Hal Bodley

Orioles continue to surprise in AL East

Baltimore holds narrow lead over Boston, Toronto atop division

Orioles continue to surprise in AL East

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Toronto Blue Jays, at least on paper, arguably have the best team in the American League East. The Boston Red Sox, with an improved pitching staff, are coming on fast.

That leaves the surprising Baltimore Orioles, who desperately need pitching help, atop the division by two games as they invade Yankee Stadium on Monday night. The four-game series should answer questions about both the O's and the Yankees.

Are the Orioles, powered by their Major League-leading 141 homers, equipped to remain in front of the Red Sox and Blue Jays during the remaining 72 games? Can O's executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette wrangle a deal for a starting pitcher?

Orioles' midseason moments

Unlike the Red Sox, who landed All-Star left-hander Drew Pomeranz from the San Diego Padres on Thursday, the Orioles lack the quality prospects to swing a deal.

That said, Oakland's Rich Hill is obviously on Duquette's radar. Or even Tampa Bay's Jake Odorizzi, who beat Baltimore on Sunday at Tropicana Field. Few baseball executives are as shrewd as Duquette at pulling off 11th-hour deals.

The non-waiver Trade Deadline is Aug. 1.

And the footnote to this is whether the once-mighty Yankees -- struggling at a game under .500 (45-46) -- can somehow become a contender. How well they play against the O's may be a clue.

Sunday, against the Rays, manager Buck Showalter took a step at improving the Orioles' rotation by starting Dylan Bundy, who'd pitched 38 innings in relief this summer. The fourth pick in the 2011 Draft, the 23-year-old Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and was hampered by shoulder problems last season. He was once one of the most promising young pitchers in all of baseball.

Bundy's first MLB start

The Rays won, 5-2, and all four runs Bundy allowed were the result of homers. Baltimore won the first two games of the series.

After the O's leave Yankee Stadium, they return to Camden Yards to face the Cleveland Indians who lead the AL Central with the best record in the AL. Baltimore's rotation has the third-worst ERA in MLB.

If that rotation can be improved, either within the organization (Bundy?) or with a trade, there's no reason to believe the Orioles can't be a huge factor the remainder of the season.

Plugging in a reliable arm to go with ace Chris Tillman would be the answer. Tillman, who's won 12 of his past 13 decisions including three in a row, leads the O's rotation with a 13-2 record and a 3.29 ERA.

Since 2012, Baltimore has 408 wins, more than any other AL team.

This year, the homers -- Mark Trumbo leads the Majors with 28 -- and relievers Brad Brach and Zach Britton are prime reasons why the Orioles are in first place.

Add to that third baseman Manny Machado, who's having an MVP-type season, and the entire potent batting order.

Britton, the left-hander who saved the AL victory in last week's All-Star Game, is 29-for-29 in save opportunities this season. He recorded his 100th career save on July 10 against the Angels and added two more in the first two games against the Rays.

Britton earns save for the AL

On Friday night in a 4-3 win, Britton shut the Rays down with runners on first and third. He came back to preserve a 2-1 victory on Saturday night, setting them down in order. Britton threw nine of 12 pitches for strikes, easily retiring Logan Morrison and Steven Souza Jr. He got Corey Dickerson for a game-ending groundout.

Britton, 28, took over the O's closer role early in 2014.

After reaching 100 saves, the closer said: "That's a nice little number, but it's more of a credit to the last few years, how well Darren O'Day and Brad Brach have thrown in front of me, and a lot of other guys, too, to put me in a situation to be successful."

"I've said many times the ideal situation for a manager is to have a left-handed closer," said Showalter. "Because there are so few of them, that tells you how hard they are to find.

"When the Yankees had Dave Righetti [who saved 46 games in 1986], he was able to negate left-handed hitters late in the game, because that's who usually comes off the bench. Usually, left-handed closers are able to hold runners and must be really good fielders."

Showalter believes one of Britton's assets "is that he's worked hard at becoming a very good fielder. You have to be, because there are so many chopped balls and topped balls that you have to field -- swinging bunts and all."

Showalter says there may be a game in which the opposition gets a bloop hit, or does something to end Britton's string.

"It can happen," the manager said. "That's the life of a closer. Then, you come back the next day and shut them down."

With a pause and a twinkle in his eye, he added: "It's been fun to watch guys like Brad and Zach."

And to have his Orioles looking down at the others from their lofty position. How long that will last is the unanswered question.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.