The Baltimore Orioles' unofficial second half of the season has gotten off to a strong start.
The Orioles' July 3 victory against the Rangers not only completed a four-game sweep and a 7-4 home stand, but -- combined with the Blue Jays' 4-1 loss at Oakland -- it pulled the O's into a virtual tie for first place in the American League East. The Birds are a season-high seven games better than .500 at 46-39.
The Birds are atop the division for the first time since May 20. And they're in first place later during the season than they were last year; in 2013, the Birds' final day in first was May 10.
For a season during which a lot of things have gone wrong for the Orioles -- such as third baseman Manny Machado's season-opening injury and offensive slump, an erratic starting rotation and first baseman Chris Davis' year-long struggles at the plate -- the Birds have remained in the thick of the postseason race and are now in a share for the catbird seat.
The Orioles' series loss to the Rays June 27-29 -- which marked the 81-game halfway point of the season -- might have served as a wake-up call for the Birds, who vented their frustrations by dominating the injury-ravaged Rangers throughout the four-game set June 30-July 3.
At the end of the series against the Rays, the Birds were having trouble scoring runs at home, even against mediocre starting pitchers. But the offense erupted to life against a threadbare Texas rotation. The Rangers' four starters during the series -- Joe Saunders, Nick Martinez, Miles Mikolas and Scott Baker -- are the kinds of pitchers that good teams should hit hard. And that's exactly what the Orioles did. The O's tattooed those four hurlers for 19 earned runs in 20 innings (8.55 ERA), and none pitched more than 5.1 innings.
There was no shortage of offensive standouts for the Birds during the series, but the list begins with Steve Pearce, who continued his breakout 2014 season. Pearce started all four games of the series in the No. 2 spot and went 7-for-15 with three home runs, five extra-base hits and eight RBIs. He began the series with a two-homer night June 30 and capped it with his first-career four-hit game July 3. He's now batting .338/.397/.618/1.015 during 48 games played.
Other hot hitters for the Orioles during the series included Adam Jones, who homered twice and collected six hits, and little-seen Ryan Flaherty, who posted back-to-back two-hit games July 2 and 3 and clubbed a go-ahead seventh-inning home run July 2. Flaherty, who started the final three games of the series at third base in place of the suspended Machado, made the most of his opportunity to play.
The Birds' bullpen continued its stalwart work, as well. The relief corps allowed one run in 11.1 innings (0.79 ERA) during the series. Bullpen workhorses Darren O'Day and Zach Britton combined to make six appearances, retiring 19 of the 21 batters they faced to lock down the games in the late innings.
Starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez earned his first home victory of the year with a dominant eight-inning performance June 30, and T.J. McFarland picked up his first big league win as a starter the next night, pitching five solid innings during a spot start.
Whether it was because of their banged-up opponent or because they're finding their groove, the Orioles seemed to click during the series. They'll need to sustain that hot play, though, because their schedule presents a challenge in July. Beginning with a trip to Boston July 4, the Orioles will play 15 road games during a 20-game span through July 27. That includes a daunting 10-game West Coast road trip coming out of the All-Star break, which will pit the Orioles against the three best teams in the AL West: the Athletics (currently a majors-best 51-33), the Angels (47-36) and the Mariners (47-38). That's tied for the Orioles' longest road trip of the year.
The schedule also doesn't do the Orioles any favors on Independence Day, when they're slated to play a 1:35 p.m. game in Boston immediately coming off their July 3 night game in Baltimore -- which itself was delayed an hour by rain and didn't end until after 11 p.m. Manager Buck Showalter spoke after the game about the Orioles' transportation difficulties, saying that the O's likely wouldn't be able to take a flight out of Baltimore until about 3 a.m. at the earliest -- which would land them in Boston just hours before first pitch. Showalter suggested that the Birds might have to take a train or a bus instead.
However they get there, though, the Orioles will arrive in Boston July 4 as the front-runners in the AL East. That's a position they'll be hoping to hold on to for the rest of the 2014 season.