ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” crew throws some praise O’s way

If there is one thing that Orioles fans seem to get fired up about, it is predictions about their team from national writers and analysts. Especially when those predictions are positive.

The last two days, ESPN’s writers and broadcasters have been heaping some praise on this team. In a podcast yesterday, Buster Olney picked the Orioles to win the American League East and Jayson Stark predicted a second-place finish.

Today, on a media conference call, ESPN’s three “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasters all talked favorably about the Orioles. Here are their comments:

Play-by-play broadcaster Dan Shulman

“I think all three of us were tremendously impressed with the year the Orioles had last year. Orel (Hershiser) and I had a chance to do their wild card game and their series with the Yankees on ESPN Radio. We spent a lot of time around the team and Buck Showalter.

“They had a great year and they are a team, when you walk into their clubhouse, similar to the Giants, where you get the feeling that this is a true team and all 25 guys are going to do whatever is asked of them to help the team win.

“I think they had a great year and I don’t think they were a fluke. I think they are a contending team. You can’t talk about them without mentioning the record in one-run games and not that there was an element of luck involved, but sometimes those things even out over time.

“I think they are right in the mix in the American League East. You know they had guys that were hurt last year like (Nolan) Reimold and (Brian) Roberts and (Nick) Markakis. If those guys stay healthy, they’ve got a chance to be a better offensive team.

“I think it’s a division where everybody could be .500, but nobody might win more than 90, because the division is so deep. I think it’s got a chance to be the best divisional race in all of baseball this year.”

Analyst Orel Hershiser

“I think the comparison to the Giants is a very good one, because you have a manager that knows how to get everything out of his players. I think if Adam Jones had some key at-bats, they might have gone deeper into the playoffs. You can relate Jones and (Matt) Wieters to Buster Posey of the Giants. If those guys in the middle of the order get key hits - like (Pablo) Sandoval and Posey - the Baltimore Orioles might go a little bit further with maybe a little less of a rotation, but a sound bullpen.

“They have a bunch of kind of misfit kind of players that play hard and know the details of the game and are being called upon by the manager and coaching staff to play the game correctly. And they did a great job executing in close situations. You tip your hat to the players for buying in and saying, ‘We will be a baseball team, not just a bunch of players that take the field.’

“I do think it is going to be really hard for the wild card to come out of this division, as evenly balanced as it is. I think winning the division is probably the only way someone is getting in.”

Analyst John Kruk

“I agree with both of these guys. I think they are right in the mix and it wouldn’t surprise me if any team won it and it wouldn’t surprise me if any of the teams finished last. That is how tightly grouped together I think all five of these teams are.

“The big key for the Orioles and we mentioned the one-run games and can they come close to that again. But I think if Brian Roberts can play a full season and be that leadoff hitter, something they didn’t have, a true leadoff hitter last year, be the guy to run and steal bases. Buck likes to put guys in motion and open holes (in the defense). He could be a weapon for Buck to play around with this season and have fun with.”

ESPN’s opening night coverage will begin Sunday, with “Baseball Tonight” at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the Houston Astros hosting the Texas Rangers at 8 p.m. from Minute Maid Park in Houston. It is the Astros’ American League debut. On opening day, ESPN will televise a four-game slate, beginning with the Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees at 1 p.m.

ESPN has set its “Sunday Night Baseball” schedule for about the first half of the season and the Orioles will appear April 14 playing the Yankees in New York. It’s the Orioles’ first Sunday night appearance since 2008.

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