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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Orioles owe late-game dynamic duo

By Jack Moore, SweetSpot network

The Orioles won again Wednesday night. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising anymore. The Orioles haven't spent a day below .500 this season. They've been first or second in the division for all but 10 days this season, so we really should be used to it by now.

But then you look at that roster, the one with Nate McLouth batting third and Omar Quintanilla starting at second base and Miguel Gonzalez as the starting pitcher. You see that teams have outscored the Orioles by 43 runs -- only Cleveland, Minnesota and Kansas City have been worse in the AL.

It's definitely still surprising. To understand why, all you had to do was tune in for the first five innings of Wednesday's game against Boston. For 15 outs, the Orioles couldn't touch Red Sox starter Aaron Cook. The same Aaron Cook who entered the game with a 1.0 K/9 and a 4.70 ERA carved through the Orioles order for five innings, turning 89 MPH sinkers into ground ball after ground ball -- 14 of them, to be exact. Gonzalez pitched well for Baltimore, allowing just two runs and six hits in six innings, but it looked to be for naught -- just too much Aaron Cook to handle.

And then a switch flips in Birdland. Nick Markakis draws a walk and J.J. Hardy breaks up the no-no with one out in the sixth. Nate McLouth returns from the dead to single home Markakis. Adam Jones reaches on an error by Cook, scoring Hardy to tie the game. The rally is on: Matt Wieters gives Baltimore the lead, Cook is chased, and before you can blink the Orioles are up 5-2.

For the first time all game, the Orioles looked like a major league team, much less a contender. They didn't look back. J.C. Romero and Luis Ayala managed to stop a seventh-inning rally despite an error and the back-end of the bullpen put on a show. Pedro Strop smoothly handled Adrian Gonzalez, Cody Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, striking out the latter pair, and Jim Johnson easily recorded his 35th save of the season.

And that's the Orioles’ secret: Just find a way to get to the seventh inning, no matter how absurd or unpredictable.

Baltimore has spent most of the season looking lost in the first six innings -- teams outscored them 401-342 in the first six frames entering Wednesday's game, leaving them with a half-run deficit on average heading into the seventh. From there on, it's all Orioles all the time -- in the seventh or later, the Orioles have outscored their opponents 146-131.

The flip switched a half-inning earlier than usual Wednesday night, but the idea remains. Staked to a lead, the back-end combination of Strop and Johnson have been nearly unbeatable. Both pitchers induce ground ball after ground ball -- Strop 67.2 percent of the time, Johnson at 69.5 percent. Between Johnson's 35 saves and Strop's 1.22 ERA, the pair has been one of the most effective back-end tandems in the league this season. The Orioles' bullpen as a whole owns a stunning 9.24 WPA on the season after tonight's performance, best in the league by over three wins, and the 16th best since 1974, as far back as FanGraphs carries WPA data. Johnson and Strop combine for 5.64 of that 9.24.

Of course, this leads to the question no Orioles fan wants to hear: Is it sustainable? Are these guys really that good?

Johnson has that shiny save total despite a 3.26 ERA -- solid, but not relief ace quality. He's on pace to become just the 15th pitcher with more saves than strikeouts -- his K/9 inched over 5.0 after striking out Pedro Ciriaco in the ninth. Strop's ERA is disguising a K/BB below 2.0 -- unheard of for ace relievers -- and his 3.30 FIP suggests that he's more just a good reliever than a great one.

But it's hard to quibble with the Orioles’ strategy: Get the ball on the ground and let the infield defense do the work. Both of their big relievers have extremely heavy fastballs that do one of the most important things a reliever can do: Keep the ball in the yard. Johnson has allowed just three home runs; Strop just one. If Baltimore's dynamic relief duo can keep that up, their late-inning dominance can continue.

And make no mistake, it will have to. The Orioles haven't been anywhere near a playoff team in the first six innings this year, and with a roster counting on the McLouths and Quintanillas of the world, that won't change. The Orioles are now a game and a half clear of Detroit for a wild-card slot, with two other teams within three games. There will be no rest for the weary: Baltimore has to keep flipping that switch if they want to bring their improbable, mind-bending playoff run all the way to October.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano provides a reminder you don't need football to see some great tackling.
Jack Moore's work can be seen at FanGraphs and Disciples of Uecker (a SweetSpot affiliate devoted to the Brewers). Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.