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O's enjoying stellar season despite key injuries

Baltimore bands together to move past hard-luck injuries to Wieters, Machado

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O's enjoying stellar season despite key injuries play video for O's enjoying stellar season despite key injuries

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles have been here before.

No, not 8 1/2 games up in the American League East, which is where they stood entering Tuesday -- the club's biggest division lead since September 1997. With a 79-57 record and the numbers to back it up, it looks like Baltimore has had a year when everything has gone right.

Except it hasn't. All-Star and Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters was finished after 26 games, undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in June, and just-as-decorated third baseman Manny Machado, who missed the first month of the season, had a freak injury last month that resulted in the second season-ending knee surgery of his young career.

The O's, who played 2012 largely without Brian Roberts, are no stranger to absorbing devastating late-season injuries in the middle of a pennant push. Think anyone in the home dugout at Camden Yards forgets watching Nick Markakis take a fastball from the Yankees' CC Sabathia off his left thumb on Sept. 8, 2012?

"Still bothers me," manager Buck Showalter said Monday, remembering the season-ending broken finger that Markakis suffered. "You don't ever say, but that was as big of a kick in the you-know-what as anything in that situation. But it also kind of reminded us how fleeting it all can be in a day's time. Whether it's Wieters or [Steve] Pearce or it's Manny. Game doesn't stop. It goes right on."

So how have the Orioles, who are 63-47 without Wieters and 32-22 without Machado, been able to move on? For starters, there's the incredible season of Nelson Cruz, who has 36 homers and 90 RBIs. But there's a lot more to the first-place club than that.

Unsung heroes

When Wieters went down, rookie Caleb Joseph joined the team, making for a nice story in light of the 28-year-old's long Minor League journey. But he's been much more than a feel-good promotion, splitting duties with Nick Hundley, who was acquired in a late May trade from San Diego, and doing an impressive job at that. Both guys are capable of going deep -- Hundley tied Monday's 6-4 loss to the Twins with a three-run homer and Joseph had a five-game home-run streak earlier this season -- but their defense has been what's most lauded. Showalter has smartly played matchups with Hundley, as he has with right-hander Chris Tillman in the rotation, for maximum success.

"Each person knows their role on the team and not one person is asked to do more than they are capable of doing," Joseph said. "The biggest thing has been to try to move responsibilities around when people go down, [and] some other people need to pick it up. But there's really been no panic button on this team."

The O's role players have come from everywhere and none has been bigger than Pearce, who has earned a regular role at first base after Chris Davis moved to take over for Machado at third.

"He damn near single-handedly kept us afloat in June as a team," center fielder Adam Jones said of Pearce, with whom he shared American League Player of the Week honors in July. "He was leading the team. You can say myself, Markakis, Cruz had good Junes as well, but the one guy who did who is not going to get as much attention is Pearce. He stepped up big time for us."

Pearce, who has been out for a few days with an abdominal strain, has watched his fill-in, Jimmy Paredes, turn in a similarly stellar performance. And then there's Delmon Young, who is batting near .300 and giving the team some of its better at-bats.

Pitching, pitching, pitching

It was no coincidence that the rotation's turnaround in late June happened at the same time the Orioles got hot. But it's been even more impressive without Wieters behind the plate. Baltimore entered Monday with a 3.58 team ERA, which would be its lowest in a full season since 1979.

The rotation of Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman had plenty of people around baseball questioning if the O's could pitch well enough to hang with their opponents. With the help of new pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, they've exceeded expectations and shown an ability to eke out the close ones. Baltimore is 27-19 in one-run games and 12-5 in extra innings.

"The way Buck has constructed the team, it breeds confidence and you feel it," Joseph said. "Ultimately, I think a lot of it has to do with the pitching. They've carried us. We've lost key offensive members and our pitchers have really stepped up to keep us in games."

Beyond the starters, the bullpen has been among baseball's best, with first-year closer Zach Britton recording 31 saves and being part of a formidable late-inning team with right-hander Darren O'Day and lefty Andrew Miller.

Master roster maneuvers

Getting Miller from Boston at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline was a product of the Orioles' brain trust, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter have made smaller moves to help keep things moving in the right direction. The Miller trade, which cost them prospect Eduardo Rodriguez, was followed by a pair of deals after the Deadline that added infielder Kelly Johnson, also from Boston, and outfielder Alejandro De Aza from the White Sox.

The O's, who acquired Paredes twice and designated Pearce for assignment before re-signing him as a free agent in late April, try to take advantage of every edge the roster rules afford, including optioning starting pitchers before the All-Star break to add position players, an advantage they used again a game prior to September callups.

"Showalter, the magician of the roster, is finding some way to option Wei-Yin for four days and bring someone up because he's not going to pitch?" Jones said. "I would never think of things like that. But the manipulator of the roster knows what he's doing."

The Oriole Way

Showalter and Duquette also know the value of clubhouse chemistry, and every time you talk about the team's personality, certain names are bound to come up: Markakis, Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy.

"When you're unsure as a rookie how to respond to, say a sweep in Chicago, you kind of look to the guys who have done it before," Joseph said. "Through a long season, you are going to have moments like that, where you just sit back and watch how they approach wins and how they approach losses and try to emulate that. ... They are all steady, all three of them."

The Orioles, who have not lost consecutive home games since June 28-29, have had just one losing road trip and have avoided long lulls. It's a testament to the team's personality as much as its effort over the grind of a 162-game regular season.

"That's the best way to explain it -- we've got a lot of guys with heart, and all of our minds are in one direction about where we want to get and what we want to accomplish," Markakis said. "We are hard-headed baseball players. We are stubborn and good at what we do. And we all play together, it doesn't matter if we are missing one, two or three players, we are still going to go out there and do what we need to do to win games."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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