Looking Back and Ahead

The Orioles split yesterday’s double header with the Texas Rangers.  The Rangers leave Baltimore having won 3 of the 4 games in the series.  The O’s record now stands at 20-12, which is good enough for a first place tie in the AL East with the Tampa Bay Rays.  Those same Rays head to Baltimore today for a three game series between the two division leaders. This much is clear after the Texas series – the Rangers have a very, very good team.  They are also extremely fortunate to have an entirely healthy team at the moment.  I’ve watched a fair amount of non-Orioles game so far this season and the Rangers are unequivocally the best team in the Majors right now.  If they stay healthy, I see little reason why that won’t continue.  Their offense is stacked from top to bottom and their starting pitching is very good in their own right.  Josh Hamilton is off to a once-in-a-lifetime start.  This isn’t a case of complimenting the opponent that just beat you in order to downplay the magnitude of the loss.  The Rangers really are that good of a team and the O’s had the added misfortune of playing them after they had stumbled a bit and were looking to right the ship. The Orioles ran into a brick wall in the Rangers and coming away with a 1-3 series is far from the end of the world.  As I alluded to yesterday, the benefit of starting 19-9 isn’t that the team will continue to win at that pace on the way to 110 wins.  It is that you can have the inevitable stumble and still be in good shape.  The O’s went 1-3 against the best team in the American League and still enter the weekend series with the Rays tied for first place in the AL East.  It would have been nice to at least split the series, but the O’s honestly have come out of it not much worse for wear.

I will repeat what I wrote before the Texas series.  No one game, series, or group of series will make or break the Orioles’ season.  Analysts and fans can keep talking about how a particular stretch of games will be a big test of the team and show how good they really are, but it won’t make it any more true.  We won’t know how good the team really is until much later in the season.  For now, all we can off of is the O’s 2012 track record, which thus far is very impressive.  At the same time, I also stated that how the O’s play against their peers in the AL East is slightly more important than how they play against other competition, for no other reason than the fact that they play 72 games against teams from the AL East.  Logically, they have to be able to beat these teams on a fairly regular basis since they comprise 45% of the team’s schedule.  So far, the O’s have shown that they are talented enough to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays.  We will find out, at least to a certain extent, how well the O’s match up against the Rays starting tonight.

The O’s and Rays have played remarkably similar through the first 32 games.  The Rays have scored 143 runs and allowed 132, compared to the O’s 146 runs scored and 133 allowed.  Both teams’ run differentials suffer from a pair of back-to-back blow outs – Tampa lost by a combined 18 runs in two games against Boston in mid-April and the O’s lost by a combined 18 runs Monday and Tuesday against the Rangers.  Both teams are winning largely via pitching, although the O’s have surprisingly been a bit better posting a 3.35 ERA to Tampa’s 3.82.  I could slice it twenty different ways and we would still reach the same conclusion – the Rays and O’s have performed very similarly through the season’s first 32 games.

Therefore as one would expect, the pitching match ups for the series are also very even on paper, with tonight’s Dana Eveland/Jeremy Hellickson match up providing perhaps the one exception.  Eveland makes his 2012 Orioles debut filling for Jason Hammel.  Hellickson, coming off his strong rookie campaign, has been very good thus far in 2012 getting out to a 3-0 record with a 2.75 ERA.  Not to mention, the O’s have struggled against Hellickson in the past.  Eveland is a wild card and one would think that the “unknown” factor of Eveland won’t be much of an advantage against Joe Maddon’s always well prepared Rays squad.  Saturday night, it is a battle of young, currently struggling, lefties as Brian Matusz faces Matt Moore.  The series wraps up on Sunday with David Price taking on Jake Arrieta.

The O’s will have to deal with lefties in back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.  So will the Rays – on Friday and Saturday.  The Rays power is largely concentrated on the left side of the plate, which perhaps will work to the advantage of Eveland and Matusz.  Former Oriole Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, and Matt Joyce all lead the Rays with 7 homeruns and all are left-handed batters.  If the O’s have a pitching advantage in this series, that might be it.

Despite the less-than-ideal results against the Rangers, there is still a sense watching the Orioles play that the team is playing with confidence and expects to win every game.  There is definitely a different feel there than in prior seasons.  The Orioles know the Rays are a good team.  However, they also know they split the 18 games with them in 2011 and now have the pitching help to hopefully improve on that.  A 1-2 series won’t be the end of the world, although certainly taking 2 out of 3 from Tampa would be a nice boost and would position the O’s in first place in the AL East going into the second half of May.