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Outscored Orioles . . . all they do is win

Baltimore Orioles outfielders Nate McLouth, Adam Jones and

Baltimore Orioles outfielders Nate McLouth, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis celebrate after the Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox 5-3 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Aug. 30, 2012) Credit: Getty

By now, the Orioles are well aware of the doubters. As insulated as they say their clubhouse is, the skepticism still creeps in on a daily basis, floats around the lockers, reminds everyone wearing black-and-orange that this, you know, can't continue.

The numbers say it won't, and with baseball, there is no arguing with the numbers, right? The numbers point out that only two teams in the previous seven years advanced to the playoffs with a negative run differential, the 2005 Padres and '07 Diamondbacks -- and Baltimore currently is sitting on a rather pessimistic-looking minus-40.

This is not advanced calculus. Giving up more runs than you score should not add up to a winning record. The Yankees, for instance, have a plus-92 differential. And yet the Orioles are closing fast on the AL East leaders, maybe because they are the only ones not paying attention to the numbers.

"We don't care," said All-Star centerfielder Adam Jones, leaning back on his clubhouse chair and chewing on a piece of extremely chewy candy. "Your job is to analyze all of that and our job is to play."

Jones went on to explain that nobody knows why the Orioles are winning, so that brings them around asking questions. "Our answer,'' he said, "is because we're playing good baseball."

Yes and no. Again, a quick glance at a few key numbers suggests that Baltimore is nothing special. Even after beating the Yankees on Friday, the Orioles entered Saturday 10th in the league in runs scored (548) and OPS (.718) as well as 11th in batting average (.245). They had made the most errors (96) in the AL. The starting rotation's 4.61 ERA ranked 10th. They also have defied logic by doing it all without a bona fide ace -- and occasionally making up the rotation on the fly.

On Friday, Buck Showalter sent out Miguel Gonzalez, who went 0-7 in the minors last season, and he shut down the Yankees -- on 10 days' rest. "What we perceive as regular," Showalter said, "might not be what others perceive as regular."

Some of the Orioles' strengths, however, are easier to define. They are one of the AL's most prolific home run-hitting clubs, and after Mark Reynolds slugged two of the team's three homers Friday, Baltimore was ranked fourth in the AL with 164 through 131 games. Baltimore also has benefited from a shutdown bullpen that ranked fourth with a 3.07 ERA through Friday.

Closer Jim Johnson leads the AL with 41 saves in 44 chances and is four away from tying Randy Myers (1997) for the franchise's single-season record. The O's setup man, Pedro Strop, claimed off waivers from Texas last September, has a 1.86 ERA that is fifth among AL qualified relievers.

"The back end of their bullpen has been outstanding," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "Their record in one-run games points to those guys specifically in my estimation. They're so strong and they're so consistent."

 

Great when it's close

The record Farrell speaks of could be the most amazing thing in what has been a very unusual season for the Orioles, who have not managed to reach .500 since they earned their last postseason berth by going 98-64 in 1997. Even after Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Yankees, the Orioles are 24-7 in one-run games, which puts them on pace to have the highest winning percentage in history. The 1981 Orioles went 21-7.

Another number that's hard to believe is Baltimore's 57-0 mark when leading after seven innings. Shortening the game was a specialty of the Yankees' recent dynasty, a dominant stretch that began with John Wetteland as the closer and Mariano Rivera in the setup role for the '96 title. In the Orioles' case, it comes from a bullpen that has three relievers in the top 23 qualifiers -- Strop, sidearming former Met Darren O'Day (17th, 2.44 ERA) and Troy Patton (23rd, 2.58).

"The bullpen has been our stabilizing force throughout the year," catcher Matt Wieters said. "It's something that everybody's kind of fed off."

The Orioles also take their cues from Showalter, who seems to have a knack for reviving franchises. Showalter split over a rift with George Steinbrenner after getting the Yankees to a wild-card berth in 1995 and then helped build the expansion Diamondbacks from the ground up. In his second season in Arizona, the D-backs showed a 35-game improvement. The Yankees and Diamondbacks both won the World Series the year after Showalter left.

With the Rangers, Showalter earned Manager of the Year honors for an 18-game swing from his debut season to the next. With the Orioles (73-59) on pace for 90 wins, that would be a 21-game improvement over last year's 69-93 finish. "They've become the sum of their parts, gaining momentum, everyone contributing in their small ways -- that's Buck," Farrell said. "Now, all of a sudden, the feeling of a team really takes over."

That's how Showalter prefers to look at it. When confronted with the Orioles' negative statistics, he claims to ignore all but one. "The numbers that matter are in the W column," he said. "I've got some ideas if you really just want to get numerical. But it's hard to put a number on somebody's heart and gut. It's the sixth tool."

Heart and gut -- two words that make sabermetricians shudder. But Showalter's players also point to a single-mindedness, a collective willpower, that keeps them in dogged pursuit of the division title. The Orioles have won 12 straight extra-inning games and have outscored opponents 25-5 in that 41-inning stretch.

 

Level-headed

"Everybody comes in here with a level head ready to play," Jones said. "Just come and help the team win today. And then come and help the team win tomorrow. You can't look ahead. How can you look ahead when you're in this division? This is pretty much the only thing on my schedule -- in my whole life. There's nothing else going on."

Jones, now in his fifth season with the Orioles, noticed that this is the first time players -- himself included -- aren't talking about their winter plans. He knows what it's like to trudge through a meaningless September, and that's something Jones doesn't want to describe to Manny Machado, the organization's prized infielder.

The third overall pick in the 2010 draft, Machado made his major-league debut on Aug. 9 at the age of 20 years, 34 days. But the big moment was his second game, when Machado homered twice to become the youngest Oriole to do so -- breaking Boog Powell's 1962 mark by 223 days. Machado is a shortstop by trade, but he's been moved to third, and his transition -- like everything in Baltimore lately -- has been going smoothly.

"I would have fought it a little bit if I didn't think we could bring him into a good clubhouse," Showalter said. "With how seamless these guys fit in, they just look at a guy and say, 'Can he help us win?' If he's wearing orange and black, he's one of us."

It's that us-against-them mentality that seems to be working for the Orioles, numbers be damned. After Friday's win, Luis Ayala -- the former Met who called the Bronx home just last season -- sported an orange T-shirt that splashed the slogan "Buck the Yankees" on the back.

It's too soon to say these Orioles have rekindled the late-'90s hatred that existed between these two teams -- remember Darryl Strawberry taking on all comers in the Baltimore dugout during that Bronx brawl in 1998? But this September should heat things up a bit.

"Yeah," Jones said. "I want to get back to that."

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