By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
Now is right about the time I should be administering a well-deserved pat on the back -- to myself, of course.
I'm not normally in the prediction business -- discounting those shaky football picks I dish out every week in the fall -- but I wrote a column a few months back that maybe could have been construed as a bit of limb-walking.
To paraphrase, I was a big believer in the Washington Nationals. Enough so, that I listed a point-by-point explanation on why I thought the Nats' time was finally at hand. Ten points, to be exact -- the best being, in hindsight, No. 3 on the list, the trade for starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez.
You'll see no gratuitous back-patting from this corner, though. As I admired my preseason prognosticating excellence this past week, scanning each prescient point par excellence, I inevitably came to No. 1 on that list.
That would be, of all things, the Baltimore Orioles. My point at the time was simply to take another swipe at the downtrodden O's -- easy pickings, after all, by listing the annual 'Beltway Series' of interleague matchups between the O's and Nats as a definite advantage for the Washington club.
The Orioles took four of six in that matchup this season, but that really wasn't the point -- it wouldn't have mattered if Baltimore swept all six, since I expected them to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 games out of the American League East division standings this time of year.
Instead, the Orioles found themselves all of 3 1/2 games out of the division lead and locked into a tie for the first of two AL wild card spots heading into Tuesday's home game against the Chicago White Sox.
The Orioles entered Tuesday 70-57 -- no, that is not a typo as you are all too aware. They're plucky, they're gritty, and they have been pulling a smoke-and-mirrors act with alarming success for nearly five months now.
I say smoke and mirrors because that is precisely what Baltimore's statistics would indicate this season of success has been so far. The key indicator boils down to run differential -- in the past decade, only two teams have ever made the postseason with a negative run differential (allowing more runs than it scored). Baltimore is on course to make it three teams, and the Orioles' run differential is simply terrible -- 536 runs scored to 581 runs allowed, a whopping -45 heading into Tuesday night.
A cursory examination of Baltimore's roster illustrates the problem. The Orioles have been less than imposing as a pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation. Sure Jason Hammel started out looking like a bona-fide ace, but he was tailing off even before he landed on the disabled list in mid-July. Wei-Yin Chen has been solid if uninspiring, while Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta have been nothing short of terrible.
The thing is, that trio isn't in the rotation any longer and their replacements are keeping Baltimore in the thick of the pennant race. Chris Tillman has settled into a dependable starter slotted behind Chen, rookie Miguel Gonzalez has unexpectedly flourished, Zach Britton is starting to turn his season around and another, rookie, Steve Johnson, has provided a boost since his call-up earlier this month.
The Orioles also went out and got some help by trading for Joe Saunders, a reliable arm who should slot somewhere in the middle of that rotation.
Suddenly, Baltimore's pitching doesn't look so awful.
The offense is another story -- consider Monday's lineup featuring scrap-heap call-up Lew Ford batting fifth and perennial retread Nate McLouth batting seventh. The Orioles won, naturally, with a 4-3 victory against a tough Chicago White Sox squad. Ford hit his first Major League homer since ... 2007. McLouth drove in three runs and homered, as well.
It's just that kind of year, I guess.
Really, Baltimore is one of two absolute upstarts still hanging around -- excuse me, leading the wild-card chase -- joining the low-budget Oakland Athletics as baseball's biggest surprises this season.
The A's are somewhat more open to explanation -- a seemingly endless supply of strong starting pitching, the signing of Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes and the rip-off deal with the Boston Red Sox that netted slugging outfielder Josh Reddick.
Baltimore has what? Adam Jones and Nick Markakis -- and don't forget Omar Quintanilla!
The American League Manager of the Year ballot should have two names on it this year -- Orioles skipper Buck Showalter and Athletics manager Bob Melvin.
Whether or not the Orioles can keep up numbers-defying act remains to be seen, but win or lose the team has provided its fans with a welcome season of entertaining and competitive baseball.
-- Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at email@example.com