Orioles happy to defend AL East crown free from outside expectations

NEW YORK — They surprised a lot of pundits by making a deep run into October last year, and after losing a major contributor to their success as a free agent, they got very little love when it came time for those pundits to make their predictions this year. So far, the early indications are that they will be in the thick of the playoff race once again.You’ve heard a lot about the defending American League champion Royals playing with a chip on their shoulder, getting into altercations at the first sign of disrespect. It’s certainly one way to make everyone recognize you. It’s not the approach the Orioles are taking after coming back from a 96-win season to hear about how the Red Sox, or maybe the Blue Jays, had the best chance to win the American League East this year. MORE: award winners with unlikely beginnings | AL MVP Watch: Keeping up with Adam Jones“The only thing you can control is what you do every day on the field, and that’s how we do it around here on the Orioles,” third baseman Manny Machado told Sporting News. “We go out there … and whatever happens, happens. We all know that we left it on the field and that’s the only thing that counts.” Machado, of course, did feature in some extracurricular activities last year, when he was suspended five games for throwing his bat toward third base in retaliation for a hard tag and a brushback pitch. So, it’s not like the Orioles don’t have the capacity for the rough and tumble. It’s just that if something like that does come up, it’s not a matter of trying to serve notice to outsiders, because the Orioles happen to be just fine with your predictions of their demise, thank you very much.“We want the world to think that the Orioles ain’t reloading, that we’re not a force,” said Steve Pearce, who hit a career-high 21 home runs last year. “Hopefully they don’t bring their A squad. We have a good team. We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of chemistry on this team. We brought a lot of guys back. Sometimes, you’ll see teams with a bunch of talent, but they haven’t played together and they take a while to adjust. We’ve got a good team, we can compete, and we bring our game out there every single night.”A team with a bunch of talent that is taking a while to adjust is Boston, whose supposedly all-world lineup ranks eighth in the American League in OPS, while Red Sox pitchers have combined for a league-worst 5.04 ERA. The Orioles, with largely the same lineup as a year ago, save for the important departure of major league home run leader Nelson Cruz to Seattle, entered Tuesday at 12-11, 2 1/2 games behind a Yankees team that Baltimore visits after its two-game series in Queens. Playing six consecutive games in the same city is something the Orioles have not done since April 10-15, not that they are complaining because they know that it is a trifling matter next to what has happened back in Baltimore.MORE: SNL spoofs Orioles' empty-stadium gameLast year, the Orioles were 12-11 after 2

3 games, but only 1 1/2 games out of first place. Baltimore sunk to as low as 26-27 with a loss on May 30, and the Orioles dropped to 6 1/2 games out of first place a week later before going on to win the East by a dozen games.“It wasn’t until midway through the season that we found our form, and then ended up taking the lead in the division,” said left-hander Brian Matusz. “For us, throwing at guys and that stuff, that’s not our game. Our game is to go out and play good, solid, defensive baseball. Pitch, hit, do all the little things well. That’s our game. We don’t feel the need that we’ve got to throw at guys or do anything like that. That’s not our style. We kind of like not being in the spotlight. We like not being the team picked to win the division. We like being underdogs and proving people wrong. That’s what we’ve done in the past, and we can continue to do that. That’s kind of the Oriole way.”It’s not very exciting, but the Orioles have made it work for two playoff appearances in the past three years and are keeping themselves in good position in the East again while they wait for catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Jonathan Schoop to return to health. Even with Cruz gone, Baltimore leads the American League in team OPS. They will be happy if you do not notice that fact.