In victory, Orioles find much to celebrate
After April of adversity, Baltimore showing signs of making run at AL East
The Baltimore Orioles only won one game on Friday night, so it would be silly to draw a bunch of conclusions. Still, it felt significant. That's something that happens during a six-month season. There are victories, and then there are victories that symbolize a world of possibility.
Here's what the Orioles could take back to their Minneapolis hotel after a 3-0 victory over the Twins:
• They are inching toward being whole again. J.J. Hardy is at shortstop, Manny Machado at third. If this isn't the best left side of an infield in baseball, it's at least in the conversation. Once first baseman Chris Davis returns from a left oblique strain, the O's lineup could be even better than the one that had the fifth-highest scoring offense in baseball last season.
As center fielder Adam Jones reminded MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli, good teams persevere through injuries, and the Orioles have done that. Still, for the O's to win the American League East -- and it looks like they might -- these guys will almost certainly be huge contributors.
• Machado? He was one of the five best players in the AL last season. Machado might have been the best defensive player in the game, and he led the AL with 51 doubles. Only 21, he's going to be one of the faces of baseball for years to come, and in Charm City, he's a dazzling star.
• Ubaldo Jimenez pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings for his first victory with his new team. He had a 6.59 ERA in five April starts, but he was lights out against the Twins, throwing his fastball for strikes and mixing in enough sliders and splitters to keep hitters off-balance.
Orioles general manager Dan Duquette signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract, knowing there could be periods of frustrating inconsistency. But he also knew that when Jimenez is good, he's as good as anyone. There are very few questions about these O's, but Jimenez is absolutely critical in adding depth and quality to the rotation behind No. 1 starter Chris Tillman.
• Duquette's other big-ticket acquisition, Nelson Cruz, continued his nice start with his eighth home run. Only Jose Abreu (11) and Albert Pujols (nine) have more in the AL.
• O's closer Tommy Hunter saved his eighth game to tie John Axford for the AL lead. He was one of the unknown quantities about these Orioles. Hunter began the season with four career saves, and he got the job in the post-Jim Johnson era after Baltimore opted out of a deal with free-agent closer Grant Balfour.
So far, so good. Hunter has made good on eight of nine save chances, and with manager Buck Showalter doing his usual terrific job playing the matchup game and balancing the workloads in front of him, Hunter looks like a long-term solution.
• One other teensy matter. The O's (15-12) are in first place in the AL East. Yeah, that happened Friday, too. Sure, it's only May, but Baltimore has won 13 of 20 and methodically climbed the ladder.
In a division race that looks different every 48 hours or so, the Orioles believe they're going to finish first, and is there a team you'd definitely pick to finish in front of them? The Rays and Yankees have been hit hard by injuries. The Red Sox are fighting to get their mojo back.
So why not Baltimore? Don't question the Orioles, at least not around the O's. That confidence is what happens to a club with a great manager, a manager who instills confidence in his guys, fights like crazy for them and organizes a roster and runs a game as well as anyone.
That's also what happens in a clubhouse with Jones, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Hardy and a bunch of guys who trust and respect one another and who've been through plenty together.
In a city that loves its baseball team, this is the kind of group that's easy to root for, and perhaps just as important, easy to respect in terms of work ethic, preparation and competitive fire.
Here's something else about these Birds. In Duquette, the Orioles have a general manager who is as aggressive and creative as anyone in finding talent in unexpected places.
Duquette is hopeful that Johan Santana will make a contribution at some point, but that's a discussion for another day. For now, the O's will show up for work today in first place and feeling pretty good about things.
When they got off to a 2-5 start, some of us -- harumph -- tried to draw larger conclusions.
"I get it," Jones said. "The media needs a story. The media needs results. But in this room, we know what's happening. We're having good at-bats. We're going to be fine."
They indeed are fine, and they might end up being way more than that. Hats off to the first-place Birds.
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.