Are the Orioles for real? Time for the Blue Jays to find out

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. (Nick Wass/AP)

BALTIMORE — Get ready to see a lot of these Orioles.

Entering play Monday, the Toronto Blue Jays had 54 games remaining – exactly one-third of their season. Of those 54 games, 15 were scheduled against Baltimore, a team that’s legitimately in the American League playoff mix one year after losing 110 times.

So, is this an overachieving young team destined to regress? By dealing away first baseman Trey Mancini and closer Jorge Lopez at last week’s trade deadline, GM Mike Elias tacitly acknowledged that possibility. And objectively the projections agree, with FanGraphs forecasting run prevention issues for Baltimore down the stretch.

But what about the other possibility? The one the Blue Jays got an up-close look at in a 7-4 loss at Camden Yards Monday night? What if the Orioles are… good?

“They’ve got some young, exciting players,” interim manager John Schneider said before the series opener. “Gone are the days where you can say the AL East is all but one.”

“The way I think about it, it’s like, they really don’t have anything to lose,” added starter Kevin Gausman, who spent the first six seasons of his career in Baltimore. “Whereas we do. The pressure’s on us, obviously. We realize that. But we also have to play good baseball.”

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Around the league, opinions differ on whether the Orioles can sustain a .500-plus pace this year.

“No,” one longtime baseball person said. “Not in a thousand years. Then I check the Wild Card standings and the amount of teams that actually try is appalling. Yet, I don’t count the Orioles as trying. I mean, they traded Mancini.”

But as a veteran scout said, there’s no doubt they’re heading in the right direction.

“Nice combination of youth and guys who need to prove their worth to stay in the big-leagues,” the scout said. “That’s normally two motivated groups of players. They’re going to be a real problem in the next few years that division.”

Regardless of where you land on the Orioles — and again, the numbers say they’ve improved, but not to the point of being a real playoff threat — these 15 games will have a significant say in determining the Blue Jays’ placement in the AL Wild Card race.

On Monday, the Orioles were decidedly the better team. Their pitchers limited the Blue Jays to four runs while their hitters made all kinds of hard contact against an ineffective Yusei Kikuchi. With the win, Baltimore closes to within 1.5 games of the final AL Wild Card spot and to within three games of the Blue Jays, who remain the top seed. More than two-thirds of the way through the season, they’re hanging around.

As for Kikuchi, he covered five-plus innings, but allowed six hits while walking three. He topped out at 96.5 m.p.h., so velocity wasn’t an issue, but he generated just seven swinging strikes on 84 pitches. All told, he allowed five earned runs as his ERA climbed to 5.13.

Afterwards, Kikuchi lamented the missed opportunity while acknowledging that he didn’t have his best stuff.

“Each one of those games is going to be very important,” he said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “They’re fighting for a playoff spot.”

“I noticed last year that their lineup was filled with a lot of talented, young players,” he added. “As they get more experience at the big-league level, they’re going to start to play well like they are right now.”

While Ross Stripling’s progressing back from the injured list, he needs to face live hitters or pitch in a rehab setting before returning to the big-league rotation. In the meantime, there’s no doubt the Blue Jays need Kikuchi, and that means accepting the inconsistency he offers from start to start. At this point, there’s no momentum toward a change in role for the left-hander. 

“Not right now,” Schneider said. “We like the progress that he’s made. You get to a certain point in the year and you’ve got to try to win every game, but right now he’s definitely giving us a chance. I think (Monday) was just a couple bad pitches in a row but right now he’s going to keep getting opportunities.”

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Playing at Camden Yards for the first time since the Orioles moved the left field fences back, the Blue Jays managed two home runs, solo shots from Cavan Biggio and Matt Chapman. But Baltimore hit four homers against the Blue Jays, three off Kikuchi and one against reliever Trent Thornton.

“It’s different,” Schneider said of the new dimensions. “This went from being kind of a bandbox to being where you’ve really got to get it to get it out there. It looks far. The wall’s high. The homers are going to be homers and some homers that would have been homers will be fly balls. You’ve got to figure it out and get used to it out there. It’s definitely different than the Camden we’re used to.”

Nor are these the Orioles we’re used to. For the Blue Jays, that makes the prospect of these 14 games a little more uncertain, a little less comfortable.

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