BALTIMORE — Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon looked out at Camden Yards and muttered, “We’re as good as the Orioles are. But they’ve got a lot better record.” This struck Maddon as a paradox in need of an explanation. “We had an awful moment that we have not recovered from,” he said of a 1-14 skid this spring. “They haven’t stubbed their toes.”
And that explains an 11-game Rays deficit in the AL East? “Their bullpen’s really good with the ascension of [Zach] Britton as a closer,” Maddon said. “I love the way they play. Call them gamers, grinders. That’s their strength. They all have the same attitude — full effort, take advantage of mistakes. They mean business.
“They got that thing going on where they think they are going to find some way to win every night. Maybe you can’t feel it from TV, but you can feel it down here.”
“A lot of that is Buck [Showalter],” Maddon said of the O’s manager. But is that enough to explain how the Orioles can be seven games ahead in their division, 20 games over .500 and a plausible World Series team?
Finally, Maddon spits out the reason the Birds had beaten his bunch in 11 of 16 games. “We can’t score against them,” Maddon said. “That’s what happened to us against Boston last year.”
When a talented team, for one year, pitches much better than expected, it can go a long way before the sport figures it out. That’s the core of the 2014 Orioles. They are still misunderstood. Shhhh, don’t tell too many people. Camouflage is good.
The Orioles lead the majors in homers (170) by miles. That’s 15 percent more than any team except the mile-high Rockies. So it’s assumed they are a high-scoring team. Their five-man rotation is obscure, including Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris and Kevin Gausman. They earn just $10.4 million combined, less than Nats closer Rafael Soriano or any injured Yankee you can name. So it’s assumed the O’s pitching, even with superb defense behind it, is basically mediocre, 13th in ERA.
One person knows these stats lie — Showalter. Every year the American League scores 6 percent more runs because of the designated hitter. To see all teams on a level playing field, adjust for the DH: Add 6 percent more runs to every NL team’s runs allowed and runs scored. Viewed that way . . .
“I know where this is going,” Showalter said. “Let’s see the numbers.”
Suddenly the Birds are the fifth-best pitching-and-defense team in baseball. Only Seattle, Oakland, San Diego and Washington are better. But their offense, which contains void spots, only ranks 15th in DH-adjusted runs.
“What do the teams ahead of us have in common?” Showalter said. “Seattle, vast park. Oakland, pitcher’s park. San Diego, huge. And us? Camden Yards. Adjust for that, too.”
Much of baseball is waiting for the Orioles to come back to earth after losing Manny Machado for the season to a knee injury two weeks ago. Machado and injured all-star catcher Matt Wieters will miss 223 games this year. Ubaldo Jimenez, now in the bullpen, is a $50 million bust.
The 81 homers of Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones and Chris Davis are mighty helpful. So is reliever Darren O’Day’s sub-1.00 ERA. But the O’s will go as far as their discount rotation takes them. Chen (13-4), Chris Tillman (11-5), Norris, Gonzalez and midseason rotation call-up Gausman have combined for a 3.71 ERA in a division full of hitter’s parks such as Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Toronto’s Rogers Centre. All except Gausman, 23, are 26 to 29. “They’ve had the same maturing process. Had their ups and downs, but their makeup was always good,” Showalter said.
“So, bully for them,” Maddon said of the economy rotation. “They’re [built] kind of like the Rays!”
The Orioles, like Baltimore itself, are sensitive to comparisons: Our guys aren’t hand-me-downs. “Hey, we’re not paupers,” Showalter said of his $107 million payroll.
The stretch drive may test the O’s harshly. Like the Nats, they have a lead that seems 90-plus percent secure but is also small enough to cause tight collars if it closes. Their defense, with the game’s fewest unearned runs (24), is the franchise pride. “If you can’t catch it, you’re not coming up [from the minors],” Showalter says. Hence, the Machado trauma. Now two spots are weaker as Davis, slick at first base, moves with trepidation to third base for a trial and 5-foot-11 utility man Steve Pearce moves to first where he looks short, right-handed and a little worried.
Yet the Orioles are accustomed to making due in ways outsiders can’t grasp. They’ve still got leather everywhere, such as under-praised Nick Markakis, who plays right field like Al Kaline but has been given nine less Gold Gloves. “Defense is a mind-set,” says Jones, the center fielder. “Ask a 3-year-old, ‘Wanna hit or go catch?’ It’s ‘HIT!’ But up here you won’t hit every day. Your glove? You can bring that every day.
“We don’t care about getting credit. We don’t care about national attention. We want the acceptance of our teammates.”
And that’s how they play — as air-tight and tight-knit as any club in baseball. For example, Davis has plummeted from 53 homers to a .188 season yet has full clubhouse support: He’s working just as hard, and he’s ours.
That might kill the “score 700 runs but give up 700” Orioles of 2012 and 2013. Now they’re on pace to allow only 611 runs, almost 100 less than the past two years. Cruz may win a home run title, but it’s the maturing rotation, with Jimenez mercifully out of it, and six fine relievers who most define the O’s.
“We’ve had the defense here for several years,” two-time Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy says. “But now our pitching’s been really good.”
He didn’t bother to whisper. Baltimore’s secret is getting out.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.