Stacey Long: The tight-knit AL East

The Orioles squandered their chance to return home a .500 ball club, but more than a month into the season, they are clinging to third place in the American League East, 2 1/2 games behind their weekend opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays. Having played nearly 20 percent of the games on the season, the AL East is tighter than it's been in some time. While it's unlikely the Orioles will be able to hang so close to the division leaders over the entire season, it's certainly a welcome change from years past.

After 30 games in 2010, the Orioles' record was 9-21 and they were already 13 1/2 games out of first place. Their improvement from last year combined with the slow starts of the Rays (who have more than made up for their 1-8 start) and the Red Sox (who haven't) makes this weekend series feel a little more urgent than normal for the Orioles. If the O's sweep, they'll take over second place; if they get swept, they run the risk of falling into last place behind the Blue Jays and Red Sox.

In all honesty, it's more likely the Orioles get swept than sweep, but it's not the foregone conclusion that many might have come to last year. The O's starting pitching has been good (especially by two of this weekend's starters, Zach Britton and Jeremy Guthrie), but the Rays have been better. The Orioles' offense has struggled this year, but the Rays have pretty good numbers. They also have the boon of star Evan Longoria's return from the disabled list, where he's been since the third game of the season. And perhaps the starkest difference between the two teams is the bullpen. The Rays have gotten very good results from their 'pen (despite losing a number of relievers in the off season) and if you've been watching the Orioles, you know the troubles they've had.

It should be a close series, though, especially if the O's bats can wake up. And even though it's only May, it's nice to be able to say that.

Stacey Long blogs about the Orioles at Camden Chat. Read Long's Orioles observations as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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