Baltimore's 7-0 start to season is testament of team's winning vibe
By Richard Justice
The Baltimore Orioles trailed early in the game and then again late. Not that it mattered. There's some magic swirling around the Birds these days. Riding the wave, living the dream.
In the end, the Orioles did what they've done every day they've shown up at the ballpark this season. They won. This time, the O's defeated the Red Sox, 9-5, on Tuesday night at Fenway Park to extend their record to 7-0.
Some teams just have a certain vibe, a quiet confidence. The Royals and Giants have it. The Astros seem to have it as well. And there's absolutely no doubt the O's have it -- perhaps more of it than any club except the Royals.
The Orioles have never started a season 7-0 in their 62 years in Charm City.
How? With pitching. Well, mostly pitching. When the O's needed offense on Tuesday, Hardy wrapped a pair of home runs inside the Pesky Pole and drove in five runs.
Baltimore's 2.86 staff ERA is among baseball's best. And pitching was supposed to be the thing that would deep-six the Orioles in 2016.
Yes, it's early.
This core group of Birds has been together for five seasons, and in that time, they've won more regular-season games than any other American League team. They've also committed the fewest errors.
This run coincides with Dan Duquette taking over as the executive vice president of baseball operations. No general manager has done a better job of unearthing talent without spending wild amounts of money.
When a team has won as often as the Orioles, there's a collective ego that is born and strengthened and reinforced within the group. While those of us on the outside evaluate things that can be weighed and measured, the O's see the world a different way.
They believe in one another, and that kind of thing is invaluable in getting a club through tough times. There's no backstabbing or insecurity. Jones, Hardy and the others have been together so long, there's absolute trust in terms of effort, teamwork, etc.
Some of that comes from a manager. And Showalter, who is absolutely brilliant, sweats the small stuff -- sometimes obsesses over the small stuff. No manager is better at building the right environment and convincing his players they can write whatever ending those choose to write.
Showalter would be the first to remind us that it's a player's game, and that whatever the Orioles do this season will be because Jones, Davis and company are the guys who make it go.
On the other hand, some managers have an ability to motivate and reach players in ways others don't. In a season like this one -- when many had the O's penciled in for the bottom of the AL East -- Showalter is at his best.
So is Jones.
"Oh, so we're counting Spring Training games now?" Jones asked a few weeks ago when his team had the worst record in the Grapefruit League.
Jones reminded me politely that paying too much attention to March is silly.
"Let's see what happens when the lights come on," Jones said.
Still, it was tough to believe in the Orioles, who still need a lot of things to fall into place:
1. Could Tillman bounce back from a disappointing season? So far, he has, with a 1.29 ERA.
2. Would Yovani Gallardo fill the hole in the rotation left by Wei-Yin Chen's free-agent departure to Miami? He has been good once and not so good once. Gallardo's track record is solid, so he's at the bottom of Showalter's worry list.
3. Did the organization have quality arms for the third, fourth and fifth spots in the rotation? Ubaldo Jimenez and Vance Worley have a combined 2.31 ERA, and Mike Wright allowed four runs in five innings Tuesday night.
The O's also fretted about their production in left field. That's where Joey Rickard, a Rule 5 Draft pickup from the Rays, comes in. He started hitting in Spring Training and hasn't stopped. Rickard is batting .370. Thank you, Duquette.
There's one red flag. Baltimore's rotation is 4-0 with a 3.74 ERA. But in the seven games, Orioles starters have pitched more than five innings just once.
No one evaluates a baseball team on these first few days. Baseball seasons have a way of exposing every weakness, and that rotation could still be a problem.
But a 7-0 start helps, too. It instills confidence and becomes a building block. And the O's look around the rest of the AL East and don't believe they see a better team.
If young right-handers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy end up churning out quality innings, and if Tillman continues to lead the way, Baltimore could easily end up back in the postseason for the third time in five years.
Perhaps the larger lessons is this group -- from Duquette to Showalter to the players -- has earned the benefit of the doubt. The Orioles have resurrected this sport in one of the country's great baseball cities. They do it with talent, but they also do it by playing the game a certain way -- the right way.
Davis came through in the clutch on Monday afternoon, crushing a three-run home run in the ninth off Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel at Fenway Park in a 9-7 victory. Then on Tuesday, the O's rallied from deficits of 2-0 and 4-2 to win.
In the celebrations that followed both games, it was easy to believe that this could end up being one of those galvanizing moments and that maybe we really have underestimated the Orioles.
We've done that a lot in recent years. We ought to know better by now.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.