BALTIMORE -- The Orioles, who had five American League All-Stars for the first time since 1997, aren't sneaking up on anybody this season. And largely the same group that advanced to the AL Division Series last year opens the second half on the road, sights set on another playoff berth.
Baltimore -- which last year snapped a stretch of losing seasons dating back to '97 -- closed the first half with a series win over AL East rival Toronto to put them 10 games over .500 (53-43). There is plenty to be optimistic about, but certainly room for improvement -- particularly in the starting rotation -- if the third-place O's are going to stay in the thick of the divisional race.
"It was a W for Baltimore, and that's what it's about," manager Buck Showalter said of his club rolling into the break. "We've got 66 games left? Grinding like heck through the season, all the challenges, and now we've got a chance to roll the dice with 66 games and let's see if we can play in October. That's what it's all about. We've positioned ourselves to have a chance to compete for that opportunity.
Last year's team went on a considerable slide to end the first half, going 45-40 before a 48-29 post-break record secured one of two AL Wild Card spots. Showalter doesn't believe that the experience of playing in meaningful September games is a prerequisite for his club to succeed again, and the O's skipper -- a master motivator -- will have his club in the right mindset starting with Game No. 97 Friday night.
"We didn't have [experience] before last year, and we had the right mentality to compete," Showalter said. "You make your own destiny."
A big piece of the Orioles' first-half success was the team's lineup. Led by an historic run by first baseman Chris Davis -- who has already set new career highs with 37 home runs and 93 RBIs -- the Orioles are tops in baseball in home runs, with four players with 12 or more homers.
|MVP: Chris Davis Arguably baseball's best story already has a career year.|
|Cy Young: Chris Tillman The right-hander has come into his own this season and earned an All-Star trip.|
|Rookie: Kevin Gausman Could be a major factor in the second half of the season.|
|Top reliever: Tommy Hunter Has found a home in the 'pen and earned a late-inning role.|
Davis tied the AL record for homers before the break -- set by Reggie Jackson with Oakland in 1969 -- with his third-inning blast on Sunday. The 27-year-old homered in his past four games to break out of a recent slump and has a .315 batting average.
"It means I can just take the second half off and coast," Davis joked of his remarkable start to the season, which puts him on pace to smash numerous club records and potentially set a new AL home run record.
While the O's first baseman said recently he would have been satisfied with his first-half numbers being his season total heading in, Davis made it clear he has other priorities than individual stats.
"It's a productive year," Davis said of hypothetically being given that line this spring. "Did we go to the World Series? Did we win the World Series? I think that's the ultimate goal. How far did the team go? A lot of guys had productive years last year, but we didn't finish where we wanted to finish."
Center fielder Adam Jones, who also homered in Sunday's series win, is second behind Davis with 19 homers. He was one of three Orioles starters -- Davis and shortstop J.J. Hardy are the others -- at the All-Star Game, representing an Orioles defense that has been nothing short of remarkable. Led by third baseman Manny Machado, an All-Star reserve, Baltimore has put on a nightly display of web gems.
Players to watch in second half
|Brian Roberts What does the veteran still have left in the tank?.|
|Jason Hammel Orioles' Opening Day starter will try to turn things around in second half.|
|Henry Urrutia Expected to be in Baltimore at some point, how much can the outfielder's bat help the Orioles?|
That defense has helped an uneven Orioles pitching staff, particularly in the starting rotation. Baltimore has already used more than a dozen different starters, and if it's going to repeat last year's success, the rotation will have to be improve.
The return of Wei-Yin Chen -- the team's most consistent starter last year -- from a right oblique injury should help, as well as the trade earlier this month to acquire Scott Feldman from the Cubs. Right-handers Chris Tillman -- a late add to the All-Star team -- and Miguel Gonzalez closed the first half on a nice run, and the O's will hope to get Opening Day starter Jason Hammel back on track.
The team's bullpen has picked up a significant amount of innings already this season and the Orioles are shopping around, and the club could potentially add a right-hander before the non-waiver Trade Deadline at the end of the month. If not, Showalter will rely on the same relievers who were magnificent down the stretch for the Orioles last season. Tommy Hunter, who has pitched his way into a late-inning role, had a strong first half, and closer Jim Johnson -- despite a rough patch in which he blew four of five opportunities -- leads the AL with 33 saves.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.