The Orioles' trajectory is not unprecedented. But is their frequency of narrow escapes sustainable?
Of the six clubs who defied run differential logic and punched a playoff ticket, only the 1987 Twins won the World Series. Four of the six teams were bounced from the playoffs before winning a game.
In 2004, the Orioles outscored their competition by 12 runs but finished 78-84, which was good for third in the American League East and was their best finish since capturing the division crown in 1997. In '98 and '99, the O's tallied more runs than their opponents, but finished fourth in the division with a 78-84 mark. This season, Baltimore's Pythagorean won/loss record, which employs run differential to determine a team's fortune, is 77-79.
"I think in baseball, I don't want to say you have to have a little luck, but you have to have a little mojo on your side," said Orioles designated hitter Jim Thome. "You have to be talented. Our bullpen has done a tremendous job, and so have our starters. You can't forget the offense, either. When you play extra innings, you manufacture runs. That's one thing we've done really well."
The Orioles have been at their best in close games. They boast a remarkable 16-2 record in contests that extend into extra innings, and a 27-9 mark in one-run games, the top performance in the league in such affairs. Of their 89 wins, 52 have come by one or two runs.
"The biggest thing is if we get down early in the game, we don't panic," said first baseman Mark Reynolds. "We know somebody's going to step up, and we know at the end of the game if we're winning, our bullpen's going to be there. That's been huge to our success. That's just the way this team's made."
On the other hand, when the Orioles lose, they tend to fall flat. More than one-third of their losses have been by five or more runs, which has skewed their run differential. In August, when they compiled an 18-9 record, 11 of those 18 triumphs came by one or two runs. Meanwhile, the nine defeats came by an average of 5.1 runs per contest.
"One-run losses hurt a little bit more, because there's usually a play here or there that you could've made to avoid it," said Indians closer Chris Perez. "Losing by 10, sometimes it gets away from you. Obviously it's not a sign of a great team, getting blown out a lot. But as long as you can bounce back and win, it doesn't matter."
Cleveland faced a similar predicament in the first half of the season. The Indians sat at 27-23 on June 1, having racked up an 11-9 mark in April and a 16-14 showing in May, despite being outscored in both months.
The Indians began their fade with a 12-15 June. They dipped to 11-15 in July before the bottom fell out in a historically abysmal August. Cleveland went 5-24 during the month and was outscored 179-96.
Baltimore, meanwhile, is battling New York for AL East supremacy. The Yankees embark on a trip to Toronto at 90-65, having placed 112 more runs on the scoreboard than their opponents.
The Angels and Rays, nipping on the Orioles' heels for a Wild Card spot, have outscored their adversaries by 83 and 105 runs, respectively. Run differential has painted the picture of the Athletics' season. At the end of May, Oakland was 22-29 and had been outscored 202-164. Since then, the A's are 66-38 with a plus-116 run differential.
"If you're still winning games and you're still in first place, it doesn't matter if you lose by one run or by 10," Perez said. "As long as you're able to come back the next day and take it as just a loss, you're all right, which we could do early on. But it all caught up in the second half."
The Orioles aren't concerned with their cumulative run differential, only with ensuring that they outscore their opponents on a daily basis. Baltimore is threatening to become the first team in Major League history to win more than 90 games while being outscored. The O's have higher expectations, though.
"It shows resiliency, that's what it is," O's pitcher Tommy Hunter said. "Guys want to win. We had goals coming into the season, we wanted to win. We're doing it."