Thursday, September 27, 2012

Team-record-tying 7 homers propel O's over Blue Jays

Down 2-1 in the fifth inning to the injured and struggling Blue Jays, who managed to take two of the last three from the Orioles over the last few days, the O's needed an offensive boost to keep pace with the likes of the AL East-leading Yankees and other AL wild card contending teams. Fortunately, they were up to the task, hitting three home runs that inning to grab a 6-2 lead. But O's hitters weren't finished; they added two-run homers in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings to take a commanding 12-2 lead, which also happened to be the game's final score.

All 12 runs were scored via seven (!) home runs, which ties the franchise record for homers in the same game and is the first time the team has hit that many since 1985. If you want to see all seven bombs, check out this video.

Here's the home run breakdown:

1st inning: Nate McLouth (solo)
5th: Jim Thome (solo)
5th: Manny Machado (solo)
5th: Chris Davis (3-run)
6th: Mark Reynolds (2-run)
7th: Davis (2-run)
8th: Machado (2-run)

So, yup, seven home runs, and none of them hit by Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, or J.J. Hardy. Weird.

Even after the win, the O's are still 1.5 games back of the Yankees, but they are a half-game up on the A's for the top wild card spot. They're also 2.5 games up on the Angels and 3.5 up on the Rays. (Those teams all have seven games remaining, while the O's only have six.) Those six games for the O's are three at home against the Red Sox and three at Tampa Bay to end the season.

New York, who has seven games against Toronto and Boston, is still the heavy favorite to win the division. Oakland still has four against the Rangers and three against the Mariners, so things are still somewhat difficult for them, even if the Rangers rest a few of their regulars. The Angels have four games against the Mariners and three against the Rangers. And the Rays face the White Sox in Chicago for four huge games (Chicago trails Detroit by only one game in the AL Central) before the season-ending series against the O's.

The O's would do themselves a huge favor by taking at least two of three from the Red Sox. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester just pitched, so the O's won't have to face either of them. Instead, they get to face Aaron Cook, Felix Doubront, and Zach Stewart. The O's have already knocked Cook around twice this season, though Doubront has pitched extremely well against them twice (striking out 20 in 13 innings while allowing only three runs). Stewart, sent to the Red Sox in the Kevin Youkilis trade, has yet to face the O's while with Boston, but the O's did score a bunch of unearned runs on him in April while he was with Chicago.

There's no guarantee, even with only a handful of games left, that the O's make the playoffs. But they have an excellent shot, and you really couldn't ask for more than that, considering this is the Orioles and all. This season has been amazing, and hopefully that continues into the playoffs.

Friday, September 14, 2012

O's keep cruising along, reach 81-win mark

I don't know exactly what to say about this awesome, improbable Orioles season, but man, is it a lot of fun. Yesterday, the O's won yet another one-run game, this time in 14 innings. And, oh by the way, they've also now won 13 consecutive extra-inning games, which is just ridiculous. To top it all off, Manny Machado's walk-off single gave the O's 81 wins, meaning that with 19 games left, they're going to finish above .500 for the first time since 1997.

This isn't supposed to be happening. Not only did the O's not look all that talented heading into this season, but they're far from fielding their best possible lineup. With Nick Markakis lost at least for the rest of the regular season, Nate McLouth is batting leadoff -- and getting the job done. But even before that, he was batting third, and he wasn't doing a terrible job. Lew Ford may be the team's best right-handed bat off the bench. Machado, only 20 years old, is playing a phenomenal third base after basically not playing the position in the minor leagues, and while not getting on base a ton, he's demonstrated some power and has come up with some timely hits. Pedro Strop and Darren O'Day have transformed into lethal late-game relievers. Brian Matusz seems more comfortable in the bullpen and is actually getting hitters out, routinely. And all Taylor Teagarden does is get hits in important situations. I could keep going, but all that matters is this: The O's are getting great performances at just the right time from so many different, random names, and they're doing this without a handful of their best players.

