Improving Orioles, Jays make AL East hyper competitive

Teams in the American League East haven’t been bunched this tightly this late since 1994. Going into Friday night, the first-place Boston Red Sox and last-place Baltimore Orioles were six games a part.

The division is not known for parity, but it has it this year.

The Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are better. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have struggled with pitching. The Tampa Bay Rays are pitching, but have trouble scoring.

Here’s a look:

* A year ago, the Orioles were the worst team in baseball. The Orioles went into Friday night two games under .500. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are candidates to make the All-Star team, and J.J. Hardy is going to be a steal of a trade assuming he stays healthy. Nick Markakis’ slump has been puzzling, but maybe his grand slam Friday night will get him moving. And, the young pitching is making strides, which is what this season is all about.

* In 2010, the Blue Jays were too reliant on the home run. They came into this season wanting to manufacture runs to compliment Jose Bautista’s power. They’ve done that: The Blue Jays’ 59 steals having already surpassed last year’s total. They are tied for second in the AL for hits (580) after finishing 10th last season. They have the third-best on-base percentage (.334) after ranking 12th last season (.312). And, their team average (.265) is 17 points higher than it was at the end of last season.

* The Yankees are getting by with a thin rotation. CC Sabathia is fine, but will Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova be able to hold up the back end of the rotation? And, A.J. Burnett can’t beat the Red Sox. The bullpen is thin, too, especially with two setup guys, Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain, on the disabled list. Chamberlain, who has a 2.83 ERA, will have reconstructive elbow surgery.

* Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said that he thought this could be the year the Rays were left out, especially after losing six relievers as well as Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett. But, the Rays have their typically strong rotation, and the bullpen has been surprisingly good with Kyle Farnsworth, of all pitchers, holding down the closer’s role. The tight-budget Rays have prospects to trade and money to spend to help their roster before the July 31 trade deadline.

* Fueled by their second sweep in a month at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox went into Friday 10 games over .500 for the first time this season. The Red Sox have pitching questions, however. Clay Buchholz has an ailing back. John Lackey has to prove he has command and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield remains in the rotation. And, they could use another lefty in the bullpen. But, David Ortiz is cranking, Dustin Pedroia’s ankle is fine and Jacoby Ellsbury might be the best leadoff batter in the AL.