BALTIMORE -- A pair of diametrically opposed views exists about the Baltimore Orioles, 2012's winner of 93 games and a playoff spot, off to another strong start in 2013.
Outside the Baltimore area, skeptics abound. Sure, the Orioles won 93 games, but their Pythagorean record -- a measure of expected wins and losses based on runs scored and runs allowed -- had them at 82 wins, barely breaking even. Then the Orioles did little this winter to add any talent. Thus came the belief that the Orioles are simply some kind of team of destiny, not talent, and not a real contender.
Or as ESPN's Keith Law put it last September: "There's literally nothing that the Orioles can do to convince me that they are a good team. They're like the eighth best team in the American League."
But for a team living on destiny and despite the certainty of Keith Law, these Orioles are playing pretty well. This season, even after a pair of losses to the San Diego Padres on Tuesday and Wednesday, they are 23-17, just two games out of first place in the AL East, and tied for one of the wild card spots. And their underlying performance supports the record: their Pythagorean record is also 23-17.
Ask the Orioles, or many of their fans, whether they are still waiting for the bottom to drop from under this baseball season, and you'll get a series of blank stares. The Orioles have played like contenders for 200 games now. Isn't that enough?
The eager callers to 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore certainly think so. On my trip down from New York, I was treated to many trade suggestions which would allow the Orioles to acquire Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, or, for the really ambitious, both. (No dice yet, O's fans: when I'd gotten as far as Philadelphia, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was talking on his WIP-FM radio show about his plan to get his Phils into first place with a few winning streaks. They're not waving the white flag yet.)
Still, these Orioles aren't built purely to win now. The team's best player is probably its youngest -- 20-year-old phenom Manny Machado at third base. Most of the key contributors are under 30; the number two prospect in the game (per Baseball America) is Orioles' Double-A pitcher Dylan Bundy. The Orioles are winning now; but they've arrived ahead of schedule.
Fans are appreciative. They filled the stadium halfway on a cold, rainy Tuesday night against the Padres; better than 30,000 came for a Wednesday afternoon tilt. And lest you point a skeptical eye toward the "tickets sold" totals, the park actually appeared to contain roughly the number of people the attendance number suggested it should.
A fair number of them wore Buck Showalter jerseys, and support for the Orioles' manager, now in his fourth year, is enormous.
"He really came here and changed the culture," longtime season ticket holder Bill Clark said as we chatted next to Boog's BBQ prior to Tuesday night's game. "He has them believing they're going to win, and he has us believing they're going to win."
For his part, Showalter refuses to saddle his team with any expectations at all.
"I didn't really come in with any 'This is where we gotta be at this point and that point,' I think that's real dangerous," Showalter said during his pregame media availability in the Orioles' interview room on Tuesday afternoon. "Especially for the players to hear it. We just stay in that day-to-day mentality. Alright, here's another game, another challenge."
For his part, Orioles reliever Brian Matusz thinks the success the Orioles have had is building upon itself.
"It's something that I think we all knew inside, that we had the capability of competing in the AL East," Matusz said as we chatted by his locker Wednesday morning. "But it didn't just happen overnight. We're an older team, more experienced. I think we're a better team [than we were in 2012]. But only the results on the field will prove that."
The challenge for the Orioles this season has been starting pitching. The team is third in the American League in runs scored, while the bullpen's ERA of 2.84 is best in baseball. The starters' ERA is tenth in the AL. Injuries to Wei-Yen Chen, out with an oblique strain, and Miguel Gonzalez, out with a thumb injury, have left the Orioles to start pitchers like Freddy Garcia on Wednesday, Jair Jurrjens on Saturday and the always-popular choice for a vital series opener against the Yankees on Monday: To Be Announced.
How bad is it? Showalter took the first two minutes and 42 seconds of his Tuesday afternoon presser just to update reporters on starting pitching injuries and shifts.
But Showalter, while realistic, pointed out that this wasn't much different than the injuries the Orioles faced last season, when they finished ninth in the American League in starter ERA while employing 12 different starting pitchers.
"Pitching is always a challenge, but I look at it a little more positive," Showalter said after Wednesday's game. "We got a pretty good day out of [Gonzalez, who looked good in rehab] today. I look at it like, hopefully, we're going to get one of them back. Wei-Yin felt decent today. He was fine... I'm also realistic. What you're saying is right, it is a challenge for us. Like it was last year when we had guys go down."
It helps if your bullpen can hold what leads you do get. And the Orioles have that kind of closer in Jim Johnson, who saved 51 games last season and didn't blow a save in 20 opportunities after July 30, pitching to a 0.36 E.R.A. over the final two months of the season. He followed that up early this season by converting his first 14 save opportunities, with a 1.80 E.R.A.
So there was a gasp from the crowd when Johnson gave up a game-tying single to the Padres' Chris Denorfia in the ninth inning Tuesday night, then hit Nick Hundley, then gave up the go-ahead single to Everth Cabrera.
The reporters covering the Orioles sounded shocked themselves, asking repeated questions to Johnson on the theme of shock over blowing one.
What was the biggest surprise about the game?
"We didn't win," Johnson shot back with a smile, surrounded by reporters at his locker after the game, his arm wrapped and iced. "I had a couple of bad pitches, and they put good swings on the ball."
Did he lament the end of his save streak?
He chuckled lightly, and responded: "I really didn't put a whole lot of stock into it. It was just something that you guys liked to talk about. Like everybody said, start something new tomorrow."
Asked if he even remembered the last time he blew a save, and was he proud of the now-defunct streak, Johnson answered: "I'm proud of what the team's accomplished. When I blow a game, it's usually in the same fashion."
There wasn't much else to say. After Wednesday afternoon's 8-4 loss, Showalter summarized things this way: "We're going to start a stretch now, 17 games in a row again after tomorrow, so it's another challenge." Shortly after that: "Anything else?" There wasn't, and he got up and left.
The callers to 105.7 on Wednesday afternoon as I drove away from Baltimore weren't particularly worried after a two-game losing streak, though adding Cliff Lee seemed to take on additional significance following a rough outing from Freddy Garcia. As the signal faded up through Delaware, afternoon host Scott Garceau talked about the recent struggles of the Tampa Bay Rays, who arrive in Baltimore for a series this weekend. Everyone seemed to agree: the Orioles would snap out of their two-game funk. There'd be another pennant race in Baltimore this year.
"You are where you are," Showalter said. "You always seek your own level. Too many games. Curiosity's always satisfied. I've been proud of a lot of things we've done, and my players know there are some things we'll have to do better if we want to get where we want to go."