First Pitch: Fear the Birds?

A year ago at this time, the Baltimore Orioles were the surprise team in the AL East, with a 27-16 record after 43 games and a two-game lead in the AL East.

This year, as unlikely as it sounds, it is hard to dispute that either the Yankees, atop the division at 26-15, or the Boston Red Sox, a half-game back at 27-17, are the surprise teams in the division -- and it is impossible to deny that considering what they were facing at the start of the season, both teams have over-performed.

And the Orioles, tied for third place with the Tampa Bay Rays, at 23-20, have arguably underperformed.

But still, it would be foolish to count the Orioles out, given their roster of young, improving players like Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Chris Davis, and a manager like Buck Showalter in the dugout.

Last year, the Orioles nearly knocked the Yankees out in the first round of the playoffs, and even in defeat came away looking like the younger, hungrier, and more athletic (if less experienced) team.

This year, the Orioles' pitching has not been great. The team's ERA is 4.34 (slightly higher than the league average), closer Jim Johnson has blown his last two save opportunities, and the O's are sending out Freddy Garcia tonight to start their three-game series with the Yankees at Camden. Yet Davis is among the league leaders in homers and RBI, Jones is among the league leaders in batting, and at 20 years old, Machado deserves to be mentioned along with the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as one of the game's brightest young stars.

And the sheer length of the baseball season indicates that the young, talented Orioles can finish strong again this season, as they did in 2012 when they went 19-9 in September to pull in three games ahead of the Rays, seize a wild-card spot, and knock off the Texas Rangers in the wild-card playoff game.

These three games at Camden tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday won't settle anything, of course, and there will be 13 more meetings between these teams before the story of this season is written. The Yankees took two of three in their first series in the Bronx in April; with both CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the Yanks' two best starters, lined up to go in two of these three games, they're in pretty good shape again.

But the Orioles are not to be counted out, for a number of reasons: their youth, the obvious talent in their lineup, and their manager.

After Wednesday night's game, the Yankees and Orioles won't see each other again until the last week of June.

But would anyone be surprised if these two teams saw each in October once again?

QUESTION OF THE DAY: How much respect do you have for the Orioles? Do you consider them a legitimate threat to the Yankees in the division, or was 2012 a fluke that will be corrected in 2013? Let us know in the comments section below.

UP NOW: A couple of blogs off Sunday's rainout that washed away the finale of the Yankees-Blue Jays series, including a feature on the newest Yankee, Reid Brignac, who tells us who his baseball idol was growing up (three guesses).

COMING SOON: The ever-charming Andrew Marchand will be in Charm City for all three games and in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards when it opens at 3:35 p.m., so check back for lineups and pregame notes. Sabathia (4-3, 3.19 ERA), washed out of his start Sunday, faces Garcia (0-2, 5.51) in the opener, first pitch at 7:05 p.m. As always, thanks for reading.