The Washington Post

Orioles enter critical final stretch with wild-card hopes on the line — again

J.J. Hardy celebrates after scoring in the third inning against the Red Sox. The Orioles have stayed in the wild-card hunt despite a struggling starting rotation, in large part because they are scoring 4.69 runs per game, fourth-best in MLB. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The out-of-town scoreboard consumes most of the right field wall at Camden Yards. The fate of the Baltimore Orioles rests, in large part, with the updates displayed there. Most Orioles, though, don’t exactly admit they are keeping an eye on it.

“During the game, you’re not watching the scoreboard,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “I think it takes too much focus off what you’re trying to do.”

But sometimes on the bench, Manager Buck Showalter and bench coach John Russell play a game in which each is tasked with keeping tabs on a specific opponent. “Somebody will be up or Tampa will be down and . . .” Showalter stopped himself. “I’m not going to admit to it. It’s fun. I’m a fan of it. I’ll tell ya, if we lose, I don’t pay much attention to what other teams did. We just gotta take care of business.”

The AL wild-card race is a pileup of ballclubs, and the Orioles still have a chance to emerge from it. , Entering Saturday, the Texas Rangers held the top wild-card spot by one game over the Tampa Bay Rays, but their recent 9-12 record is less than inspiring. The Rays’ recent 7-14 skid dropped them into the second wild-card spot, with four teams sitting within 31 / 2 games of them: the Cleveland Indians (11 / 2 games back), the New York Yankees (two behind), the Orioles (21 / 2 behind), and the Kansas City Royals (31 / 2 back).

Last season, the Orioles reached the postseason for the first time since 1997 thanks to the deft roster maneuvering of General Manager Dan Duquette and Showalter, a power-hitting lineup, a strong bullpen and a historic record in close and extra-inning games. Save for a mediocre June and July, the Orioles posted a winning record in every other full month of the season. But even then, they didn’t clinch a playoff berth until Sept. 30, with three games left. They expect a similar fate this season.

“It’s going to come down to the wire again,” shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “I think we finish up with the Boston series here. I’m sure it’s going to come down to it.”

To make a strong push over the final 15 games, the Orioles will need better pitching from their starters. If not for a high-scoring offense, Baltimore’s plus-45 run differential, sixth best in the AL, could be worse thanks to a team ERA of 4.26 entering Friday, sixth-worst in the majors. The starting rotation — held up by Chris Tillman (16-5, 3.66 ERA) — had to be bolstered by trades for Bud Norris (4-2, 4.67 ERA with Orioles) and Scott Feldman (5-4, 3.62 ERA). The Orioles’ rotation has punched up a 4.21 ERA since the all-star break, better than just seven other teams. They have used 14 starters this season.

The bullpen has been better — a 3.60 ERA in the second half — but not as dominant as last season’s 3.00 ERA. The Orioles went an absurd 29-9 in one-run games last season and 16-2 in extra-inning games. This season, despite a more powerful offense and a stellar defense on pace for a record-low 48 errors in a 162-game season, the Orioles are 16-27 in one-run games and 7-5 in extra-inning games. Their bullpen has blown 23 saves, including a major league-high nine by closer Jim Johnson (44 saves, 3.13 ERA). The pitching lapses have, in part, dragged down a team that is scoring 4.66 runs per game, fourth-most in baseball, and has smashed a major league-best 197 home runs, including Davis’s major league-leading 50th on Friday night.

“We’re still in striking distance,” Feldman said. “Just keep our heads high.”

The final stretch presents the Orioles with a chance to tackle their wild-card rivals head-on. Ten of their remaining 15 games are against important AL East foes; six against the Boston Red Sox and four against Tampa Bay.

“The fact that we’re playing the teams that are ahead of us or right in the mix puts our fate in our hands,” Hardy said. “We have to win ballgames.”

Any loss, of course, can have severe consequences. But after dropping three close games to the Yankees earlier this week because of bullpen lapses, Showalter refuses to look back.

“It’s the time of year you don’t dwell,” he said. “For every game someone said we shoulda won, I can give you three on paper that we shouldn’t have won. But things happen. You try to just put a barrier there. Once you get to September, realize we’re playing a different game in September, roster-wise and sense of urgency.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010, wrote about high school sports across the region for two years and has covered the Nationals since the middle of the 2012 season.



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