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Orioles primed to run away with AL East

8/9/2014



For most of the season, the American League East has been considered by many to be the AL (L)East, a division of mediocrity that no team seemed to want to win.

A look at the standings heading into this weekend reveals a much different story.

Following their 12-2 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday, the Baltimore Orioles improved to 66-49, maintaining their five-game lead in the AL East. For all the talk of the dominance by the Oakland Athletics this season, it is now the Orioles who have the largest division lead of any team in baseball.

Baltimore's success is not just the product of beating up on its diminished division foes. The only teams in the majors with a better overall record than the Orioles are the A's and the Los Angeles Angels.

But that stat underestimates how well the Orioles have been playing for more than two months now. The team struggled out of the gate, dropping their first two series and (despite a few promising win streaks in April and May) had a mediocre 26-27 record after losing in Houston on May 30.

The next night -- behind the strong pitching of Chris Tillman -- the Orioles went out and beat the Astros 4-1 and haven't looked back. They are 40-22 since May 31, the best record of any team in baseball during that stretch. Yes, better than those two superpowers out west.

Consistency has been key for the Orioles, who haven't lost more than two games in a row since the end of May.

It's fitting that Tillman was again on the mound for Friday night's statement win, holding the Cardinals scoreless through six innings and finishing with just two runs allowed on four hits over 6⅔ innings.

His season has followed a similar trajectory to the rest of the team. He pitched poorly through the first two months, bottoming out on June 5 when he was rocked by the Texas Rangers for five runs and didn't record an out after the first inning.

That horrible outing raised his ERA to 5.20 through his first 13 starts, and he was clearly frustrated with himself, saying after that game, "it's been a constant battle. It's evident. I know what needs to be done. Just got to do it."

Something must have clicked after that game, because he has been lights-out ever since. His ERA now stands at 3.73 for the season, and it is an impressive 2.40 over his past 12 starts. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of those starts, holding batters to a .220 average while allowing only five homers in 78⅔ innings.

His ERA ranks 10th among AL starters since June 10, putting him in the company of elite pitchers Jon Lester, Felix Hernandez, Garrett Richards, David Price and Chris Sale.

He held the Cardinals to just one hit in 10 at-bats with men on base Friday, continuing a trend of strong pitching while throwing from the stretch over the past two months. He has allowed a .214 batting average and .569 OPS with runners on since June 10, a huge improvement from the .294/.380/.504 line during his first 13 starts of the season.

Tillman wouldn't have gotten the win on Friday night without a standout performance from the Orioles offense, which hit a season-high six homers and scored its second-most runs of the season.

The Orioles broke the game open in the second inning, taking a 4-0 lead, thanks to an RBI single from Nick Hundley and a three-run homer off the bat of Manny Machado. That was a good omen for the O's, who are an MLB-best 46-10 when scoring first.

J.J. Hardy joined the hit parade with home runs in the third and fourth inning, finishing with a season-high four RBIs. Hardy, who hit at least 20 homers in each of his first three seasons with the team, had gone deep only four times in his first 106 games of 2014.

Adam Jones added a solo shot in the fifth inning, while Chris Davis and Ryan Flaherty each connected in the sixth to give the Orioles a commanding 12-0 lead.

Tillman did allow a couple runs in the seventh inning, but Brian Matusz and Brad Brach held the Cardinals scoreless for the remainder of the game as the O's cruised to another easy win.

An AL East title now seems destined for an Orioles team that hasn't finished atop the division in more than 15 years.

This is the eighth time in the divisional era (since 1969) that the Orioles have held a lead of at least five games in August or later. They have won the division crown in each of the previous seven years.

While the A's and Angels beat each other up out west, and the Detroit Tigers remain in a battle with the surging Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, the Orioles have quietly positioned themselves to run away with the AL East and set themselves up for a long postseason run.