By now, Boston Red Sox fans have come to grips with the fact that their team doesn't seem to be going anywhere this season. At 57-59, the Red Sox have been sunk by injuries, inconsistent performances and bafflingly bad starting pitching.
But even more surprising than the unpredictability of the Red Sox has been the consistency of the Baltimore Orioles. The team that everyone thought would fade away has not only stayed in the hunt, it's currently leading the American League wild-card race at 62-53, nine games over .500.
The Orioles, who host a three-game series against the Red Sox starting Tuesday, have a minus-49 run differential this season, which is the fourth-worst in the American League. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are at plus-41, which is tied for fourth-best in the league.
How is the disparity explained? It's simple. The Red Sox are a middling 12-14 in one-run games and just 2-6 in extra innings. The Orioles, meanwhile, have a major league-best 22-6 record in one-run games (including an 11-game win streak that began in June) and are a staggering 12-2 in extra innings. Of Baltimore's six wins against Boston this season, four have come in extra innings.
"From what I understand, this team has some people scratching their heads," Orioles manager Buck Showalter told The Associated Press.
The same observers who expect the Red Sox to go on a run are waiting for the Orioles, who haven't made the playoffs in 14 years, to fall off. But ask yourself, which is more likely at this point? What former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette has built in Baltimore doesn't appear headed to a crash-and-burn ending.
The Red Sox, on the other hand
If they hope to make things at all interesting down the stretch, they have to start winning series. Their last series victory came against the Detroit Tigers almost two weeks ago. They followed that up with series losses to the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers and, most recently, a four-game split against the Indians in Cleveland.
In the first three games of the Cleveland series, Crawford was 0-for-8 but he exploded for three hits and three RBIs in Sunday's 14-1 win over the Indians. He has hit safely in 12 of his past 16 games.
Pedroia has hit safely in each of the past seven games, posting a .467 average (14-for-30) with 3 doubles, 4 RBIs and 8 runs scored in that stretch.
Gonzalez has been one of the league's best hitters since the All-Star break, especially in the month of August. He's hitting .422 (19-for-45) with 3 homers, 8 doubles and 18 RBIs in the last 12 games.
The fact remains, though, that the plight of the Red Sox will depend on starting pitching.
Josh Beckett, who was hammered for eight runs over five innings in his most recent start, will get the ball Tuesday against the Orioles' Wei-Yin Chen (10-7, 3.79). Beckett has lost his last three starts against Baltimore, including a 2-1 loss on June 6, when he allowed only two runs on five hits in eight innings.
Beckett has a 5-3 record with a 3.61 ERA in 12 career starts at Camden Yards. The right-hander pitches well there and has lasted at least six innings in 11 starts at Camden, including his past seven.
Chen posted his best outing of the season in that June 6 game at Fenway Park, allowing only one run on seven hits in seven innings. He is coming off his worst outing of the season, however, lasting just 4 2/3 innings while giving up seven runs to the Royals last week.
On Wednesday, Red Sox right-hander Aaron Cook (3-5, 4.70) will face Baltimore's Miguel Gonzalez (4-2, 3.42). Clay Buchholz (10-3, 4.24) will take the ball for Boston in the series finale on Thursday. He will face the Orioles' Chris Tillman (5-2, 3.40).
Besides the struggles of the starting pitchers, who have the fifth-worst ERA in baseball, the Red Sox also are still battling injuries to key players.
It's unknown when David Ortiz, whose OPS at the time of his Achilles strain on July 17 (1.024) was the highest in the AL, will be ready to return. Every time it appears he is close to being activated, the injury does not respond well to his daily workouts and treatments, forcing a longer stay on the DL.
"It's not healing," Ortiz told reporters in Cleveland on Sunday. "I thought I was getting there and it's still sore and I still can't run. I'm doing the best I can with it."
There was also news out of Cleveland on Sunday that Crawford's surgically repaired wrist has been bothering him. He's already dealing with the likelihood of Tommy John elbow surgery during the offseason, and now the wrist is an issue again.
Who knows, maybe the Sox will knock the Orioles back a peg by sweeping the series in Baltimore and using that as a springboard to make a run of their own. Maybe the Sox will get some good news on the injury front and finally get some consistent starting pitching to build on. And maybe the overachieving Orioles' luck will finally run out. The odds say it's bound to happen.
Just don't count on it.