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Around the AL East at the All-Star break: The Orioles are still in first place

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Did anyone out there actually believe back in spring that the Orioles would be in first place now? Well, they are. It’s been a good first half.

It is now the All-Star break and the Orioles are in first place. Although this fact doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, is it remarkable nonetheless if only because almost no one could have seen it coming, not even the truest believers among Orioles fans.

What makes it even more incredible is that the Orioles have pulled off this trick despite entering Sunday’s game with a starting rotation ERA of 5.21. That’s the third-worst in all of MLB. No other team’s starting pitchers have thrown fewer innings than the Orioles have.

And yet despite those facts, the Orioles have been either tied or in the lead in the division every day since June 5. They have not trailed by more than three games at any point in the season. They have been in first place for 70 days overall. That does not happen by accident and it does not happen as a fluke. The Orioles have been good.

If we’re really lucky, they’ll stay good into the second half. Whatever you might say about the rotation, it looks like the same powerful offense and strong bullpen should be helping them to get where they want to go.

Baltimore Orioles

  • Record: 51-36
  • Last Week: 4-2 (2-1 at Dodgers, 2-1 vs. Angels)
  • Games Ahead: +2 (lost a game on Red Sox)
  • Upcoming: 3 games at Rays, 4 games at Yankees, 3 games vs. Indians

That’s two weeks worth of games listed there, as unless I change my mind between now and next week I won’t do one of these columns for just next weekend’s games.

Coming out of the All-Star break will be an interesting challenge for the Orioles. Can they keep up the intensity after some days off, while on the road against two AL East also-rans?

Here at the (almost) halfway point of the season, the Orioles have the MLB home run leader (Mark Trumbo) on the team. They have the pitcher with the second-most wins in the AL - Chris Tillman (12). Not that pitcher wins are worth anything, but it’s still a surprise that any Oriole has done well there.

The Orioles also have the AL leader in saves on the team, with Zach Britton’s 27 being three more than any other AL reliever. Oh, and by the way, in Britton and Brad Brach, the Orioles have the only two pitchers in all of MLB with a sub-1.00 ERA at the All-Star break (minimum 30 IP). Their only peers are one another.

And in listing these virtues of the Orioles, I haven’t even mentioned two-time home run champion Chris Davis, nor Manny Machado, one of the best players in all of baseball.

It might have been surprising in March for this team to be in first place, but here at the break, considering how they’ve performed, even despite the starting pitching, it’s no great mystery why they’re in first. They’ve played like a great team and they might well be a great team.

Boston Red Sox

  • Record: 49-38
  • Last Week: 5-1 (2-1 vs. Rangers, 3-0 vs. Rays)
  • Games Behind: 2 (gained a game)
  • Upcoming: 3 games at Yankees, 2 games vs. Giants, 4 games vs. Twins

Just in the last week, the Red Sox have pulled off trades for 34-year-old Aaron Hill and 36-year-old Brad Ziegler. Does that count as shrewdness or desperation? The recent knee injury to Craig Kimbrel, which will keep their closer out for 3-6 weeks, makes them seem a bit more like desperation.

If the Orioles offense is keeping them afloat despite a crappy rotation, this is even more true of the Red Sox, who can’t lean on a great bullpen - even the nominal All-Star closer, Kimbrel, has a 3.55 ERA. No team in MLB has scored more runs than the Red Sox. Only one team, the Cubs, is even within 30 runs.

So they power on through a bad rotation with the frankly unbelievable performance of David Ortiz (.332/.426/.682 at age 40) enhancing their chances of winning each night.

Breakout seasons from Jackie Bradley (.926 OPS) and the poor man’s Manny Machado (Xander Bogaerts - .863 OPS) have helped as well, and in general the Sox have above-average hitters at seven of the nine positions. Yeah, that’ll do it.

Take Off Every Ziegler: On Over The Monster, Ben Buchanan breaks down the Ziegler trade, including a bit about the two minor leaguers the Red Sox gave up. It seems that one of the players they traded was the lesser of the two Luis Basabes.

