Orioles could be ready to take over AL East

The Baltimore Orioles are an easy team to warm up to. For starters, their clubhouse is the closest thing in the majors to a Chuck E. Cheese's franchise. When players aren't killing time before games playing ping-pong or pool, they gravitate to a miniature putting green just inside the front entryway and try to channel the Bubba Watson within.

Cal Ripken Jr. used to vault the Metrodome stairs in intervals of seven or eight steps and spring from behind columns to wrap unsuspecting teammates in headlocks; the new breed of Oriole gravitates to a more traditional form of adolescent entertainment.

That team-wide competitive streak is manifested on the field, where the O's keep soldiering away through injuries and underperformance from some pivotal players. They're 46-39 and leading Toronto by one percentage point in the American League East even though catcher Matt Wieters is out for the year after having Tommy John surgery, Manny Machado has suffered through some growing pains in and out of the batter's box, J.J. Hardy has two home runs in 294 at-bats, they lack an ace in the rotation, and Chris Davis' .207 batting average and .398 slugging percentage are spawning all sorts of "What's wrong with Chris Davis?" articles.

Steve Pearce, who played for four organizations in 2012 before finding his niche in Baltimore, is a terrific story. Catcher Caleb Joseph, a 28-year-old rookie who used to sleep in the clubhouse when he was playing Class A ball for the Frederick Keys, is a terrific story. And while Nelson Cruz's comeback from a Biogenesis suspension and free-agent compensation purgatory might make his pursuit of 40-50 home runs a lot less heartwarming, he's been baseball's premier bargain at $8 million.

Nick Markakis quietly keeps churning out singles and doubles on his way to career hit No. 1,500, and center fielder Adam Jones' paltry walk totals can't obscure his commitment and the strides he has made to become a superb all-around player and team leader for the O's.

Jones made that readily apparent when I spoke to him for a recent story on the development of Machado. "The good thing for him is, he has me here to put my foot in his a-- to make sure he's the best player he can be," Jones said, matter-of-factly.

So in the final inventory, the Orioles have resilience, balance, a prime-time manager in Buck Showalter, the second highest home run total in the majors and a wonderful opportunity stemming from their residence in a very mediocre version of the AL East this season. Can they finally take care of business and parlay it into a playoff berth?

The O's caught a break Thursday night when Texas held back scheduled starter Yu Darvish because of inclement weather and started Scott Baker instead. It wasn't easy, but they ground out a 5-2 win to catch the Blue Jays, who lost 4-1 in Oakland.

It's been a weird ride for the Orioles from the outset. They've beaten the Yankees twice with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound and own victories over Jon Lester, Sonny Gray, Justin Verlander, David Price and Mark Buehrle. Conversely, Danny Duffy spun a perfect game against them for 6 2/3 innings and they were manhandled by Boston's Brandon Workman. There have been times when they've pitched and haven't hit, and vice versa.

If there's an obvious void with this team, it's the lack of a true No. 1 starter. Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kevin Gausman and T.J. McFarland (who's made one start) are a combined 33-27 with a 4.13 ERA. They've logged the 12th heaviest workload among the 15 AL rotations and rank 14th in strikeouts.

"I think they're a pitcher away -- I really do," said a National League scout who follows the Orioles. "They have guys who can get you to the playoffs, but in a five- or a seven-game series you need an ace you can count on who'll get you that W. If they're able to go out and get a really quality guy, I would put my money on them."

But who? Price and Jeff Samardzija are the only two starters who appear to fit the description, and it's beyond far-fetched to see Tampa Bay trading Price to Baltimore even if the Rays decide to move him. That's not the only reason the Orioles will be challenged to upgrade the rotation:

• The Orioles binged last winter with a four-year, $50 million deal for Jimenez, who has been puzzling at best and a drag on the team's ambitions at worst. He's allowed a league-high 54 walks and is 1-6 with a 5.29 ERA at Camden Yards.

So it might be a hard sell for Dan Duquette, Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations, to go to owner Peter Angelos and tell him the Orioles need to pursue a front-of-the-rotation starter because the guy they hoped would fill that role hasn't pitched up to expectations.

• The Orioles also don't have a lot of chips to trade. Baltimore has four top-shelf young pitching prospects in Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Eduardo Rodriguez and Hunter Harvey -- son of former All-Star closer Bryan Harvey -- and Duquette is going to try to avoid parting with any of them at all costs.

Could he pursue Jason Hammel, who already pitched in Baltimore, or Brandon McCarthy, who can probably be acquired for a more reasonable price and has a groundball-to-fly ball ratio that might translate nicely to Camden Yards? Perhaps. Or maybe the Orioles hope Gausman takes off after the All-Star break and Bundy can return from Tommy John surgery and be a weapon out of the bullpen. If not, Duquette might try to add depth from the back end with another veteran reliever.

One thing the Orioles don't lack for is chutzpah. Since their playoff season of 2012, they're 29-18 against Boston and 22-21 vs. the Yankees. Two weeks ago they suffered a potentially devastating loss in New York when closer Zach Britton gave up a walkoff homer to Carlos Beltran in the ninth inning. Then they went out and steamrolled the Yankees by a combined score of 14-1 in back-to-back victories to win the series.

Boston and New York are uncharacteristically vulnerable this season and Tampa Bay, despite its recent run of success, is still a long shot to make the postseason. For those who like to play this game, the Rays have to go 52-22 the rest of the way to finish with 90 wins -- a total that would likely put them in the mix for some kind of playoff spot.

For the Orioles and Blue Jays -- two flawed teams with aspirations -- it might come down to health, a front office move or two, a surprise contribution here and there and the simple act of believing.

"I like this team," Jones said. "I like the balance we've got, and I like the swag. We can always add a little bit more arrogance. That's what I like about Oakland. Nobody knows them. But they have that little arrogance that says, 'We're glad you don't know us. But you're about to.' I see that coming with us."

If the Orioles plan on making the playoffs for only the second time in 17 seasons, that touch of arrogance and a run of more consistent baseball can't come soon enough. Opportunities like this don't come along very often in the AL East.