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Powerful Orioles Don't Need Elite Starting Pitching to Get to October

A week ago, a popular view among American League East scouts was that the Baltimore Orioles were a lot more likely to finish fourth than first.

They weren't catching the Toronto Blue Jays or Boston Red Sox. Not with that starting rotation.

They would finish third and would try to sneak into the second wild-card spot. Or they would drop to fourth, with the New York Yankees surpassing them.

One week later, the Orioles are only one game out of first place.

How did that happen?

The same way it has happened all season. The same way it happened Tuesday night, when the Orioles' starting pitcher departed after five innings—and they won.

Five innings is not a quality start. It's not a good start. But when an Orioles starter has finished exactly five innings this season, the O's are an astonishing 20-12.

When an Orioles starter goes five or more innings, the O's are 69-39.

They don't need great starting pitching. They don't need quality starting pitching. They just need their starters to give them a chance, as Yovani Gallardo did when he gave up two runs (one earned) in his five innings Tuesday at Tampa Bay.

Five and fly is fine, because when the Orioles come to bat, the baseballs tend to fly out of the park. They hit another three home runs in Tuesday's 11-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, giving them a major league-high 218 home runs this season.

No other team has hit more than 200.

It was Chris Davis (35th of the season), Manny Machado (34th) and Adam Jones (26th) Tuesday, and Machado's home run was his third grand slam of the season. On another night, it will be Mark Trumbo, who leads the majors with 41 home runs.

No other team this season—and no previous Orioles team ever—has had three players with 30 or more. The Orioles have six players with 20 or more.

They play good defense. They have a good bullpen, with the best closer in the game in Zach Britton and a manager in Buck Showalter who knows how to use his relievers.

Give Showalter a 10-man bullpen, as he has with the ridiculous expanded rosters in September, and he can really work some magic.

It still might not be enough to finish ahead of the Blue Jays and Red Sox. It still might not be enough to hold off the Detroit Tigers, who the Orioles now lead by one game for the final wild-card spot.

But it's as wrong to write off the O's as it has been all season.

For one thing, their rotation has stabilized some. In a telephone interview Tuesday, general manager Dan Duquette credited 25-year-old Kevin Gausman (no runs allowed in 19 innings over his last three starts, and a 2.73 ERA since the All-Star break) and 23-year-old Dylan Bundy, who has been more inconsistent but pitched 5.2 scoreless innings last Friday night against the Yankees.

The rotation should get a boost this weekend, with 15-game winner Chris Tillman expected to come off the disabled list. Ubaldo Jimenez has pitched well in Tillman's absence, with a 2.91 ERA in three starts and the Orioles' first complete game since 2014, but they'll be happy to have Tillman back.

Tillman is hardly a traditional ace. He hasn't thrown a pitch in the eighth inning since June 8. His 3.76 ERA is tied for 34th among qualified major league starters, making him more Ian Kennedy than Jake Arrieta (a former Oriole, of course).

He's not necessarily an ideal candidate for a Wild Card Game start against David Price or Justin Verlander. Then again, the Orioles have won two of the three times Price has started against them this season. And when Tillman and Verlander met in May, it was Tillman and the Orioles who came away with a 1-0 win (thanks to a Jones home run).

The Orioles will see Verlander again Sunday in Detroit, at the end of an important three-game series.

Just about every one of the Orioles' remaining series look big. They go from Detroit to Boston to face the Red Sox, who they'll also see a week later at home. The final week of the season, they go to Toronto and New York.

It won't be easy, but what the Orioles have done so far wasn't easy, either. It wasn't easy, but it is fun, as Machado said (via Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com):

It's fun for them now, and the AL East race is as much fun to watch as ever. And yes, the Orioles are very much still in it.

   

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. 

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

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