Against all odds, the wins keep coming. About a month ago, I looked at the O's remaining 44 games and how difficult it would be for them to stay in the playoff race. Here's what they've done since:

2-1 at Detroit
1-2 at Texas
2-0 vs. Toronto (one game rained out)
3-1 vs. White Sox
2-1 at New York
2-1 at Toronto
2-2 vs. New York
3-0 vs. Tampa Bay

That's a 17-8 record, which is absurd.

At 81-62, the O's are currently tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East, one game behind the A's for the top wild card spot, and 3.5 games up on the Angels in the second wild card spot. After a playoff berth looked incredibly implausible a month ago, the O's now, according to ESPN's playoff odds (provided by, have a 72 percent chance of making the postseason. The O's huge three-game sweep against the Rays reduced Tampa Bay's playoff chances to about 27 percent, but again, there's still about three weeks left to go, so anything is still possible. And it's not like the O's haven't been defying odds all season long, so it'd be foolish to close the book on other teams until they're officially eliminated.

After a nine-game road trip in Oakland, Seattle, and Boston, the O's have a seven-game homestand (four against the Blue Jays and three against the Red Sox) before three final games in Tampa Bay. Depending on how both teams fare between now and then, that could be an enormous series. But, for now, the O's still have a lot of work to do, and they're guaranteed of nothing. But, considering they were all but guaranteed to finish last in the AL East, finishing over .500 is fantastic.

But this is no time for settling for simply a winning record, as weird as that is to say. This is Birdland, where meaningful September games are played, apparently.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Playing without Markakis (again) will not be easy

Heading down the stretch, the Orioles could not afford to lose one of their best players. Nick Markakis is certainly one of those names. And now, for the second time this season, the O's will need to battle on without Markakis, who broke his left thumb courtesy of an errant fastball from CC Sabathia last night in a 5-4 win over the Yankees and is out for the rest of the regular season.

Markakis had already missed a portion of the season -- part of May, all of June, and some of July -- with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist. But when he returned, Buck Showalter decided to bat Markakis leadoff. And that decision has proved to be extremely wise: After returning, Markakis batted .335/.390/.489 in 54 games. For an O's lineup with the fourth-worst on-base percentage in the American League and that has been in the middle of the pack at scoring runs, losing Markakis really hurts. And let's not forget to mention the toughness of Markakis, who arguably returned a little too early from his right wrist injury but has still been raking ever since.

What should the O's do? There aren't many options. Nate McLouth could shift from left to right field, meaning a platoon of Lew Ford (against lefties) and Xavier Avery (against righties) could occupy left field. Chris Davis, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Tolleson, and Wilson Betemit have also played at least some outfield for the O's this season, though they're not really outfielders. But don't be surprised if one or more of them receive occasional playing time.

Unless the O's get extremely lucky and guys like Ford, Avery, and Davis, etc. play out of their minds for the next few weeks, replicating Markakis's bat will be nearly impossible. But they should be able to improve the outfield defense with Markakis out, especially with a McLouth/Jones/Avery outfield. Yes, Markakis won a Gold Glove in 2011, but a lot of that defensive value came from his arm (he had 14 assists). He's only had three assists in 2012, and he also hasn't looked as spry out there as he's looked in the past. McLouth, who's played a pretty good left field for the O's, has more speed and a decent arm, so he should be able to play a more than adequate right field.

I'm also interested to see who will bat first. Showalter typically alternates right- and left-handed batters in the lineup, but he may not have that luxury without Markakis, unless he simply plugs in Avery, which isn't all that likely. Avery, 22, had some bright spots in 25 games earlier this season, hitting .233/.317/.356, but pitchers seemed to figure him out the longer he played.

But maybe Avery will catch fire, or maybe someone else will. Unbelievably, the O's have a 78-61 record on September 9 and are tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East. Their chances of making the playoffs without Markakis aren't promising, but, really, they've never looked good anyway. This team was never supposed to make it this far. And I'm not going to be the one to say they can't still somehow make it to the postseason. It won't be easy, but when was it supposed to be that way, especially for the O's?