With twenty games left to play in the 2016 season, the Orioles are well positioned in the standings. Baltimore is two games out of the top spot in the American League East, which is currently held by the Boston Red Sox. They are tired with Toronto for second place in the division and the first wild card spot. The O’s sit two games ahead of the Detroit Tigers (who they just took a weekend series from) and the surging New York Yankees. At the fringe of the AL playoff scene are the Astros and Mariners who sit 3.5 games back (4 back in the lost column with 19 games left to play) as well as the Kansas City Royals who are 4 behind with 20 left to go.
Despite the fact that the Orioles occupy a playoff spot, are just one win and one Jays loss removed from sole possession of the top wild card spot, and three wins removed from a division lead, there is a prevailing sense among fans of the team that the odds of reaching the post season at all are not very good.
Much of that has to do with the perception of the teams around them. Prior to Sunday, the Yankees rattled off seven straight wins. Toronto plays its next seven games against sub-.500 teams. Half of the Tigers remaining twenty games are with basement dwellers Minnesota and Atlanta. The Orioles meanwhile play the AL East leader seven times, the Yankees three times, and the Blue Jays three times over their final twenty. When you look at which teams are hot and the schedules, it can make the O’s current standing suddenly feel rather tenuous.
The reality is that the Orioles control their own destiny as much if not more so than any of the other six teams (with the likely exception of Boston). There is only one team who they are competing with for a playoff spot that is actually ahead of them in the standings and that happens to the team they play the most down the stretch. With seven games versus Boston down the stretch – starting with a three game trip to Fenway on Monday – the O’s have the opportunity to do direct damage without having to rely on any other teams for assistance. To a lesser extent, the same is true of the remaining 3-game series with Toronto and New York. When you have to play teams you are competing with for a playoff spot at the end of the season you can look at it as a tough draw or an opportunity to take matters into your own hands. They have more opportunities to directly create space and close the gaps than any other team fighting for a spot.
There are twenty games left in the regular season. If the Orioles go 12-8 (.600 winning percentage) during the race to the finish line they will end up with 90 wins. Assuming that Boston does not relinquish first place in the East, TWO of the following would need to occur for the Orioles to miss out on one of the two wild card spots without necessitating a play-in game:
· Toronto goes 13-7;
· New York or Detroit goes 15-5;
· Seattle or Seattle goes 16-3; or
· Kansas City goes 17-3.
You can bump all of those win totals down by one for what each team needs to do to reach 90 wins, which in the above scenario would force a tie-breaker game (or two). In either case, the point is that if the Orioles play reasonably well but don’t necessarily go on a run – which is basically what .600 baseball is – at least one other team would have to make a true run to knock them out. If the Yankees hold the advantage in terms of momentum and the Tigers have a schedule advantage, then the O’s advantage is the current standings. It is nonsensical to discount that advantage while simultaneously talking about the advantages of other teams. I have read comments that suggest that every loss over the final three weeks is a huge blow to the Orioles' chances and it simply isn’t true. If anything, that sentiment applies more closely to the teams behind them in the standings.
Obviously winning 12 of the next 20 is no sure thing. It is merely an example of how the team is in very good shape if they continue to play well. Nobody is looking at ways the O’s could back into the playoffs – at least not yet. The “win games” part of the equation is sort of a given. If they don’t win games, it makes it far more difficult to get in. However as demonstrated above if the Orioles do continue to win games at a pace in line with their current winning percentage, they are well positioned to reach the playoffs in one form or another.
Strength of schedule is not something that should be dismissed entirely but I do think it is as important as it is often made out to be. This is Major League Baseball where a bad team winning one, two or even three straight games from a very good team is a regular occurrence. Fans of this team who remember the 2011 season should know as well as anyone that teams out of contention can go on a September tear and play spoiler. The expanded rosters even the playing field as well. If given the choice, I would much rather play the Twins seven times than the Red Sox but to assume that the games are going to play out exactly like they read on paper is incredibly presumptuous.
There are five teams – New York, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, and Kansas City – who would LOVE to be in the O’s spot now (upcoming schedules be damned). I wish more Oriole fans would realize and embrace that rather than assuming that the worst is going to happen over the next three weeks. The race is going to be stressful and likely come down to the end, but the Orioles are in the enviable position of simply needing to win games at a pace they are accustomed to this season and the rest will in all likelihood take care of itself.