’s had in Baltimore, there are doubts amongst baseball prognosticators and experts and even in the fan base, as to whether or not this O’s team can finish the job in 2014.
On local Baltimore sports talk shows, O’s fans and radio show hosts express doubt almost daily about whether the pitching rotation can hold up or if the Birds can survive offensively. But, if you know anything about William Nathaniel Showalter, then the goal for this team has to be getting to the World Series. Despite his fine resume, an appearance in the Fall Classic would be the first of Showalter’s career as a major league skipper. He certainly has done his part in helping to build World Series teams. He’s just never stayed around long enough to see the fruits of his hard work pay him the ultimate price of a championship ring. When Showalter took over as manager of the Baltimore Orioles 106 games into the 2010 season, baseball pundits shook their heads and asked why. Everyone wanted to know why a baseball mind as respected as Buck Showalter’s would leave a great gig at ESPN and want to manage a team that hadn’t had a winning season in 15 years. Why would Showalter want to work for an owner that was considered one of the worst in not just baseball—but all of professional sports?
Showalter must have known what he was getting into when he became the 10th skipper of Baltimore’s beloved Birds during the Peter Angelos’ era (1993-present). In fact, he was the third skipper of the 2010 season alone. Perhaps, the bigger question was how O’s Owner Peter Angelos was able to convince “Buck” that Baltimore was the place for him.
Up until Showalter took over and during the Angelos era, the Orioles averaged just 74 wins per season. Questionable and inexcusable moves on and off the playing field led a once very devoted fan base to revolt. Birds’ fans stopped showing up and even boycotted games. Things became so bad in Baltimore that in September 2006, a local Baltimore sports talk show host led an organized protest. In the midst of a ninth straight losing season and much to the dismay of Orioles management, Nasty Nestor Aparicio of WNST, took it upon himself to lead a "Free the Birds" protest urging Angelos to sell the team.
The protest involved hundreds of fans going to Camden yards for a game against the Detroit Tigers then walking out in mass in the fourth inning. Aparicio says 2,000 fans participated; the Orioles say it was more like 1,000, but the protest got plenty of local and national coverage, which is what Aparicio wanted and Angelos did not.
Being able to land a good manager, much less one with Showalter’s resume seemed like a longshot. Word had certainly gotten out amongst prospective free agents to steer clear of Baltimore, certainly good baseball minds like Mike Hargrove and Leo Mazzone would advise fellow managers and coaches to do the same. Mazzone, who oversaw the young Orioles pitching staff for all two seasons after 15 successful years with Atlanta, couldn’t tolerate the environment Angelos had created and has been outspoken about it ever since. Mazzone doesn’t say anything bad about Angelos, he just speaks about the lack of direction the franchise had when he was a part of it from 2005-07.
But what may not have been considered is, like the Orioles much maligned owner, who promised change was coming, Showalter may have been looking to make a few changes himself. While many considered Showalter a great baseball mind, his reputation of being obsessive, controlling, and manipulative preceded him. Many forget it was “Buck” that first led the great Yankee teams of the early 1990’s to the playoffs. It’s likely that if the 1994 strike didn’t happen, instead of the beloved Joe Torre, the oft criticized Showalter may have been on the bench for the pinstripe dynasty of the 90’s.
Buck was hired by then Orioles GM Andy McPhail because of all the traits that cost him his job with the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers. He was and is considered meticulous in his preparation, demanding in his attention to detail, assertive in his leadership style. He wants his players, his coaching staff, his PR people, and his clubhouse attendants to do things a certain way -- his way. The arc of the Showalter regime was always clear through his three previous stops: He comes in, takes over, and then simply wins!
He wills franchises to a significant improvement but eventually and inevitably, his act wore thin and he was dismissed in favor of a completely opposite personality--- Torre in New York, Ron Washington in Texas and then Bob Brenley in Arizona. Torre would go onto win four World Series titles with a team Showalter help construct and Brenley won the World Series against Torre’s Yankees the year after Showalter left Arizona.
The Yankees were 70-43 in 1994 when baseball stopped because of the strike. The Diamondbacks, who won just 65 games in their first year of existence with Showalter, managed to win 100 games and the division in Buck’s second year, and then finished 85-77 in his final season. Showalter nearly worked his magic in Texas but the best he could do with a struggling franchise was 89-73 in 2004. The Rangers finished 80-82 the year he was fired. Between managerial stints, Buck was a great studio analyst for ESPN’s baseball coverage.
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING INTO:
On the day he was hired in Baltimore, Showalter was asked about his reputation and didn’t hesitate to answer, "I try to be true to my own skin”, Showalter said. "I am who I am. I don't spend a lot of time overanalyzing it. I know what's worked for me with the organizations I've been with in the past."
