It would be folly to pin too much on just a handful of games, no matter how good the Baltimore Orioles have looked. But then again, October doesn’t really adhere to trends or reason or logic either. When you get to this point in the season and try to look forward, you can throw darts at stardust, and it’s just as solid of a structure as anything else.
The Os have spent the past four days wrapping up the AL East, getting up off the mat when the Rays had looked them in the eye after winning the first two games of a four-game series at Camden Yards. The Os have since put up 30 runs in the next four games, splitting the series with the Rays, and claim the tiebreaker as well as dropped a people’s elbow on the Astros the past couple nights. On Monday, the Os tagged the Astros bullpen for five runs, including a three-run fist of God from Cedric Mullins off closer Ryan Pressly to win it. Last night the Os just punted Hunter Brown over the train tracks for seven runs. It’s left them 2.5 games up on the Rays with 11 games to go, which is really three games due to that tiebreaker. Their magic number is eight, and even a 6-5 finish would require the Rays to go 9-1. Considering Baltimore ends with the Guardians, Nationals, and Red Sox, they can probably aim a little higher.
The Orioles will be heading into the AL playoffs as the top seed, which isn’t a phrase we’re used to using in baseball but that’s the deal these days. And yet it doesn’t feel like most think they can emerge from all of it to head back to the World Series for the first time since 1983. Well, why can’t they?
We’ve all been trying to quantify or nail down what it takes to navigate the MLB playoffs, when it’s really just having enough guys get hot on the mound and at the plate at the same time. Still, there are a couple things a team can have that at least portend well. One would be a lineup with length, to try, and wear out shortened pitching staffs. That’s hard to do over three to five games in a division series but comes to the fore more in the seven-game series of the ALCS and World Series.
Well, the Os are going nine deep now with hitters that have a 100 wRC+ or higher. Since Cedric Mullins returned on August 11th, the Os have scored the third most runs in baseball. Where is the easy out? Jorge Mateo, Adam Frazier kinda, and they rarely play on the same day. This will be exhausting for any staff to figure out.
Another toy most playoff teams want is a dominating pen. The Os have had that all season, and have had to negotiate without Felix Bautista for the past month. He may return just in time for the playoffs, and if he does that gives the Os three relievers they can trust. Which is just about all a team needs, given the off days in the playoffs. And that’s being harsh on Shintaro Fujinami, who has slowly improved upon arriving in Baltimore halfway through the season. They have him throwing his sweeper more and while it hasn’t been a put-away pitch, it also has rarely if ever been hit hard. With that stuff, if he puts together a dominant two, or three weeks, the Os have 12-15 outs out of their pen easily.
Another strand of thinking is that a team needs two dominant starters to give the pen a break somewhere along the line. This is where most chuckle at the Orioles’ chances, given how the rotation has performed as a whole. Thing is, in the second half of the season, Kyle Bradish has a 0.98 WHIP and a 2.88 ERA. Grayson Rodriguez has a 2.59 ERA in the second half and has been a top-ten pitcher in the second half in fWAR. Yeah, there’s a yellow flag in that Rodriguez has already thrown way more innings this season than he ever has as a pro. But seeing as how his last outing was eight innings of shutout ball against the Rays, it wouldn’t appear fatigue has set in. If these two carry on into October, the Orioles can fake it in the third and fourth starting spots between the starters they have only being asked to go once through the lineup, and then that pen.
So why not? Who’s gonna stop ‘em? It could be the Rays in the division series, but how hard will they have to work to get through the Mariners, or Astros, or Jays, or Rangers to get out of the wildcard round? Will they be able to wheel Tyler Glasnow back out enough? The Ms lineup can be negotiated, though the Mariners are seemingly the only team with the overflowing pitching both in the rotation, and pen that could nullify a lineup as deep as Baltimore’s. The Jays only have one dominating starter. The Rangers don’t even have that, and both have much more obvious holes in their lineup. The Astros are always the big bad and in waiting, and yet their past couple weeks have been a touch scratchy. They’ve lost two of three to the A’s, Royals, and Orioles on the spin. Only Framber Valdez has held strong in September, and Pressly has required the bomb squad to show up when he leaves the mound of late. It’s the Astros, they’ll almost certainly switch on in two weeks, but it’s not insurmountable either.
It’s almost certainly ahead of schedule, but the road has been laid bare for the Orioles. All they need is a sense of whimsy.
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