Baltimore & Oakland Hang Tough In American League Playoff race

No two teams in the American League have been bigger surprises than the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A’s. The Orioles, in spite of sluggish play through the summer continue to set the pace for the AL’s second wild-card spot, with a 46-41 record. Oakland isn’t far behind at 45-43. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at both teams here on the first weekend of the seasons second half…

Baltimore (46-41): Battle through five and then win it in the end. That’s got to be the war chant in Baltimore this season. The offense isn’t that good, ranking just 10th in the American League in runs scored, in spite of being a fairly hitter-friendly environment at Camden Yards. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, lacks depth and is currently a mess. But the bullpen is the best in the AL, if not all of baseball and if you don’t finish off the Orioles by the sixth inning, they’re going to battle you to the end.

Jim Johnson, with 26 saves and a 1.41 ERA is one of the game’s top closers and Buck Showalter has put together a very deep setup team around him, one that’s led by Pedro Strop and his buck-59 ERA. You can mix in Darren O’Day, a veteran of Texas’ recent pennant runs, and Luis Ayala and that’s a core four who have been very good. Showalter can also turn to arms like Kevin Gregg, who’ve been reasonably consistent.

Jason Hammell and Wei-Yin Chen have anchored the rotation this season, with sub-4.00 ERAs, something not easy to do in a hitter’s park against a steady diet of AL East lineups. But Hammell now has a knee injury and is expected to do some disabled list time, and no one else has stepped up for Showalter. The manager can hope that Miguel Gonzalez, with a 1.93 ERA in 18 IP will fill one role. Ultimately though, the Orioles need some of the young pitchers who have done to the Baltimore-to-Norfolk shuttle these past couple years, with repeated Triple-A stints to finally stabilize as major league starters.  I’m talking about Brian Matusz, who has been working to regain his solid 2010 form and is probably on his way back to the big leagues to replace Hammell. Or Zach Britton, who’s missed this season with injury and is building up his velocity in Norfolk right now. Another wild-card might be Chris Tillman. With 36 career starts and a 5.58 ERA my instinct was to dismiss him before double-checking and realizing he’s only 24 years old. Tillman will get a chance to be in the rotation again starting next week. Britton, Matusz and Tillman have to succeed—or at least two of them do—for the long-term future and it wouldn’t hurt if that long-term future started around now.

Oakland (45-43): Billy Beane’s team is the case of the extremes, with the worst offense in the league and the best pitching, although given the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the team probably isn’t literally that polarized. But close enough. Like Baltimore they have a strong and deep bullpen and like Baltimore they’re counting on some returning arms in July and August to give much-needed help to the rotation.

Ryan Cook has earned the closer’s job here recently and has a 1.37 ERA with nine saves. He made the All-Star team and will likely be one of the game’s top ninth-inning arms in the second half. Grant Balfour, Jordan Norberto and Jerry Blevins have been consistent around him, and young additions like Sean Doolittle and Pedro Figueroa have given even more depth to a unit that makes the A’s tough to beat from the sixth inning on.

Starting pitching here is in pretty good shape, with Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffn and Travis Blackley being the latest young starters Billy Beane has brought up, and added them to Tommy Milone, who’s logged a workhorse-like 114 IP. Bartolo Colon has been a pleasant veteran addition, but a 3.80 ERA in this park isn’t spectacular and Colon’s history suggest nagging injuries are a virtual lock.

What Beane is banking in is the return of Brandon McCarthy, who had a 6-3 record with a 2.54 ERA when he hit the disabled list, along with Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson whose season-long recoveries are said to be progressing well and will likely have them pitching again in the next month. Beane will have depth in starting pitching and room to add a bat, which is team desperately needs.

Make that two or three bats, because rightfielder Josh Reddick, with a .348/.526 stat line for his on-base percentage/slugging percentage has carried the team. Seth Smith has started to pick it up, as his power gradually rises, up to .447 slugging and keeping Yoenis Cespedes healthy for the second half will be a big boost. As will first baseman Brandon Moss, if he does anything close to his current pace of 11 home runs in 90 at-bats. But the team needs second baseman Jemile Weeks to return to the form he showed in his 2011 rookie year and get on base. Because while the players mentioned are good, they aren’t get-on-my-back-and-I’ll-carry-you kind of talent. Everyone has to pull their weight and Weeks is the most flagrant offender of those who are not.

Baltimore has similar offensive problems, although they got Nick Markakis back from the disabled list this weekend. The rightfielder already has a respectable stat line of .339/.469 and his history suggests the OBP can go up further. They Orioles picked up Jim Thome to give some power and a veteran presence at the DH spot and they’re getting a very good year from Adam Jones and a pretty good one from Matt Wieters. What the O’s could use is a hot second half from shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose meager stat line of .258/.380 wasn’t what the front office had in mind when they gave him a three-year deal for $21 million last summer.

Oakland started the second half with two wins in Minnesota, while Baltimore split two with Detroit, including an epic 13-inning win yesterday where they rallied in both the 11th and 13th and won a walk-off home run by Taylor Teagarden, the backup catcher making his second at-bat of the season. After closing out those series today, the Orioles hit the road, while Oakland gets marquee opponents coming in. Texas and New York visit the Bay Area for a total of six games, while the Orioles play eight in Minnesota and Cleveland. The teams go head-to-head in Baltimore on July 27, as the trade deadline approaches and each front office evaluates its options.