It may not be obvious from the standings or the number of people in the stands, but the Orioles appear to have turned an intangible corner in their multi-year attempt to return to prominence in the tough American League East.
They are starting to look, well, relevant.
The Toronto Blue Jays had to notice, since they undoubtedly figured to use last week’s four-game series against the O’s at Rogers Center to pad their won-loss record and gain some ground on the runaway Yankees. Instead, they settled for a split and came close to another loss after taking a six-run lead on Wednesday night.
The Tampa Bay Rays must have figured something was up when they couldn’t get a run off the Oriole pitching staff in the opener of this weekend’s series at Camden Yards, then had to fend off a late-inning comeback on Saturday.
The national media has even started paying some attention, beginning with the arrival of top MLB prospect Adley Rutschman in May, but not stopping there.
“I think that people are sensing that the play on the field is better,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said Saturday. “We’re still in fifth place. We’re still a million miles away from winning this division with the opponents that we have, but I think we’ve got guys making highlight-reel-type action almost every night and it’s putting our team in a more positive light nationally.”
The much-anticipated Rutschman call-up was a turning point, but while he was getting acclimated to major league pitching and catching the past three weeks, his new teammates were continuing to build the case that they are not the same divisional doormat that went 20 -56 against the AL East last year and an embarrassing 1-18 against the perennially overachieving, small-market Rays.
“Yeah, I think that we have a lot of guys on the team that are performing well right now and starting to get some recognition,” said Austin Hays, who was at the heart of the club’s early summer offensive renaissance. “Some guys that have been playing well for a while are getting recognition for it and there are other guys who are taking advantage of opportunities they’re getting and they’re getting recognition for that, too.”
The Orioles are still well below .500, but came out of Saturday’s game with a 15-14 record over the previous month, a span that included a 10-8 record in the division. They are on pace to win 70 games, which may not be anything to brag about, but that would be a major improvement over last year’s 52-110 record and they appear to be trending upward in spite of playing the toughest schedule in the majors ( according to the Elias Sports Bureau).
“I think we’ve got a really good lineup right now, we’re playing good defensively and our bullpen is amazing,” said Ryan Mountcastle, who has been one of the team’s most productive hitters during the recent surge. “Our starters are doing well, too. Now, if we’ve got a lead going into the seventh, eighth and ninth, it’s not a coin flip anymore. We’ve got a good shot at winning.”
Seems that when the Orioles are behind going into the late innings, they’re still a force to be reckoned with. They have come from behind in 14 of their 29 victories and frequently have done so in dramatic offensive fashion and with considerable defensive flair.
With their more competitive profile, the arrival of Rutschman, human highlight reel Jorge Mateo at shortstop and the prospect of more good young players on the way, it’s no wonder that the Orioles are showing up on SportsCenter a little more often.
“Yeah, I think some of that has to do with guys like Adley coming up and we’ve just gotten a little younger and I guess more exciting,” said Trey Mancini, who seems like a grizzled veteran at the ripe old age of 30. “We’re playing better baseball. That’s probably the biggest thing. Not that our mentality was ever that we were a pushover and teams were looking forward to playing us, but that might not be the case anymore. We’ve been a really tough game, even in some that we’ve been on the losing side. We’ve been pretty tough to put down.”
Though the offensive production was increasing before Rutschman began to assert himself at the plate, no one discounts Rutschman’s impact on the changing perception of the team.
“I think it brought some eyes and then once people were watching, it was like, ‘Oh, this team can play a little bit.’ And, all of a sudden, we’ve got a pretty damn good lineup,” Mancini said. “And I think it brought more eyes, because maybe as the year started, they looked at the last few years and they thought it would be another year of mediocrity, and that hasn’t been the case, so that is exciting and hopefully more people will start paying attention.”