BALTIMORE -- The Orioles came surging out of the gates, going 14-9 in April, posting a 15-win May and holding their own during a .500 June that featured a brutal stretch of the schedule. For a team that many picked to finish in the American League East cellar this spring, the Orioles -- who are 45-40 and would be a Wild Card team if the season ended at the All-Star break -- have exceeded expectations and look poised to snap a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons.
All things considered, the Orioles' first half went quite well, as the team entered the All-Star break in second place in the AL East, trailing only the Yankees. But with losses in 13 of their last 19 games, the sense remains that if the Orioles are going to keep this up, they are going to have to get better.
"I don't like anything that presents the connotation of being satisfied with not being in first place," said O's manager Buck Showalter, who has his club hungry to play in October and focused on maintaining a game-by-game approach. "We've got to do better. [We've] had some things that we've done well and some things you can't assume are going to happen again. It's very hard, what these guys are doing."
What the Orioles did through their first 85 games is crash the party in the AL East, taking a page from the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays in proving that preseason predictions are little more than bulletin-board fodder.
"Any time somebody is going to count you down or put you where you think you ought to finish, it's nice to prove people wrong, because as a team, you feel like you have the chance to be at the top," said catcher Matt Wieters, who has been vocal since the spring about the Orioles having a realistic chance to make the postseason.
"The thing about baseball is, if you are able to play well and get pretty good pitching, you are able to compete no matter what your payroll, how many All-Stars you have on your team or what not. You can compete with good pitching and timely hitting. So, going into the baseball season, you can never quite pencil in who's going to be there in the end."
MVP: ADAM JONES Signed to a six-year extension, Jones has posted consecutive 20-plus-homer seasons.
Cy Young: JASON HAMMEL Hammel narrowly missed an All-Star selection, and the 29-year-old is having a career year.
Rookie: WEI-YIN CHEN One of the steals of the winter, the 26-year-old Chen has exceeded expectations.
Top reliever: JIM JOHNSON Leads the Majors in saves in his first full season as closer.
If the Orioles are to have a chance, they're going to need a whole lot more good pitching and timely hitting than they've gotten lately. The offense closed the first half marred in a tough three-week stretch with no runs scored in their final 22 innings, and 31 of 32. The lineup is currently without Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold -- who is likely out for the year -- and has been held to single-digit hits in 19 of its last 22 games.
Markakis (right wrist surgery) is expected to return as early as Friday, and he should stabilize a lineup that also added veteran bat Jim Thome at the end of June. The O's could still use a power bat and defensive upgrades -- they lead the Majors in errors -- particularly at the corner-infield positions, with the team's fielding woes the biggest problem for Showalter.
"If I had to pick one thing, which I'm not a big believer in because I think there's a lot of different facets, I think our defense, that's been a challenge for us," Showalter said. "Which directly reflects on the starting pitching. But with our depth, we will shuffle the deck, get some fresh gun powder. We got it with [Chris] Tillman and [Miguel] Gonzalez."
Players to watch in second half
NICK MARKAKIS Expected to be activated immediately after the break, Markakis will try to boost a struggling Orioles lineup.
CHRIS TILLMAN His season debut was impressive, and Tillman could help stabilize an uncertain rotation.
JAKE ARRIETA The Orioles' Opening Day starter, Arrieta needs to get back on track in Triple-A.
Tillman and Gonzalez both had impressive first starts and figure to get at least two more turns through the rotation, with Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen throwing the first two second-half games. The Orioles don't have a fifth starter yet, but Triple-A Norfolk's Zach Britton would be lined up to pitch on Tuesday and is a strong candidate to make his season debut. The O's have also sent three-fifths of their starting rotation down to Norfolk -- Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter -- putting Baltimore in a prime spot to discuss trading for starting pitching.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette -- who already made the in-season trade for Thome -- has said that he has ownership's backing to get the necessary pieces to compete this season, with the emphasis for the Orioles on winning now without sacrificing the future.
"There's some intrigue there," Showalter said of the external options that could be made available in advance of the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31. "We haven't had these type of conversations very often here.
"[Owner Peter Angelos] has been extremely supportive of anything we want to do, and we don't take that confidence he has lightly. We are trying to be smart, too. And don't do anything to damage the ability to have long-term success."
In the more immediate future, the Orioles have a 40-man roster in flux, and Duquette and Showalter are expected to sit down on Wednesday and try to iron out the 25-man team for Friday's second-half opener against the Tigers. Markakis and Taylor Teagarden are nearing returns, and the team will have to decide on a fifth starter -- without any upcoming off-days -- and whittle down a squad that is currently carrying extra position players. The Orioles' bullpen, which has an AL-best 2.75 ERA, will also be closely monitored to keep those pitchers fresh and productive down the stretch.
"The second half is going to be very important," said center fielder Adam Jones, one of three O's All-Stars, along with Wieters and closer Jim Johnson. "Our division is going to get healthy, but we've just got to play our game. We are getting back to full strength ourselves. We just got to maintain what we're doing and play good baseball."