The Boston Red Sox proved last season that a team can win a World Series without anyone having a monster season.
The Baltimore Orioles not only are poised to succeed the Red Sox as American League East champions this season -- their nine-game bulge over the Toronto Blue Jays is the largest of any of the major leagues' six division leaders -- but are reminiscent of last year's Boston team in that none of their players are serious candidates to win the MVP or Cy Young awards.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz leads the major leagues with 33 home runs and has driven in 86 runs.
However, his chances of winning the MVP are hurt by his .258 batting average in 123 games, not playing in the outfield regularly and being suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball late last season while playing for the Texas Rangers because of his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.
"You can definitely draw some parallels between our club and last year's Red Sox," Orioles closer Zach Britton said. "It's the same kind of thing where you have a different hero every night."
The Orioles lead the major leagues in home runs and have seven players with at least 12. Yet beside Cruz, center fielder Adam Jones (24) and first baseman Chris Davis (21) are the only two with more than 13.
Furthermore, the Orioles do have a regular with a higher batting average than right fielder Nick Markakis' .292.
"We have a lot of depth and a lot of balance up and down the lineup," Markakis said. "We have a lot of guys who know how to put together a good at bat and we have the type of power where we can strike quickly."
The Orioles have three starting pitchers with double-digit wins in Wei-Yin Chen (13-4, 3.76 ERA), Bud Norris (11-7, 3.69 ERA) and Chris Tillman (10-5, 3.55 ERA). The rotation has been solid enough to allow manager Buck Showalter to demote Ubaldo Jimenez, who was signed to a four-year, $50-million contract as a free agent in spring training, to the bullpen with his 4-9 record and 4.83 ERA in 20 starts.
Britton, once considered an ace-caliber starting pitching prospect, has been a revelation since being called on early in the season to replace Tommy Hunter as closer. Britton has converted 27 of 30 save opportunities with a 2.04 ERA in 56 games.
"I'm as surprised as anyone," Britton said. "I never expected to get the chance and I'm happy I've been able to have some success. It's a nerve-wracking job but it's a special kind of feeling when you get that last out."
The Orioles have also been able to overcome adversity. All-Star catcher Matt Wieters played in just 26 games before his season ended with Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, and third baseman Manny Machado, currently on the disabled list, has been limited to 82 games because of knee injuries.
"This club is a lot like the city. It's a very proud club," Showalter said. "Everybody here's had their nose bloodied, and you've got a choice. You either keep moving forward or you quit. Our guys definitely aren't quitters."
AROUND THE HORN
--Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez readily admits his team does not have a true leadoff hitter. However, Gonzalez has also learned that the offense functions best when right fielder Jason Heyward is at the top of the batting order.
The Braves are 41-35 when Hayward bats first, 19-17 when center fielder B.J. Upton leads off and 6-9 when anyone else hits at the top of the order.
Heyward doesn't look the part of a leadoff hitter at 6-feet-5, 245 pounds. Yet his .352 on-base percentage is solid for a leadoff man and he has hit nine of hit 10 home runs while batting in the No. 1 hole.
"He can do a lot of stuff, and we're a good club when he's up there," Gonzalez said. "Right off the get-go, the pitcher's got to contend with a guy who can run you out of the ballpark."
Heyward is having a great season in the field with a major league-leading 32 defensive runs saved, a metric developed by Baseball Info Solutions.
--Free agent outfielder Rusney Castillo is ready to follow in the footsteps of such recent Cuban defectors such as Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu and make an immediate impact in the major leagues, according to scouts who watched the 5-foot-9, 205-pounder's showcase last month in Miami.
"The only thing he doesn't have is a plus arm," said a scout from an AL club. "The rest of the tools are there. He has pop in his bat, can hit for average and is an above-average runner. You never know how fast (Cubans) are going to assimilate into a new culture but, from a baseball standpoint, he can help a team right now in a pennant race."
Castillo will need to sign within the next 10 days in order to be able to participate in the postseason as players must be with their organizations by Aug. 31 in order to be eligible.
The feeling among major league executives is either the Detroit Tigers or San Francisco Giants will win the bidding, which could top $50 million, because both have an immediate need for offensive help as they chase postseason berths.
--The Giants were furious that their game against the Cubs at Chicago on Tuesday night was originally called after 4 1/2 innings and a 4-hour, 14-minute rain delay, pinning them with a 2-0 loss.
San Francisco protested the umpires' decision on the basis that the Wrigley Field grounds crew did not cover the infield quick enough, causing the field to become unplayable. Major League Baseball upheld the protest Wednesday and the game resumed Thursday afternoon.
This is the perfect opportunity for MLB to abolish the archaic rule in which a game becomes official after five innings. All games should be played to a nine-inning conclusion.
Senior writer John Perrotto is The Sports Xchange's baseball insider. He has covered Major League Baseball for 27 seasons.