There were no misgivings about what Showalter was inheriting in the Charm City. As if it were preordained each year, a franchise that was the winningest in baseball during the1960’s, 70’s, and part of the 80’s was now losing nearly 90 games a season. A franchise that was once a part of fall, as much as Halloween, was now considered a joke of an organization. From 1966 until 1992 (minus the 2 strike shortened seasons of 1994 & 1981) the Orioles averaged 84 wins per season. From 1960 until the start of the Angelos era, the Birds had just eight losing seasons. Since 1993, the number of losing season has nearly doubled with 15.
Off the field the Orioles were an even bigger mess. A franchise known for stability and had employed just eight general managers from the time it relocated from St. Louis in 1954 until Angelos took over in 93, would now be seen as a revolving door of baseball hell. Nine GM’s have held the GM title since Angelos took over the club. Some of the men, Pat Gillick, Frank Wren, and Andy McPhail are considered great baseball minds.
Showalter knew all of this and he knew he would have to will a bad team with bad ownership to win in a division that had the highest payroll in baseball and was home to arguably the two best teams in the Yankees and Red Sox. On top of that, the division was only getting better with the emergence of the young Tampa Bay Rays and the Blue Jays willingness to once again spend money.
From the time Angelos took over as owner in 93, the A.L. East appeared12 times in World Series play. With the Yankees winning five titles, the Red Sox three and the Blue Jays one, every A.L East team has been represented in the Fall Classic during Angelos’ reign—except his. The Tampa Bay Rays lost in five games to the Phillies in the 2008 WS.
The then 54-year-old Showalter brought 11 years of prior managerial experience to Baltimore and two American League Manager of the Year awards. Showalter understood the challenges that confronted him in Baltimore -- "I'm not naive”, he said. Aside from playing in the east, the O’s possessed a very pervasive culture of losing, a lack of clubhouse leadership and the payroll necessary to turn it all around.
Then Orioles GM Andy McPhail may have said it best on the day the Birds announced Showalter as the new manager. “We have a core of young players who are struggling and who have taken a step backwards. While current GM Dan Duquette has done a good job of filling holes and making a viable trade or two, McPhail has to be considered the chief architect of the team’s current core of players. McPhail went on to say that day “They (young players) haven't been exposed to a winning type of environment." It didn’t take long for Buck to give O’s fans a taste of that old Orioles magic, as he immediately turned things around in Baltimore. The Orioles, who were 40 games under .500, finished the 2010 season 11 games over at 34-23. He didn't get a single vote for Manager of the Year but he should have won the award. Showalter did more in 57 games than any Orioles manager did since Davey Johnson and more than most of the managers who managed 162 games during the 2010 season.
TUNRING IT AROUND:
The Orioles have gone from perennial losers to a team that returned to the layoffs in 2012 and is 42 games over .500 since Buck arrived 47 months ago. In 418 games, the Orioles are 230-188 (.550). Showalter notched another A.L Manager of the year award in 2012 and was re-signed, with current GM Dan Duquette, by Angelos through the 2018 season. It’s been a long time since Angelos has shown that type of confidence in any manager, player, or executive. So, if the dreaded owner has confidence in Showalter, why exactly doesn’t everyone else in town have the same mentality?
The great sports fans in Baltimore have placed their trust and faith in the man that calls the shots at the top for what many consider the “top birds” in town. While the Orioles were losing for 15 straight years, Art Modell moved his NFL franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore and took over the city. The Ravens did so by winning two Super Bowls and by consistently contending in America’s most popular sport. They did that by having front office stability. The architect of those teams is perhaps the most trusted man in Baltimore Sports history, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Known around the Charm City as The Wizard, There is a saying Ravens fans use when referring to Newsome----“In Ozzie We Trust”.
Sports fans in Baltimore may have to expand that saying to include “In Buck We Trust”----Showalter has earned the right and if you were laying money on which manager is capable of doing the most with the least in the A.L Least, you’d be foolish to pick anybody buy Buck.
If you’re worried about the pitching---don’t be, Buck’s got it under control. His six man rotation has In 33 games since June 9, posted a 3.18 ERA (198.0IP, 70ER), chopping more than a half of a run off the starter’s ERA and lowering it from 4.61 to 4.09 for the season. Worried about the big guns in the line-up---don’t be, Bucks got it under control. The Orioles led the majors in home runs in June, bashing 46 homers, 13 more than second place Detroit, who were as close to the Orioles as they were the 23rd ranked Red Sox. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the 46 homers by the O’s were tied for the fifth most in any month in club history (team record is 58 in May 1987). In all, the Orioles have hit 114 home runs in the first half and trail only Toronto (116) for the major league lead. The Birds are on pace to hit 196 home runs.
RIGHT PLAYERS RIGHT PLACES:
Like any manager, Buck has his moments that make you scratch your head but he knows his team and knows how to use his players as good as any manager in the game. The team is littered with examples of Buck allowing his players to do what they do best.
Showalter protects his players and knows them well. After struggling in returning to the lineup following his off season knee injury, third basemen Manny Machado has reached base safely in 16 straight games since June 22, which is tied for his career-best streak. Machado is batting .317/.362/.532, raising his season average from .210 to .270 and he’s recorded multiple hits in four straight games, July 5-9, the second longest streak of his career.
