Originally posted on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 4/30/12

The Baltimore Orioles really weren't, and quite frankly, they're still not, expected to be a contender in the American League this season. But here we are on the final day of April, and the Orioles are in first place in the AL East with a 14-8 record. They've got the same record as the Rays, and only the Rangers have a better record in the AL. Baltimore's 3.06 ERA is the second best in the AL, and while their .742 OPS is just sixth, it's still better than all but two NL teams. 

But there is a lot not to like about Baltimore right now. Against the only two teams they've played thusfar that were expected to be contenders this season (Angels and Yankees), they're just 1-5. Three of those games have gone to extra innings, however. But while the Orioles haven't played many preseason contenders, they've played ten games against teams currently at or above .500 that weren't expected to contend this year: six against the Blue Jays, and four against the White Sox. In those ten games, the Orioles are 8-2. Add in a 5-1 record against the awful Twins and curious A's, and that's how you get the Orioles at the top of the division.

But they've got a tall order this week, with a visit to Yankee Stadium on the horizon. New York's season...has been a letdown for what you normally expect from the Yankees. They're 12-9 on the season with an awful 4.49 ERA, and have been powered by a dynamic offense that has a major league leading .833 OPS and 36 homers. With the pitching staff, most of the fault lies in the starting rotation. The Yankees' rotation has an awful 6.08 ERA, which is better than just Minnesota. Yankees starters have allowed an .894 OPS on the season, which is almost too awful to seem true. The Yankees have used a total of five starters this year, and those five starters have the five worst ERAs on the team. Freddy Garcia has led the line of suck with a 12.51 ERA in four starts and 13 2/3 innings, allowing a mind-numbing 31 baseunners. He's lost his rotation spot to reliever David Phelps.

Phelps won't start in this series, and the Orioles get a break by also avoiding Yankees ace CC Sabathia. Game one will see the Yankees send Hiroki Kuroda to the hill, whose New York tenure has been disappointing thusfar. Kuroda has allowed four homers in 24 2/3 innings, striking out 17 and walking eight. He only allowed two runs over 6 2/3 in his last start, but was bested by a dominant Yu Darvish start for the Rangers. The Orioles will send Jason Hammel to the hill, who has been fabulous so far as an Oriole. Hammel has three quality starts in four tries, and missed a fourth by an inning. He's struck out 25 and walked just eight in 26 innings, allowing only one homer. Pretty much, Hammel has been more than Baltimore expected when they acquired him from the Rockies this offseason. Game two will be started by Phil Hughes, who has a 7.88 ERA in 16 innings, but has struck out 17 hitters. His major downfall is the five homers he's allowed so far this season. Hughes will be opposed by Brian Matusz, who has struggled this year. Matusz has 14 strikeouts and 13 walks in 20 2/3 innings this year, but is coming off his best start of the year against the Blue Jays, in which he allowed just a pair of unearned runs in six innings. 

Game three of the series features a pair of young, talented arms. Ivan Nova will start for the Yankees, and Jake Arrieta goes for the Orioles. Nova is 3-0 on the season (because he just knows how to win), and has struck out 25 while walking just five in 24 1/3 innings. Four homers and 36 hits (ouch) have led to a 5.18 ERA and 1.68 WHIP this season, however. He's coming off an 11 hit, six run performance in 5 1/3 innings against the Tigers. The supremely talented Arrieta has been a revelation this season for Baltimore as he's finally healthy. He's struck out 24 and walked nine in 30 1/3 innings, but like Nova, has allowed four homers. Despite Arrieta's 4.45 ERA this season, the Orioles need to be happy with his performance.

On offense, the Yankees have been led by their immortal captain, Derek Jeter. After an awful 2011 season, Jeter is a house of fire thusfar in 2012. He's hitting .396/.440/.593, and leads baseball with 36 hits. He's also tied for third on the team with four homers, which blows my mind. In the outfield, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson have combined for 14 homers, 39 RBI, and 24 walks to be one of the best outfield duos in baseball. Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin have all struggled for New York this year, while the DH/LF platoon of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones (while Brett Gardner is out) has been roughly adequate.

Baltimore's offense has had a lot of surprising players taking hold. Nolan Reimold is leading off for the O's, and has a 1.021 OPS in 15 games. His five homers and two walks would probably be better suited lower in the order, though. Adam Jones, a trade candidate this offseason, has been a monster for Balitmore with a .972 OPS, six homers, and four stolen bases this year. First baseman Chris Davis has done what he does: hit homers (four), and strike out (17). The .953 OPS is wonderful and unexpected, though. Catcher Matt Wieters is evolving into the player that everyone thought he could (finally), OPSing .927 with six homers and fabulous defense this year. One thing about the Orioles offense: they're not overly patient, and they get into strikeout fits every so often. Their 6.7% walk rate is fourth worst in baseball, and their 20.4% strikeout rate is tenth worst. The Yankees on the other hand, have the third best strikeout and walk rates in the game.

This series is going to be very interesting, and will go a long way to determining whether or not the Orioles are contenders or pretenders. After leaving New York, the Orioles travel to Boston for three, then host the Rangers for four, the Rays for three, and the Yankees for two more. That's a pretty hellacious 15 game stretch (including the three in the Bronx), and if Baltimore even goes 5-10, they'd probably be pleased. Hell, a 5-10 mark would keep them above .500 at the midpoint of May, which has to be considered a success for the team.

As for a pick...man, I really don't know. The Orioles got swept in Camden Yards three weeks ago by the Yankees, but played them tough in all three, sending two of the games to extra innings. The Orioles don't face Sabathia like they did in their first series, but will also miss Garcia. I'm going to go on the record and say that the Orioles will win Hammel's start tonight, and that the Yankees will win Nova's start in game three. As for game two...I'm going to predict that the teams combine to score at least 12 runs, and I'll go with the Yankees coming out on top there for a series win.

Photos courtesy of Daylife.com

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