Play­off spot on the line, O’s must put pieces to­gether

In a tight wild-card race, five fac­tors will be the key in bid for post­sea­son berth

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jon Me­oli

The Orioles led the Amer­i­can League East for much of the sea­son and had long ap­peared to have a stran­gle­hold on at least a wild-card spot, but all that mat­ters is the state of things at the end of the sea­son.

The Orioles, while now on the play­off bub­ble, find them­selves in as good a spot as any of those other bub­ble teams with a week left in the sea­son.

Their six-game road trip to Toronto and New York be­gins with the Orioles hold­ing a 2-game ad­van­tage over the Detroit Tigers for the sec­ond wild card, and with three chances to close a gap on the wild card-lead­ing Blue Jays. AL WILD CARD Toronto Orioles Detroit Seat­tle* Hous­ton* 86-70 85-71 83-73 82-73 82-74 +1 — 2 21⁄ 3

The math is rel­a­tively sim­ple. As long as the Orioles keep win­ning, their sea­son won’t end Sun­day, thanks to the cush­ion built by spend­ing most of the sea­son atop the di­vi­sion and in a play­off spot.

That’s eas­ier said than done, con­sid­er­ing the task ahead, but man­ager Buck Showal­ter said over the week­end there was some small so­lace in that knowl­edge.

“There’s some­thing to be gained by

win­ning ev­ery game you play,” Showal­ter said.” There’s some­thing to be lost by ev­ery game you lose. Still, [I’m not] look­ing at all the things you shoulda, woulda, coulda done to make it a lit­tle eas­ier. I look at all the things our guys have done to have this op­por­tu­nity.”

Herearethe­five fac­tors that will de­ter­mine whether they re­turn home from New York on Sun­day dis­ap­pointed or leave Yan­kee Sta­dium with a post­sea­son berth. Can they over­come their start­ing pitch­ing de­fi­cien­cies in Toronto?

This one will be an­swered rel­a­tively quickly. Kevin Gaus­man gets the start tonight in Toronto, where on July 29, when he last pitched there, he al­lowed three home runs in the first in­ning of an even­tual Orioles loss.

Af­ter Gaus­man, it’s Chris Till­man on Wed­nes­day, with Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Mi­ley and Yo­vani Gal­lardo all avail­able for Thurs­day. Com­bined, those five have al­lowed 22 earned runs in 252⁄ in­nings at Toronto, with what Showal­ter called some “stinkers” weigh­ing down those col­lec­tive num­bers. At one point or an­other, the Blue Jays have teed off on pretty much ev­ery Orioles starter at Rogers Cen­tre.

Showal­ter said he’d be weigh­ing a lot of fac­tors that go into the de­ci­sion for the third starter of that se­ries. Are the starters all healthy?

Health is rel­a­tive when it’s the end of Septem­ber and pitch­ers be­gan in Fe­bru­ary throw­ing a base­ball as hard as they can ev­ery five days. But just how lim­it­ing are some of the Orioles starters’ phys­i­cal prob­lems?

Gaus­man says he’s fine af­ter what was de­scribed as the be­gin­ning of an in­ter­costal mus­cle prob­lem in his rib cage area, and he came through a bullpen ses­sion well since that con­cern cropped up last week. Till­man’s shoul­der bur­si­tis, which lim­ited him for most of Au­gust, hasn’t been a con­cern of late, but Showal­ter waited to de­clare him Wed­nes­day’s starter un­til af­ter he took a bullpen ses­sion be­cause prob­lems he had with his me­chan­ics in his last start Thurs­day.

Showal­ter of­ten at­tributes a say­ing to pitch­ing coach Dave Wal­lace that the team with the fresh­est pitch­ers in Oc­to­ber is the one that wins. That wouldn’t be the Orioles this year. How will the bullpen be used?

With the re­turn of Dar­ren O’Day and the hot streaks of re­liev­ers My­chal Givens and Brad Brach (one earned run al­lowed by each in Septem­ber), Showal­ter’s late-in­ning op­tions to bridge a vic­tory to closer Zach Brit­ton are plen­ti­ful. Three of the team’s past four wins have fea­tured stel­lar re­lief be­hind a short start. But rest for the bullpen might be­come a prob­lem.

So of­ten this year, Showal­ter has stayed away from his top re­liev­ers when the Orioles were be­hind, in­stead opt­ing for a long re­liever.

In Septem­ber, he’s had ex­panded ros­ters to cover those games. But will there be games when he goes to a more re­li­able Kevin Gaus­man will start tonight against the Blue Jays. He says he feels good af­ter a mus­cle prob­lem in his rib cage area. The last time he pitched in Toronto, he al­lowed three home runs in the first in­ning. pitcher to keep it close and give the of­fense a chance? Will that af­fect what they have avail­able when there’s a lead to pro­tect? It’s un­likely much will change in the last week of the sea­son, but if the Orioles are pulling out all the stops, this is one way to turn around a los­ing sit­u­a­tion. Who is go­ing to carry the team of­fen­sively?

Of course, that all stems from the the­ory that the of­fense can turn it around. They did Fri­day, eras­ing a late deficit in an ex­train­nings win over the Ari­zona Diamondbacks, but this hasn’t been an of­fense ca­pa­ble of strik­ing quickly or ter­ri­bly of­ten.

In Septem­ber, the Orioles are bat­ting .229 with a .717 OPS while av­er­ag­ing 4.2 runs per game. They’re near the top of the league this month with 36 home runs, but as has been the case for most of the sec­ond half, ev­ery­thing else is slip­ping.

Many play­ers are slump­ing this month, most no­tably sec­ond base- man Jonathan Schoop, who’s bat­ting .156 in Septem­ber. It con­tin­ues to be boom-or-bust for right fielder Mark Trumbo, first base­man Chris Davis and des­ig­nated hit­ter Pe­dro Al­varez. Will the rest of the league co­op­er­ate?

It’s not all on the Orioles, though they can go a long way to help their own chances.

Among the teams chas­ing them for a wild-card spot are the Tigers, the Seat­tle Mariners and the Hous­ton Astros.

With three games this week in Hous­ton against one an­other, the Mariners and Astros will be play­ing for high stakes. Seat­tle fin­ishes up with four games against the lowly Oak­land Athletics, while Hous­ton fin­ishes with three games in Los An­ge­les against the Angels.

Detroit has four games at home against the Cleve­land In­di­ans, who have clinched the AL Cen­tral but are still play­ing for home-field ad­van­tage in the play­offs. The Jonathan Schoop, who’s bat­ting .156 this month, is one of sev­eral slump­ing Orioles bat­ters. Tigers fin­ish the sea­son at At­lanta for the Braves’ fi­nal three games at Turner Field.

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

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