Nick Markakis continues to produce from the leadoff spot. A position nobody thought Markakis would ever be batting when he began his career. He’s now hit safely in 21 of his last 23 games, including 10 multi-hit efforts. He and Adam Jones are the third pair of O’s to each have 110+ hits before the All-Star break in the same year, joining Paul Blair/Frank Robinson (1969), and Jones/Manny Machado (2013). Speaking of the O’s centerfielder, Jones hit 16 home runs before the All-Star break and now has 153 as an Oriole. He passed Chris Hoiles and moved into sole possession of 10th place on the Orioles’ all-time list.
You can’t forget about the players that nobody saw coming, who Showalter shows a lot of faith in once he likes you—sometimes to a fault. That player this year is Steve Pearce. After bouncing around with three other teams in seven seasons, Pearce, who never hit more than four HR’s in his MLB journey, has collected career-highs in homers (11), RBI (31), hits (59), doubles (14), runs (28), and stolen bases (4). It took Pearce 46 games (150 AB) to hit 10 homers this year when he needed 192 games (488 AB) to hit his first 10 big league homers.
Showalter continues to ride the right men on a pitching staff that is seemingly void of an ace. In the bullpen, the Birds hold their own, thanks in part to how Showalter uses his arms.
Since his first career save in mid-May, Zach Britton has given the ninth inning stability. The lefty has been arguably the Orioles' most consistent arm since Day 1 of Spring Training. Britton’s stretch of 31.1 consecutive scoreless innings at home is an Orioles club record. His stretch of 23 straight scoreless home appearances is the second-longest streak in club history, trailing only Brian Matusz.
Darren O’Day finished the first half leading the American League in relievers ERA with a 1.11 (40.2IP, 5ER)...He ended the first half striking at least one batter in each of his last eight outings, establishing a season-high for an Orioles reliever. He did not allow a run in 35 of his 40 first half appearances and has not allowed a run in his last 10 outings (11.0IP), striking out 14, while walking just two (one intentional).
Buck always seems to win the managerial showdowns that occur late in games. This is evidenced by the fact that the Orioles are 9-3 in extra innings games this year and have won four straight games beyond nine. The Birds were 8-7 in extra innings in 2013 after going 16-2 in 2012. Since the start of the 2012 season, the Birds are 33-12 in extra innings contests. In games that have gone 12 or more innings since the start of 2012, the Orioles are 13-4 (14-5 including the 2012 postseason).
IN BUCK WE TRUST:
As, the second half starts, Showalter’s team will have their hands full. The next month will not be easy in Baltimore. They will need $50 million man, Ubaldo Jimenez to pitch better than he has. He is currently on the disabled list with an ankle strain but he will have to be better than the 3-8 with a 4.52 ERA mark he produced to start the season. Chris Davis, who hit a club record 53 HR’s in 2013, has only 15 coming out of the All-Star break compared to 37 last year at this time, he must also start to produce as expected.
The division is right for the picking. The Rays, who have won 15 of 21 games, may have dug themselves too big of a hole as they started the year 23-32. The World Champion Red Sox don’t appear to have nearly enough to contend this season. Boston entered the break 5-8 in their last 13 games and are nine games under .500. The Yankees are 47-47 but will be without the top part of their rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, the rookie pitcher who had been exceeding expectations and living up to his lucrative contract, was placed on the disabled list two weeks back with an elbow injury. Lefty CC Sabathia, the Yankees 34-year old former ace, has a degenerative condition in his knee and he could potentially be facing career-ending microfracture surgery. Sabathia hasn't pitch since he felt swelling in his right knee May 10. Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps and Chase Whiltey certainly don’t excite the Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium and hardly conjure up memories of Andy Pettite, Roger Clemens and David Cone.
Relax Orioles fans, while popping the cork on the champagne bottle may be premature, I’d start to make sure it’s chilled. Once October arrives, anything can happen. It has been 31 years since the Orioles have appeared in a World Series, beating the Phillies for the franchises third championship. Baltimore sports fans haven’t’ forgot how to celebrate; the purple and black birds in town gave the great sports fans of Baltimore that opportunity just two short years ago when they won the Super Bowl. But deep down, this is a town that bleeds orange and black. You can hear it in their voices when they call the shows and type their replies to articles on line.
Current ownership is no doubt responsible for the hesitance Birds fans feel in just letting go and surrendering those old Oriole feelings--- Those feelings prompted such traditions as “Orioles Magic” and the “Thundering Roar from 34”. But with Showalter at the helm, O’s fans should feel confident heading into Oakland and the second half of the season. With Buck at the helm, they will take care of business. In fact, you read it here first; the Orioles will win their first division title in 17 years and make it to the A.L.C.S.
Join me if you will, fire up the printers, start making the signs and tee-shirts. There is still plenty of room of the bandwagon----‘In Buck We Trust”.