Looking back and ahead

BOSTON - I sensed more panic coming from Orioles fans on Saturday after the club's Game 1 loss to the Red Sox. The sky was falling, and manager Buck Showalter was getting buried for his bullpen decision.

The Orioles ended up winning Game 2, and they took the series with yesterday's 12-inning victory. They're in first place by two games over the Blue Jays in the American League East. They're eight games above .500 for the first time since the conclusion of the 2013 season.

The sky isn't falling. Dark clouds just happen to roll in on occasion.

This team is flawed. Show me one that isn't, and especially in the division.

The rotation remains a concern, though there are stretches when quality starts are strung together like beads. Chris Davis is batting .201. The bench doesn't offer much pop, especially with Steve Pearce now a regular in the lineup.

And yet, the Orioles are in first by two games and are eight games above .500 and plenty of teams would trade places with them.

J.J. Hardy has hit only two home runs, but he's batting .290 and continues to deliver in the clutch. He broke a 6-6 tie in the 12th inning yesterday with an RBI single after David Lough tripled - his seventh career go-ahead RBI in extra innings and first since May 12, 2011 against the Mariners. He's also back to making the most difficult plays look routine at shortstop.

Matt Wieters won't be back in 2014, but the tandem of Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley is working right now. Manny Machado is back following his five-game suspension, and he collected two more hits yesterday.

Zach Britton has solved the closer crisis. His stuff is filthy. He's getting strikeouts and ground balls. He's also showing that he's much tougher mentally than folks in baseball may have perceived while he was starting.

That blown save at Yankee Stadium didn't stay with him. He brushed it off like lint on his sports coat.

The Orioles could make another roster move this afternoon after using six relievers yesterday. Do they activate Bud Norris from the disabled list? How do they make room?

The upcoming All-Star break will allow Showalter to tweak his pitching staff. A starter will be optioned, since he won't be needed anyway, and the bullpen will be strengthened.

The Orioles begin a home-and-home series against the Nationals tonight in D.C., which pits Showalter against Matt Williams, one of his former players in Arizona.

Did Showalter anticipate that Williams would become a manager?

"You never know," he said. "I knew Matt wasn't going to have to manage to pay his bills, but he's a student, the way he played the game. He was a good teammate, understood the game. Doesn't surprise me at all.

"I was talking with Matt some, I think, right before he was interviewed. The only thing I told him was, 'Be sure and let them see your personality,' because Matt's a funny guy and he's really... he doesn't take life as seriously as it projects like we do.

"He's a good baseball man. They're very lucky to have him. That's a very talented team. He's a good fit for them. I'll be happy for him when we're done. I'd hate to play them much more than the four games we have to."

Chris Tillman will be challenged tonight, bringing a career 6.95 interleague ERA into the game. He's allowed 34 earned runs in 44 innings.

Tillman has given up seven earned runs in 9 2/3 innings against the Nationals, with both starts at Camden Yards.

Tillman is 6-0 on the road this season, though he's registered a 5.53 ERA in 55 1/3 innings.

The current Orioles are a combined 3-for-21 against Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg. Davis and Nick Markakis are 1-for-2 and Hundley is 1-for-7.

Down on the farm, Steve Johnson is reporting to short-season Single-A Aberdeen on his rehab assignment. Johnson is on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis, but he's feeling much better and eventually should be a bullpen option for the Orioles.

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