MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

5 reasons Orioles are flying high

5 reasons Orioles are flying high

Maybe the Baltimore Orioles are the 2016 version of the Kansas City Royals -- sometimes we focus on all the wrong things. From the first day of Spring Training, plenty of us did not believe the Orioles could make the playoffs for one reason -- starting pitching.

Their rotation's 4.93 ERA is the fifth highest in baseball, and the five teams behind the Orioles have been out of contention for weeks. Problem is, focusing on what the O's don't do well overshadows their strengths. Besides that, Baltimore may have the makings of a solid rotation.

The Royals were like that, but it was only when they ended up in the World Series the past two seasons did we understand what we had missed. Kansas City didn't have great starting pitching, but it more than overcame it with the best defense and the best bullpen on the planet.

The Royals scored runs a different kind of way. They flew around the bases and made contact and delivered when it counted. When the World Series ended last fall, the picture came into focus.

Kansas City had 25 guys who believed in one another and who had each other's back. It was a management team who stayed the course and a manager, Ned Yost, who created a tremendously positive, trusting environment. So the Royals took a different route to winning a World Series. Nevertheless, the trophy sitting in Kauffman Stadium looks pretty darn good just the same.

And it's that same type of environment the Orioles have. Last week, I asked a Major League manager, "Can you explain Baltimore to me?" and he was happy to.

"What they do, they do better than almost anyone."

He went down a list:

1. Bullpen
If Baltimore's bullpen isn't the best in the game, it's close. The 3.05 ERA is second only to the Nationals. The 26 victories are No. 1.

The Orioles have baseball's most dominant closer in Zach Britton, who has converted all 33 save chances, and he has a 0.59 ERA. His stuff is so consistent and so nasty that opposing hitters sometimes seem to have no chance. And the O's have two of the best relief arms in baseball lined up in front of him -- Brad Brach (1.27 ERA) and Darren O'Day (2.45).

Brach, Britton join MLB Central

The Orioles also have manager Buck Showalter, who is methodically constructing a Hall of Fame resume. One of his strengths is managing and maneuvering a bullpen better than almost anyone not named Bruce Bochy.

As much as the O's have leaned on their relievers, not a single one of them is in the top 25 in appearances, and that's important down the stretch. As Jim Leyland often said, "October isn't about the best team. It's about the healthiest team and the most rested team."

So like the Royals, the Orioles shorten games. They're 39-4 when leading after six innings, 47-2 leading after seven and 50-0 leading after eight.

2. Defense
The Orioles might have the best infield defense in the Majors in third baseman Manny Machado, shortstop J.J. Hardy, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and first baseman Chris Davis.

They make all the routine plays and plenty of the spectacular ones. In Machado, we're seeing the emergence of one of the greatest defensive third basemen ever, a suitable heir to the Brooks Robinson legacy in Charm City.

Machado's backhanded stop

Hardy is pretty darn good, too. As Cal Ripken said, "He's as fundamentally sound as any shortstop you'll ever see."

Davis is the one who gets overlooked and who needs to be watched for a string of games to understand how good his defensive game is. As Joe Maddon first preached in Tampa Bay, "You can win a lot of games by not giving outs away." The Orioles worship at that altar.

3. Quick-strike offense
The Orioles lead the Majors with 161 home runs. Mark Trumbo leads with 31. Davis (22), Machado (22) and Adam Jones (21) are in the 20-homer club, and Schoop (17) is close.

The O's are 11th overall in runs (503) and fifth in OPS (.770). Their offense has struggled since the All-Star break, but the starting pitching has gotten better, and maybe that's one of the keys to having a special season. In the end, the pieces have to fit together.

Trumbo's 30th home run

4. Showalter
Showalter is one of the best of his generation -- 1,401 victories, 28th all-time -- and he will probably end up being remembered as one of the best ever. Showalter sets a perfect tone in the clubhouse, he instills confidence in his players, and he runs a game as well as anyone ever has.

5. Leadership
This is part of the reason why the Royals won. They were a close, trusting team that stayed together in good times and bad -- the Orioles have that intangible. It begins with Showalter, but in Jones, Hardy, Matt Wieters and a long list of others, there isn't a better environment in the game. Don't discount the value of this as the O's hit the homestretch against two other good teams, the Red Sox and Blue Jays, in the American League East.

Now, about that starting pitching.

Before the All-Star break, Baltimore's rotation had a 5.15 ERA -- only two teams were worse. Since the break, that number is down to 4.04.

Chris Tillman has a 2.79 ERA in his past six starts. Rookie Dylan Bundy has a 3.00 ERA in four starts since entering the rotation, and he threw seven shutout innings against the Rangers on Monday.

Kevin Gausman is coming off his best start of the year, allowing the Rangers two earned runs in seven innings. Newly acquired Wade Miley made his first start for the Orioles on Thursday night, and he could be one of the keys to a postseason run.

Gausman earns win vs. Rangers

On the other hand, maybe the Orioles are good enough already. They have spent 104 of 124 days atop the AL East, and they are 26-19 against the rest of the division. If they have come this far, they're probably good enough to finish the thing, just like the Royals.

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.