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After clearing several obstacles before break, 1st-place Orioles optimistic about 2nd half

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BALTIMORE - Against all logic, the Baltimore Orioles stand alone atop the AL East at the All-Star break for the first time since 1997.

The Orioles endured injuries to three of their best hitters, changed closers in the middle of May and began the season with 35 of their first 58 games on the road.

Not exactly a formula for success.

Yet, two years after finally ending a run of 14 straight losing seasons, Baltimore (52-42) reached the season's midpoint four games ahead of second-place Toronto. This is what they hard to overcome: Manny Machado missing April recovering from knee surgery; Chris Davis sitting out two weeks with an oblique injury; starting pitcher Bud Norris being sidelined for 17 days with a right groin strain and, worst of all, the loss of catcher Matt Wieters for the season in May after undergoing elbow ligament replacement surgery.

"Given the hand we've been dealt, I think we've handled ourselves really well, especially with the schedule," Davis said. "A lot of teams can say this, but I feel like we had a really tough schedule early on, a lot of road games, a lot of road games in cold places."

Baltimore was 30-28 and 5 1/2 games out of first place after those 35 road games. At that point, Machado hadn't rediscovered his swing, Davis was struggling, J.J. Hardy still hadn't hit his first home run and Zach Britton was just getting used to his new role as closer after Tommy Hunter faltered.

"If you'd have told me in spring training all that was going to happen, I'd say it would be a challenge just to be in contention," Britton said. "It's just a credit to the type of team we have, that some of our big-time players can either be underperforming or injured and we're able to pick up the slack and be in first place at this point."

Much credit should go to executive vice-president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who made several key off-season pickups before doing a strong in-season job of juggling the roster. It's hard to imagine where the Orioles would be in the standings without Nelson Cruz, who reached the break with a .287 batting average and a team-high 28 homers and 74 RBIs after signing as a free agent in February.

"I cannot be more blessed to be part of this," Cruz said just before the break. "When you have a good season and you're winning, it's everything you can ask for. The last few weeks we showed a lot of heart, a lot of personality as a team. We have a good thing going on here."

Steve Pearce has also been essential to the team's success. Designated for assignment on April 22, the journeyman returned as a free agent on April 29 after Davis' injury. Pearce is hitting .316 with a career-high 11 home runs and 31 RBIs, numbers that are particularly meaningful because Davis has yet to display the form he showed as an All-Star last year, when he batted .286 and led the majors with 53 homers and 138 RBIs.

Davis has only four more total bases than strikeouts (110-106) and is batting .199. One reason why the Orioles are optimistic about the second half is that they can't imagine Davis going through an entire season looking this bad.

"CD, he hasn't been the CD we're accustomed to seeing around here," All-Star outfielder Adam Jones said. "He hasn't been hot at all, but all we need if for him is to have a big second half and we'll be right in the middle of it. We need a big second half out of him and he knows it."

The Orioles rank second in the majors in home runs and are fourth with a .265 batting average, but sustaining that won't necessarily guarantee their second playoff berth in three years.

"We're going to have to pitch," manager Buck Showalter said. "That would allow us to stay consistent."

Wei-Yin Chen (9-3) has been solid for a rotation that goes six deep. The bullpen has been even better, with Britton registering 15 saves and a 1.30 ERA behind setup-man Darren O'Day (2-1, 1.11).

That bodes well for the final 68 games. The Orioles resume play Friday night with a 10-game swing through Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle.

"The last two years, our pitching is better in the second half," O'Day said. "The starters get sorted out a little bit, start getting longer starts, and the bullpen gets rested and gets better, too. I know we've got a big West Coast trip coming up and we've got a tough schedule in the second half. It should be a fun."

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