Orioles hope second-half surge makes up for mediocre start

Associated Press

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Orioles staggered into the All-Star break on level ground following a wild roller-coaster ride marred by inconsistent play.

After losing 10 of 13 to drop to 44-44, the defending AL East champions are in third place, four games behind the division-leading New York Yankees.

"It's been up and down," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "We've had some good stretches and some bad stretches, yet we're still kind of right in the mix. So if we can get going in the second half, we have a good chance."

Despite missing Hardy, catcher Matt Wieters, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, right-hander Kevin Gausman and All-Star outfielder Adam Jones to injury for portions of the first half, the Orioles remain "in the hunt," according executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.

As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, Duquette sees the Orioles as buyers, just like last year when they secured standout reliever Andrew Miller for a postseason run that finally ended in the AL Championship Series.

"We'll try to improve our ballclub and see if we can get back to the playoffs," Duquette told The Associated Press. "If we can upgrade our pitching staff then we certainly will do that."

Though the contracts of Wieters, slugger Chris Davis and left-hander Wei-Yin Chen are among those that expire after this season, Duquette's focus is in the short term.

"We'd like to make our team as strong as we can for the rest of the season," he said. "The division is wide open. No dominant team has emerged and there will be a lot of teams vying for the wild-card spots, too."

All-Stars Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Darren O'Day and Jones excelled in the first half, as did newcomer Jimmy Paredes, who's batting .299 and already has reached career highs with 10 homers and 39 RBIs.

Chen has a solid 2.78 ERA and right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (7-4, 2.81 ERA) is finally providing a return on the $50 million contract he signed before last season.

Hardy is back in a groove after being sidelined by back spasms; Wieters and Schoop contributed immediately upon their return from the disabled list; and Gausman is back in the rotation after a bout with right shoulder tendinitis.

That's why manager Buck Showalter says, "I think our best baseball is ahead of us."

Even if the Orioles don't make noise before the trade deadline, Showalter is content to move forward with the current roster.

"I try to keep in mind we had four or five guys who were missing that we have back now," the manager said. "We're there. All the answers we're going to need are in our locker room and in our organization. I'm very confident in the people we have."

Although starter Bud Norris (2-9, 6.86 ERA) has been a major disappointment following a 15-win season, the Orioles' biggest issue has been a hot-and-cold offense that has been held to three runs or fewer 42 percent of its games. Delmon Young, Alejandro De Aza and Everth Cabrera have come and gone, Davis has struck out 110 times and Steve Pearce (.228) is simply not performing as well as last year.

"We've got to get our bats going," Machado said. "Our pitching is doing well, but we've got to back it up with our bats. Hopefully we come out with some bats swinging and start the second half pretty good."

The Orioles return to action Friday night for a three-game series in Detroit. Then they face both teams ahead of them in the AL East, the Yankees and Rays.

"In this division, anybody within a yell and shout of first place has got a chance," Wieters said. "This division will be won in September, so the key is to stay in striking range and get hot at the right time."

The potential is there, as evidenced by an 18-5 streak that put Baltimore in first place on June 28. That, unfortunately, was offset by the 3-10 skid into the break.

"We expected to win a lot more games than we won," O'Day acknowledged. "I think we're a better team than we've showed."

Now would be a good time to start proving it.

"We have to figure out why it's not working and we have to fix it," said Britton, who's converted 23 of 24 save opportunities. "The way this division is beating up on each other, if you can be that one team that catches fire, you can get the lead."