Stretch run arrives with Orioles so close to making playoffs

The stretch drive has arrived in Major League Baseball. Now there are just 22 games left for the Orioles in the 2012 regular season. Once again, we can say that if the season ended today, the Orioles would be in the playoffs as they would claim the second wild card berth and would meet Oakland in a one-game playoff for the right to advance to a series against Texas.

After Sunday's loss, the Orioles are just one game out of first place in the American League East at 78-62, but they are also just one game ahead of third-place Tampa Bay and they host the Rays for three beginning tomorrow night.

This is going to be a huge week as Tampa will be starting a six-game trip to Baltimore and New York. The Orioles will play their next six versus Tampa and Oakland while the Yankees play six against Boston and Tampa.

The Orioles have just a one-game lead for the second wild card spot over the Rays and Angels. So at this point, the Orioles are very close to winning the AL East, but at the same time they are very close to not holding even the second wild card. Yikes, it's getting tense around here.

The Rays will come to Baltimore as winners of six of eight and 21 of their last 32 games. The Rays lead the majors with a team ERA of 3.22 (the Orioles rank 18th) and their ERA since the All-Star break is 2.45. Yes, that is ridiculous good.

Over its last 48 games, Tampa Bay pitching has allowed just 115 runs, an average of 2.4 per game. That is the best stretch by a big league club over that long a run since the 1976 Los Angeles Dodgers. An obvious storyline to the Tampa series is: Can the O's hit the Rays pitching? They'll face Matt Moore tomorrow and he is 2-1 with an ERA of 1.15 versus the O's over four career starts.

This pennant race baseball: It's fun, exciting, thrilling, tense and nerve-racking all at once. Sure beats the alternative, which the O's fans know all too well.

Finally today, congrats to the Double-A Bowie Baysox on a great season, even though it ended with disappointment. The Baysox had a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five playoff series with Akron, but then lost 4-3 and 2-1 games before falling 5-2 in Game 5 last night. So the Baysox are still looking for the first playoff series win in their 20-year history.

In that series, Josh Barfield went 4-for-7 with a homer, Ty Kelly was 6-for-16 with two doubles, a homer and three RBIs and Ronnie Welty was 4-for-11 with a pair of homers. But the Baysox scored just six runs in those last three games and allowed five unearned runs as the series win eluded them.

I was sure rooting for the Baysox. They had a great team chemistry with a good mix of prospects and older players. Bowie's front office staff, a few I have gotten to know well over the years, is first-rate and the field staff of manager Gary Kendall and coaches Denny Hocking and Kennie Steenstra is not only very, very good but a super group to work with. Tough ending for a classy Baysox bunch.

They now get to say those famous baseball words, "wait 'til next year."

Meanwhile, Orioles fans take a breather today as they wait for the next night. Get ready, O's fans, as the final push for the playoffs awaits. So close to being in, yet also very close to being out. This will be fun.

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