It is 4:55 in the afternoon on May the 17th and the Baltimore Orioles have the best record in the American League. They have at this moment won more baseball games than any other team in MLB so far in the 2012 season. Tomorrow will mark six weeks since Opening Day. We all must handle in our own ways the slow unfolding of a season beyond our wildest dreams; whether it will continue, we cannot say, but one thing we do know is that the steady march of success has not halted yet. This is the world we live in, and the Orioles are in first place.
There were plenty of chances to have letdown games in this two-game set against the Royals. After a long stretch of games against teams with pretensions of contention in which the O's acquitted themselves excellently, would there have been much surprise if they let up just a little bit in "only" facing the Royals? Yet we saw last night the same as we saw today, the same as we have seen most all of the season: there's no quit in this team. Even starters you might expect to surrender to one bad inning - like today's pitcher, Brian Matusz - are hanging in there and minimizing the damage and giving the team a chance to come back from small deficits. That's where Dr. Jones and Mr. Hardy come in.
Trouble began for Matusz in the third inning. He retired the first six Royals hitters in order, then gave up back-to-back singles by Alcides Escobar and Irving Falu. That brought Humberto Quintero to the plate, who damaged the Orioles yesterday. A hanging pitch by Matusz drove deep to center, where Jones, playing in to try to cut off a run (I guess) could not chase it down in time to catch it. Two runs scored and Quintero advanced to third on a poor throw in to the plate that bounced away from Orioles catcher Luis Exposito. After a strikeout, the next batter, Johnny Giavotella - career .269 OBP - dropped a single into right field to score the third run. Billy Butler followed with a single, and the Royals had their 4-5 hitters due up with two men on base and only one out.
This was the time for the wheels to fall off the bus as said bus careened, brake lines having been cut, towards the cliff's edge. This was the time for the spontaneous engine fire to engulf the out-of-control bus as the highway brigands riddled its exterior with bullets. This was the time for that bus, carrying our hopes, to plummet into the fiery oblivion that it would surely meet if the crags onto which it crashed did not kill them from impact first.
We know these feelings. We have felt them before and we are still unable to shake the certainty that they lurk around every corner. Today they were banished. Matusz got the outs and you could feel, right there, if only the O's hitters could solve Luke Hochevar, there was a chance in this game.
The very next half-inning, the Orioles showed why. Nick Markakis led off the 4th inning with his second single of the day. Dr. Jones followed and worked a long at-bat. Then a mistake pitch was left out over the plate and when that baseball landed it was an estimated 411 feet from home plate. In the intervening time it had cleared the center field fence. The 3-0 deficit was cut to 3-2 with plenty of time to go. The home run was the 13th of the year for Adam Jones. He is more than halfway to his career high of 25 home runs and it's not even June. At the end of the game his triple slash looked like this: .295/.345/.604.
Matusz would go on to pitch for another three innings, allowing only one baserunner in each of the 4th, 5th and 6th innings. When he left the game, he'd given up seven hits, one walk to two strikeouts, three runs (all earned) over six innings. This lowered his season ERA to 5.36 from the 5.50 it began the day. That's a small step, but considering how many games last year where Matusz failed to lower absurdly high ERAs, it's certainly a step in the right direction. He was not great with the bare-minimum quality start, but it was nonetheless his third quality start in the last five games. That's three more quality starts than he managed in all of last year. Most importantly, by settling down to keep pitching, he spared a further heavy load on a bullpen that had to pitch into the 15th inning last night.
The game was not without its Orioles moments. The top of the second inning saw the Orioles on the wrong end of a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play, with Ryan Flaherty striking out as Chris Davis was thrown out at second base. Whatever happened there is something that shouldn't have happened. That was the 12th caught stealing for the O's against only 11 stolen bases on the year. They have a 47.8% success rate on stolen bases. That is the worst in MLB by a significant margin. Maybe they should just stop trying.
I sometimes wonder if the occasional fascination with stolen bases for the Orioles is a product of the frequency with which they ground into double plays. That 4th inning ended on a GIDP, the 44th for the Orioles on the year. That also leads MLB. Half of teams have fewer than 30 GIDPs. The twin killings are ugly to watch, but so is watching guys who have no business trying to steal bases get thrown out trying to steal bases.
Orioles moments aren't limited to the O's, as Kansas City demonstrated in the top of the 7th inning. Wilson Betemit led off with a single off Hochevar, then Davis (who had a three hit day) blooped a broken bat single to center that Dyson charged to try to make a play on. The ball bounced over the diving Dyson and went all the way to the wall behind him. Betemit scored on the play and Davis took second. He might have been able to take third. This play chased Hochevar from the game with the score tied 3-3.
Perhaps to atone for that failure, Davis tagged on a Robert Andino fly ball to right and would have been out by a good throw. Then Davis stood around at third base while Flaherty dropped what appeared to be a squeeze bunt, only Davis wasn't running to the plate. How very Orioles, indeed! Exposito and Xavier Avery followed with very un-Orioles-like walks, loading the bases for J.J. Hardy. James Jerry dropped in a single to just the right unplayable spot. Two runs scored on the play and the Orioles took a 5-3 lead that would prove to be the final score.
Tasked with getting three innings to hold and then close out the game, the Orioles bullpen delivered, as it has often done this season. Luis Ayala threw a scoreless 7th, Pedro Strop a perfect 8th, and Jim Johnson picked up his major league-leading 14th save when he struck out Dyson to end the game.
The Orioles are now 25-14. Last year, they were 25-30 and two years ago they were 25-59.
As I finish this recap, Texas has just been defeated by Oakland 5-4 in 10 innings. The Orioles still have sole possession of the best record in the American League. They could end the night with the best, if Boston defeats Tampa Bay later. In fact, if San Diego beats Los Angeles, your Baltimore Orioles will have the best record in all of MLB.
You don't need to pinch yourself. This is not a dream. This is reality, baby. This is Birdland.