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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 12:38 PM

Jason Hammel hasn’t pitched from a Major League mound in about seven weeks. He had been Baltimore’s most effective starter in the first few months of the season. But, knee pain caused some poor outings in late June and early July, leading to minor surgery to fix the problem. Hammel returns to the rotation just in time for what is probably the most important September series the Baltimore Orioles have played in about 15 years.

This is a team that hadn’t even been in first place in the month of September since 1997! The Orioles temporarily grabbed that spot earlier this week, before giving it back to the Yankees Wednesday. Here’s how it looks at the top of the crowded AL East Thursday morning…

 

AL EAST

NY Yankees 77-59

Baltimore 76-60 (1 game back)

Tampa Bay 75-62 (2.5 games back)

Tampa Bay is idle Thursday, so all three teams will be sitting on 137 games after tonight’s Yanks/O’s game is in the books. That means 25 games left for everyone, with the division and Wildcard berths at stake. Given the intense Wildcard battle that also involves Oakland, Detroit, and the LA Angels, it’s possible that the AL East will get both Wildcard spots, or NEITHER! Every game matters. But, no games will matter more in terms of Baltimore’s 2012 divisional championship hopes than the four they will play tonight through Sunday.

Yes, Hammel returned just in time!

Here’s what Baltimore’s rotation will look like if Hammel is able to return to his prior form, going in the order they will appear in the next few days:

Hammel: 3.54 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Chen: 3.79 ERA, 1.23 WHIP

Saunders: only 2 starts back in the AL after a recent trade

Britton: 4.15 ERA, 1.44 WHIP (but better lately)

Gonzalez: 3.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP

Note that Gonzalez will draw the first game on Tuesday at home against Tampa Bay, as the Orioles must play BACK-TO-BACK critical series against the teams they must beat to make the playoffs. Also, Chris Tillman (3.39 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) has been put on the shelf for a bit because of an inflamed nerve in his pitching elbow. The Orioles obviously hope he can come back soon in good form. They were pondering a six-man rotation for this final drive before Tillman’s elbow issue.

Is that a championship rotation? Well, it’s hard to say that. There’s no clear Cy Young type threat at the top…and most playoff caliber teams have that. This will put the Orioles in a bind come playoff time because whoever’s survived the coming gauntlet will have some big arms at the top of the rotation. That being said, it’s a staff that DOES give them a chance to win every time out as long as Saunders can hold his own in the switch to the superior league. Those numbers suggest quality depth even if they don’t showcase any superstars. And, if Tillman’s elbow responds to rest and treatment, that will provide some insurance if one of the five men above falls off the pace.

It didn’t seem possible earlier this season. And, it probably wasn’t possible with guys like Brian Matusz (5.22 ERA in 22 appearances), Tommy Hunter (5.90 ERA in 24 appearances), and Jake Arrieta (6.13 ERA in 18 appearances) getting so much mound time. The Orioles were extremely lucky to post a winning record with those starters throwing so many innings.

Critics pointing out the poor Orioles’ run differential for the season need to be aware that three of the main reasons for that aren’t allowed to pitch any more! And, what’s been a great record in one-run games may not necessarily regress to the mean this year because the offense isn’t battling to score 5-6 runs because of poor starters. If those current ERA’s hold up in the current rotation…only a huge offensive slump would lead to a slew of late season one-run losses.

This American League pennant race has turned into an amazing story, as eight teams are battling for five playoff spots…two of which only qualify for a one-game playoff to join the brackets. We have…

BIG MONEY: Texas, the NY Yankees, LA Angels, and Detroit have all opened the vault to keep or acquire big name stars in hopes of dominating the league.

BIG BRAINS: the classic “Moneyball” teams of Oakland and Tampa Bay are once again getting the job done impressively with smaller payrolls. Oakland came out of the blue this year.

BIG SURPRISES: Both Baltimore and the Chicago White Sox have overachieved preseason expectations by quite a bit thanks to productive newcomers and smart managing. Was losing Ozzie Guillen “addition by subtraction?” Baltimore gaining Buck Showalter was certain a huge difference-maker given his history of quick turnarounds at the Major League level.   

We know football will have top priority for many of you through the rest of September. Just don’t lose sight of the baseball pennant races. Vegas lines get softer in baseball in September because oddsmakers are so focused on football.

Here are some of the highlights on tap in football and baseball Thursday night here at VSM:

*Fresh on the heels of his 10-Unit winner on the Dallas Cowboys over the NY Giants Wednesday Night, Kelso Sturgeon has a special TWO-FOR-ONE package that gets you tonight’s 25-Unit play in Pitt-Cincinnati in college football as well as Friday’s 25-Unit play in Utah-Utah State. That’s right, BOTH plays are yours on one report for just on payment of $25 on your major credit card.

*Wayne Allyn Root has scored with back-to-back underdogs on Georgia Tech (+) at Virginia Tech (tough OT straight up loss but a money-maker)  and Dallas (+) at the NY Giants (outright win never in doubt!). Will he go with a third straight dog Thursday? Or will he lay a cheap price against a team that couldn’t beat Youngstown State? Thursday football and bonus baseball is yours for just $25.

*VSM newcomer Richie Baccellieri has a special one night “get acquainted” play in Pitt-Cincinnati for just $10. That man who used to make the line will help you beat the line!

Be sure you visit the VSM home page every day for big play announcements. Additional information is available on the “Buy Picks” page, including details on full season packages for all of our industry legends. Hot handicappers are always waiting to hear from you!

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