Aug 11, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles teammates Steve Pearce (28) and Adam Jones (10) celebrate after a game against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles defeated the Yankees 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians (60-60) vs. Baltimore Orioles (69-50)

Orioles Seek First Division Title Since 1997

The landscape of the AL East, at least as we’ve known it over the past decade, appears to be changing. After years of dominance from the Yankees, Red Sox, and even the Rays, 2014 might be the first time in a long time that none of them participate in the playoffs. It’s a welcomed sight to fans that have grown tired of seeing baseballs two behemoths… and the Rays (sorry Tampa),,, dominate the headlines.

Leading the charge for this change is the Indians latest opponent, the Baltimore Orioles.

Entering tonight’s game, the Orioles hold a comfortable lead in the AL East standings. At 7.5 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays, another annual cellar dweller, the O’s appear to be well on their way to their first AL East crown since the 1997 season and are all but a lock to make it to the playoffs. ESPN currently has their odds at 93%.

It helps that Baltimore is one of the hottest teams in all of baseball having won 8 out of their last 10 games, 17 of their last 25, and haven’t lost multiple game in a row since the all-star break. Talk about peaking at the right time. That’s a recipe for success and why the Orioles have taken a commanding lead in a division that typically comes down to the final weekend of the season.

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Aug 11, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles mascot on the mound prior to a game against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Despite their recent run of success, things will prove to be much more difficult in the coming weeks thanks to the loss of their stud third baseman, Manny Machado.

As a uber super-star in the making, Machado has solidified himself as one of the best young talents in all of baseball. The emphasis, of course, is on the word young. At the age of 21-years-old, he is doing things that no one has ever done before. Well, maybe except for Mike Trout, who is on a whole other level all to himself. Machado’s combination of power, speed, and defensive prowess have made him irreplaceable.

If you’re looking for proof of Machado’s value to the Orioles, just look at how their season has played out thus far. Prior to his return from the DL in on May 1, Baltimore was treading water at the .500 mark. They are 57-38 ever since and Machado has been a big reason why. While it took him time to come around following a gruesome knee injury, Machado had a respectable line of .278/.324/.431 with 12 homers and 32 RBI. That’s in line with his 2013 slash line of .283/.314/.432. The main difference being the amount of doubles, 51 total in 2013 compared to just 14 in 2014.

Suffice it to say, Machado will be hard to replace. Thankfully for the Orioles, they have another super-star that has stepped up in a huge way in 2014.

Adam Jones has been an all-star multiple times, but has yet to make himself a household name. That might be changing in 2014 as he is quickly putting himself in consideration for AL MVP honors. Sure, he probably won’t win it (Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, or even Josh Donaldson all have a leg up on him), but he should be in the conversation.

Jones is on his way to his third straight year with 30-plus home runs and second straight year with 100-plus RBI (if you’re into that sort of thing). He’s hitting an impressive .287/.316/.485 with an OPS+ of 122. In terms of wins above replacement, Jones is an impressive 3.2 bWAR or 4.2 fWAR depending on your preference. With the exception of home runs, Jones leads the Orioles in virtually every major offensive category. Nelson Cruz leads them with 31 big flies.

Of course, the Orioles could get a big boost if Chris Davis could turn his 2014 season around. One year after establishing himself as the most feared home run hitter in the game (he set a personal best with 53 homers), Davis has been a shell of his former self. He is hitting a paltry .196/.301/.402 with a 96 OPS+ as compared to .286/.370/.634 and 169 OPS+ a year ago. Injuries have been partly to blame, but regression is more than likely the primary culprit along with a .245 BABIP.

As for their pitching staff, the Orioles have overcome significant struggles. As things currently stand, they find themselves in the middle of the pack when it comes to key pitching statistics. They are 15th in ERA at 3.66, 18th in WHIP at 1.29, and 15th in batting average against at .252. They are even ranked 29th in total strikeouts with 834.

Fueling this lackluster performance has been one of their key free agent acquisitions, Ubaldo Jimenez. The former Indian has had a miserable season for the Orioles and in the process has validated the Chris Antonetti’s decision not to resign him. His 4.51 ERA and 1.55 WHIP are reminiscent of his early days with the Indians. Oriole fans have to be wishing they never signed Jimenez at this point.

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Jun 20, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez (31) pitches against the New York Yankees during the third inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Picking up the slack has been last year’s ace, Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, and Wei-Yin Chen. Together, those three have served as the backbone of the Orioles starting rotation. They have also received significant contributions from Kevin Gausman and Miguel Gonzalez. The former of which was a top prospect in the Orioles organization and still believed to be a future front line starter.

Even the bullpen has had its issues. Tommy Hunter began the year as the team’s closer after the departure of long-time closer Jim Johnson to the A’s. Hunter showed significant ability in spot saves during 2013 and many felt he would step seamlessly into the role. It wasn’t meant to be, however. Hunter struggled, got hurt, and eventually lost the closer’s job to Zach Britton. Britton has been fantastic, notching 25 saves to date. His success has also allowed Hunter to step back into the role of setup man, a role he appears to be much better suited for.

Despite their troubles on the mound, the Orioles still possess the best run differential on the AL East and the best run differential of any team not playing in the AL West. They have scored 58 more runs than they have surrendered, a true testament to just how well this team can mash the ball. Their 152 homers are the best in baseball, by the way. If the Indians have any chance of winning this series and keeping pace in the AL Central and Wild Card races, their pitching will need to find a way to limit the damage done by the Orioles offense.

Easier said then done in 2014.

Pitching Match-Ups:

Wei-Yin Chen (12-4, 3.90 ERA/3.80 SIERA) vs. Corey Kluber (13-6, 2.46/2.69)

Ubaldo Jimenez (4-8, 4.51/4.66) vs. Carlos Carrasco (4-4, 3.60/2.91)

Kevin Gausman (6-4, 3.90/4.47) vs. T.J. House (1-3, 4.13/3.38)

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Tags: Adam Jones Chris Davis Cleveland Indians Manny Machado Ubaldo Jimenez

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