By Steve Roney
Heading into a weekend series with the wild card-leading Oakland As, the Baltimore Orioles find themselves in unfamiliar territory: contention.
With 19 games left to play including tonights tilt with Oakland the Os are tied with the stumbling Yankees for both the AL East lead and the second wild card slot, both 3.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels for the last seat at the playoff table. To say that the Orioles have finally broken through would be to imply that theyve been close to this good in recent years but they havent.
Baltimore could lose every game the rest of the way and still finish with their best record since 1997, and theyre doing it with a team that looks a lot like last years 69-93 club.
How, exactly, did the Orioles get here?
Many ask how a team like Baltimore, with a -20 run differential, can compete at this point in the season. Their offense is better suited to the grip it and rip it days of the late 90s, ranking 3rd in home runs and 23rd in on-base percentage.
Simply put, this is not the way you would draw up a playoff ball club in February.
The Os have instead made their mark by dominating close games, going a league-best 27-7 in one-run contests, and an even more unbelievable 13-2 in extra-innings. You can try to call it clutch or fluky, depending on how full your glass is, but it really doesnt matter.
Those games count, and with them come those important intangibles: momentum, confidence, and attitude three things that the Yankees, for one, have little of at the moment.
If Baltimore doesnt at first glance have the look of a winner, you may want to consider them as you would a mid-major college basketball team: few complete players, several one-dimensional yet skilled scorers, and a propensity to hang around until they can take their shot to win.
Much more often than not, that shot has been falling this season.
In the last two years, the Cardinals and the Giants have ridden scorching Septembers to World Series titles with a 26-13 record since August 1, the Orioles are pretty hot themselves, and have every opportunity to continue to pull away down the stretch.
The season is winding down, and its all tied up. The Os have the crowd, they have their game plan, and theyll get their shot. Theres no telling how far they could go but this year, if its late, and its close, youd be crazy to bet against the Orioles.