And Yoan Will Answer: Turns out that Yoan Moncada is the #1 overall prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, a fact about which Buchanan gloats far less than I would. Moncada, 21, blistered High-A and has gone on to wreck Double-A in 16 games to the tune of a 1.023 OPS.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Record: 51-40
  • Last Week: 6-1 (3-0 vs. Royals, 3-1 vs. Tigers)
  • Games Behind: 2 (gained two games)
  • Upcoming: 3 games at Athletics, 2 games at Diamondbacks, 3 games vs. Mariners

It’s a three team race here, and the Blue Jays have the easiest schedule coming up immediately out of the All-Star break - so the O’s two game lead is not so secure at all.

Just in the last week, the Jays lost their best starter, Marco Estrada, to the disabled list with a back injury, though he’s reportedly expected back before July comes to an end, so it remains to be seen how much, if it all, this will hinder the Jays.

The Blue Jays are another team with a powerful offense - their 447 runs scored puts them second in the AL (only five runs ahead of the O’s). Though they’re better at home than on the road, they’re still fine on the road, so it’s not like they’re just racking up runs at home. They’re scoring everywhere.

Maybe the biggest reason for that is reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson putting together another phenomenal campaign. Donaldson comes into the break batting .304/.418/.598. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s Good.

The Final Vote Winner: Michael Saunders is a Canadian on Canada’s only MLB team, so when he appears on a gimmick vote such as the All-Star Game Final Vote, by golly, Canada is going to get him onto the All-Star team.

Shapiro Saw The Sign(ing)s: Bluebird Banter’s Jake Sinclair revisits the Jays offseason maneuvering. What’s it like to have a successful free agent pitcher signing? No, really, I’d like to know.

New York Yankees

  • Record: 44-44
  • Last Week: 4-3 (1-2 at White Sox, 3-1 at Indians)
  • Games Behind: 7.5 (lost half a game)
  • Upcoming: 3 games vs. Red Sox, 4 games vs. Orioles, 3 games vs. Giants

It’s still true that the Yankees haven’t been more than one game above .500 since April 12. I point this out every week because it will not stop being hilarious for as long as it’s true. There’s no easy stretch coming up for them out of the break, either, though at least they get to play these contenders all at home.

The Yankees are basically what happens when you take a team with a starting rotation as bad as the Orioles and you pair that with one of the worst offenses in the American League. Kind of crazy they’re still .500, actually, though it helps that their bad rotation at least has two starters doing well - Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. Everyone else’s ERA is above 5.

Two-thirds of the olds are really dragging down the Yankees - Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Can’t blame all the old guys, though, as Carlos Beltran’s batting .299/.338/.550 at age 39. That’s impressive.

They were probably hoping for more from guys like Brett Gardner (.708 OPS), Chase Headley (.707 OPS), and Starlin Castro (.688 OPS). You can’t always get what you want.

Pasta At The Reception: I just want to ask you one question. Do you think it was a coincidence that Derek Jeter chose as his wedding date the same day on which, five years ago, he got his 3,000th hit? My idea of Jeter is that he is definitely the kind of guy to do this on purpose.

It’s Not Easy Being Green: Pinstripe Alley’s Alec Gilfillan offers the opinion that the Yankees should keep Chad Green in their rotation. Green has made three starts so far this year and has a 7.04 ERA, but, you know, small sample size.

Tampa Bay Rays

  • Record: 34-54
  • Last Week: 1-6 (1-3 vs. Angels, 0-3 vs. Red Sox)
  • Games Behind: 17.5 (lost 3.5 games)
  • Upcoming: 3 games vs. Orioles, 3 games at Rockies, 4 games at Athletics

The only way the Rays will be impacting the postseason chase in the second half of the season will be in who they beat and who they lose to and when. Oh, and also who they trade, to whom, when they do these inevitable trades, and what they receive in return.

**

Think about this: When the Orioles won the division in 2014, they were 52-42 at the All-Star break. So they’re even better than they were - and their division lead is smaller by two games. It’s not 2014 any more. There’s tougher competition in the division.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the 2014 O’s were 17-8 in July, 19-9 in August, and 17-10 in September. Do they have that pace in them again this year? To win the AL East, they’re probably going to need it.

For now, first place is theirs to lose and they’ve got five players on the All-Star team. Enjoy it however long it lasts.