Peter Schmuck: Orioles' chance to be a playoff team suddenly doesn't seem so wild -

Peter Schmuck: Orioles’ chance to be a playoff team suddenly doesn’t seem so wild

Photo Credit: James A. Pittman USA Today Sports


Even as the Orioles were losing another series to the New York Yankees over the weekend, the song remained the same.

For the first time during the Mike Elias era, this is a team that cannot be overlooked by any opponent, even though it is yet to escape the American League East cellar. This is finally a team that has something to play for, even if the odds still seem stacked against a place in the newly expanded playoff format.

In other words, this is finally a team with a future that’s more than a fantasy.

It would have been nice if the O’s had completed that late-inning comeback on Friday night and put some runs on the board on Sunday, but the winningest team in either league left town knowing they had been in a fight. The wild-card-eligible Tampa Bay Rays showed up just in time for the offense to reawaken and defeat two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber on Monday night.

The Orioles continue to make their case against some of the top playoff contenders. Just ask the first-place Minnesota Twins, who won a three-game series early this month with a couple of ninth-inning walkoffs but were outplayed for 25 of the 27 innings in their home ballpark.

Just ask anybody. Pretty sure the Rangers, Angels and Cubs noticed that there was something different about this club while they were getting swept in consecutive series during the uplifting 10-game winning streak that carried the Orioles past the .500 mark for the first time this season.

Getting back to competitive sea level once seemed like a lofty achievement, but they now have a decent chance to put .500 in the rear-view mirror and climb out of fifth place over the next couple of weeks.

If grudging respect was all they were looking for, they could put a “Mission Accomplished” banner up on the Warehouse right now.

“I think these teams know,’’ manager Brandon Hyde said. “Talking with other coaches and players on other clubs, I think we’re a tough team to play. I think teams know how hard our guys play. They know what our bullpen is like, so getting an early lead is important. I don’t think we’re surprising anybody now.”

Of course, that’s not the ultimate goal. The Orioles didn’t strut around their clubhouse after Friday night’s 7-6 loss congratulating themselves for making it close. They came back from a three-run deficit on Saturday and got the job done in exciting fashion. It might have looked better losing the way they did in that series opener than getting shut out in the finale on Sunday, but losing is still losing and losing to the Yankees – as good as they are this year – is never going to be badge of courage.

“Sure, that [respect] is something you want,’’ said first veteran first baseman/designated hitter Trey Mancini, “but especially since we’re right around .500, you want to win those games. There’s no consolation prize really, when you lose a major league baseball game. That’s the goal at the end of the day.”

The 10-game winning streak drove home the point that this team is no longer just a hapless patchwork of waiver castoffs and medium prospects, but the Orioles have been playing solid baseball for much of the last three months and it has not gone unnoticed around the league in spite of the fact that they are still looking up at the rest of the AL East.

“It’s just a really good division,” Mancini said, “and we’ve made big improvements this year. I don’t think any team in this division has ever really taken us lightly, because every game matters. But especially now, where our team has improved to the point where I don’t think anybody looks forward to playing us. So, we just want to go out and compete like we have been.”

The Orioles reached the All-Star break on an 11-4 July roll. Now, they’re four games into a pivotal month-long stretch that includes 16 more games against the Orioles’ other three division rivals. How they fare over the next week, in particular, might determine whether they establish themselves as a legitimate wild-card contender and give Elias pause before the upcoming trade deadline.

The spiraling Red Sox seem ready to step back and allow the O’s to climb out of last place right before they hit one of the softest stretches in baseball’s toughest schedule. After the Rays leave town on Thursday, the Orioles have nine games against the Reds, Rangers and Pirates — all teams with decidedly sub-.500 records — before wading into that difficult stretch inside the division.

When that kind of opportunity knocks, outfielder Austin Hays thinks that the Orioles are positioned well to take advantage and maybe parlay it into a playoff berth that would have been unimaginable a month into this season.

“When you have a pitching staff like we have and you have the ability to play defense like we do on the infield and the outfield, all it takes is timely hitting,’’ Hays said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in our lineup who can hit the long ball, who can steal bases. We grind out at-bats against bullpens late in the game. We score a lot of runs late in the late innings, so it comes down to that question…’Why Not?’”

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