You've probably read one of these already this week, but I have to build up a portfolio. Most publications or sites won't even look at your résumé unless you have at least six of those "5 Spring Training Questions" articles, and you need about nine of the "First-Half Surprises" to fit in. So let's get started.
10. The Orioles would have made the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break
Of course! The Baltimore Orioles started the season on fire -- when they beat the Red Sox in 17 innings with Chris Davis on the mound, they moved to 19-9. They've cooled off a little, puttering around .500 in May and June. But they're still in position to make some second-half noise, alright.
9. The Pirates are in first place
Oh, we can't bring up the Orioles without bringing up the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates last made the playoffs in 1992. Even the Orioles have been to two championship series since then, so the Pirates are even more of a surprise. The last time the Pirates finished the regular season over .500, Bryce Harper was a fetus. No one was expecting them to finish over .500 this season, much less lead the division, so this sure is a welcome surprise!
8. The Orioles would have made the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are in first place
Ha, I get it. This is such a surprise it needs to be listed twice. Clever! I mean, not really. But almost!
7. Seriously, look at me. Right in the eyes. The Orioles would make the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are in first place
No, really. We get it.
6. Do you? Do you really understand the implications of this? Because you're being awfully ******* cavalier about this
It's impressive. It's unexpected. But what about the other big surprises? Adrian Gonzalez is a shell of what he used to be. Mike Trout isn't just up and holding his own at 20, he's the best player in the American League. The entire Phillies team is a wreck. The Mets are doing well.
Everywhere you look, there are surprises. That's the point. It's baseball. Baseball is a 10-year-old after Uncle Milt took them to the novelty store and gave him a $20. They have whoopee cushions, hand buzzers, fake vomit, and those ice cubes with fake flies in them. And the only thing that matters is making you look like an idiot. That will make baseball just laugh and laugh and laugh. Never gets old. So it seems excessive to single out two things and run them into the ground.
5. The Orioles would have made the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are in first place
Well, there is something to be said about the longevity of the misery both franchises have had to deal with. It's hard to explain which story is more surprising. The Pirates are the ones in first place, but the Orioles have had to do it in the AL East, where the entire division is .500 or better. Picking between the two is impossible.
Back in February, I wrote this about the Orioles:
Also, if the Orioles win the AL East, I will write The Wire: The Musical with a closing number titled "Just Say No ... No ... Nobody's Gonna Stop Us Now!" that's both uplifting and spectacular. So there's plenty to root for.
Oh. The worst part? Since then, someone actually wrote and produced a Wire-related musical parody, and they got real Wire actors to star in it, so if the Orioles win the AL East, I won't even have the novelty/surprise factor. It'll just be a retread that will take me six months, and no one will care.
Even so, I can't help but root for the Orioles. They probably aren't going to win the AL East, but it's July and it's still something that's possible. It's more likely that they'll contend for one of the wild cards, and that's still something we weren't expecting. It's a surprise, and it's a helluva story.
4. The Orioles would have made the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are in first place
And we all remember that the Pirates were contending in the first half of last year. Then they turned into the Pirates that we all remembered. It was like watching a movie where the protagonist says "BOY, I NEED TO GET THAT LOCK ON THE FRONT DOOR FIXED" in the first ten minutes. You knew what was going to happen. It was insulting.
But do you remember how awful the Pirates were in the second half of last season? They were 25-47. They were outscored by 100 runs. In August -- right after making the decision to kinda sorta acquire players at the trade deadline -- they went 8-22. It was a total debacle. The Mets are contending. No one really expected that. But the Mets were relevant a couple of years ago. It wasn't that long ago that they were bullying other teams around and taking their Johan Santanas. It's easier to grasp.
The Pirates, though? Total cognitive dissonance.
It's still kind of stupid to just keep going back to these two as if it's they're the only surprising things in baseball this year. How about something else to break up the monotony? Come on.
3. Tim Lincecum is awful now.
Wait, wait. Go back to the Pirates and Orioles again.
2. The Orioles would have made the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are in first place
In March, the Orioles lost a game to the Manatee-Sarasota State College of Florida Lancers. That was so perfect. They were going to be the Orioles again. Every league needs an Orioles for the yuks. Instead, we got this, which is even better.
What's the difference between last year and this year for both teams? Last year, the Orioles had all sorts of promising young arms, and those can turn into good young pitchers without any sort of unrealistic alchemy. Then all of the pitchers broke, whether literally or figuratively. This year we didn't expect a damn thing out of the rotation. The Orioles actually hit a little bit last year, so if we knew the rotation was going to have problems just like last year, why would we have expected them to be better?
The rotation has been a disaster, but there are two very important exceptions/additions: Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel. And the Orioles have somehow managed to ride those two close to the deadline, where they can pick up better pitchers, like Wandy Rodriguez or Ryan Dempster.
The Pirates weathered some early offensive misery, and they now have a 95 team OPS+, mostly thanks to Andrew McCutchen getting shot with gamma rays. James McDonald is a fringe Cy Young candidate, A.J. Burnett looks like a fantastic gamble that's paying off, and their bullpen is electric.
Really, the bigger surprise is that neither one of these teams had one of these seasons in the past 15-20 years. Every team has one of these seasons, where a few more things go right than wrong. It's unfathomable that Pirates and Orioles have had to wait so long.
1. The Orioles would have made the playoffs if the season ended at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are in first place
I mean, it's not likely, but can you imagine a Pirates/Orioles World Series? The book or movie for that would make Moneyball look like a six-year-old's diorama of Fever Pitch made with Star Wars figures. Baseball's weird, but baseball's rarely that weird. The odds are completely and totally against such an occurrence. They would be even if both teams were leading their respective divisions by ten games. But it's July, and it's still a dream. That's almost impossible to conceive.
Something that's more likely? Both teams finishing at or over .500. That's an attainable goal. And both of these organizations were designed to be about the long term, anyway. If you had a pie-in-the-sky, unlikely-but-not-ludicrous goal for either team, it would have been to finish at .500 or better. There's still a lot of baseball to play, but it could happen. That's the biggest surprise of all. The ten biggest surprises, even.