Baltimore Orioles

How are Orioles still alive in AL wild-card race?

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 28: Baltimore Orioles shortstop Tim Beckham (1) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (6) between innings during a MLB game on August 28, 2017, between the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners at Oriole Park at Camden yards, in Baltimore, MD. The Orioles defeated the Mariners 7-6.(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)

How are the Baltimore Orioles almost in position for a playoff spot?

For those who haven’t followed Baltimore’s season — and you’re very much excused if you haven’t because it’s been a roller coaster of mediocrity — the Orioles are 66-65 following Monday’s win against the Seattle Mariners, don’t have a starter on their roster with an ERA+ over 100 except Dylan Bundy, sitting at a cool 103, and still have, as the best hitter on their active roster all season, breakout second baseman Jonathan Schoop with a .305/.351/.537 line through 128 games.

That’s not a bad line. In fact, it’s very good, especially considering the issues Schoop has had in the past with consistency at the plate over a full major league season. But that’s not the line of a team-leading hitter in a playoff chase when the pitching staff has been so poor. That’s only a 135 OPS+. Schoop would be the fifth-best hitter on the Los Angeles Dodgers and the third- or fourth-best on the Washington Nationals (though perhaps he’d get points for being healthy). On the Orioles, he’s pacing the pack, followed by the 128 OPS+ Trey Mancini and the 117 OPS+ Seth Smith.

The Orioles are in striking distance of a playoff spot for two reasons: the first, and overwhelmingly most important, is that the American League wild card race is very, very mediocre. And the teams that lead it — the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, as of Monday’s games — routinely don’t play as if they want to be in the playoffs or as if they should be in the race at all.

The Twins, of course, were the team that traded for Jaime Garcia from the Atlanta Braves, let him start a game, then decided they were no longer buyers at the deadline and dealt him to the Yankees. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and they’re the two clubs slated to meet in the one-game wild-card playoff — for now, of course. The Twins could be replaced by any of five or six American League teams by Wednesday; then by Saturday, they could be right back where they started.

The failure of any pair of American League teams to conclusively grab the ring has a lot of generative points — injuries, the resurgence of the cheap homer offense, how terrible the National League has been this year, leading to some win-padding for any remotely competent AL team. But it’s very real and will continue to be very real up until the season ends, probably with three or four teams still only two or three games out of the second wild card.

Baltimore Orioles' Adam Jones, left, and Chris Davis celebrate after scoring on Welington Castillo's single in the second inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners in Baltimore, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

To an extent, this is why the second wild card even exists — to prolong and exacerbate the playoff race, to get people hyped even when the real prize is just a chance to get obliterated by whoever the No. 1 seed is. Most of the time that hype isn’t legit, but that’s the thing about baseball: Sometimes the No. 1 seed trips over its own layoff and suddenly there’s a wild-card seed bouncing around causing trouble. The 2014 Kansas City Royals showed how dangerous a wild-card team could be, even if they eventually fell short of winning the World Series that year.

The second reason the Orioles are anywhere near the playoff spot rather than languishing down near the bottom of the “still technically eligible” pile of teams with the Toronto Blue Jays is Tim Beckham.

The Tampa Bay Rays, for reasons that remain unknown but likely have something to do with cost certainty, arbitration years and upcoming prospect Willy Adames, dealt the former first-round pick to the Orioles at the deadline for a minor league pitching prospect. Since coming to Baltimore, Beckham has been on a tear, hitting .391/.407/.682 (1.089, 186 OPS+). Chalk this up to any number of things; “blind fate” is a good one, though Beckham repeatedly has said he loves hitting outdoors and hated playing at the Trop. Given that he had over a +.200 OPS split on the road with the Rays as opposed to at home, it’s hard not to take him at his word. Whatever the reason — whether he’s figured something out and is now a premier shortstop in the league or he’s just on a hot streak — Beckham has driven the Orioles offense since the trade deadline. Combined with a very solid August from Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who finally seems to be pitching like a major leaguer, the Orioles have just barely been able to hang on in the playoff race despite inconsistency and disappointment from their middle-of-the-order hitters and fellow trade deadline acquisition Jeremy Hellickson.

Will the Orioles be able to pay this forward? No. Even if they make it to the wild-card game — even if they win the wild-card game — they simply don’t have the roster for a playoff run. And frankly, they won’t even make it that far, in all likelihood. Still, the Orioles remain in the hunt — and if there’s anything baseball has taught us, it’s that so long as a team isn’t eliminated, it’s still dangerous.

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