[Baltimore Sun] The Orioles might be MLB’s best team. Their series vs. the Phillies could test that. | ANALYSIS

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It’s not hyperbole to say the Orioles’ series this weekend against the Philadelphia Phillies could be a World Series preview.

According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, it is one of the four likeliest matchups for the Fall Classic, as the Orioles and Phillies each own their respective leagues’ second-best odds to reach the World Series.

It’s nearly impossible — as it should be — for a regular-season series in the middle of a 162-game season to feel all that important. Baseball is meant to be a methodical slog.

But this weekend’s series against the Phillies will be the exception. It might feel as much like a playoff series as any regular season set can.

“It obviously gets played up because it’s a possibility for something that could happen at the end of the year,” said closer Craig Kimbrel, who played for Philadelphia last year. “Two teams that are playing well, two different leagues. That’s what you say: This could be a matchup at the end of the year. That’s what both sides are hoping.

“There’s excitement in it, especially with these two cities being so close. It’s going to be fun this weekend.”

Camden Yards is expected to be rocking all weekend, with Saturday and Sunday’s games already sold out. A portion of those seats are expected to be filled by rabid Phillies fans who will make the trek down Interstate 95.

The Orioles (45-23) have the second best record in the American League, behind only the rarely beaten New York Yankees (49-22). The Phillies (46-22) — with stars Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler and Kyle Schwarber — are the National League’s best team, ahead of the uber-wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers. FanGraphs gives all four clubs a greater-than 98% chance to make the postseason and at least 18% odds to make the World Series.

The playoffs, as proven last year by the Orioles’ AL Division Series sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers, are a crapshoot, but it will be a surprise to no one if the Fall Classic is between two of those four clubs.

“When you play those types of teams, every pitch is magnified a little bit more, similar to the playoffs,” McCann said of this weekend’s series. “[The Phillies] have the record they have for a reason, but we also have the record we have for a reason. … Obviously, if it’s a packed house, it’s going to make it a lot of fun, make it more like a playoff atmosphere, but it’s just another game. It’s one of 162, and we want to treat them all the same.”

The Orioles and Phillies have nothing to prove this weekend. No matter how the three games go, they will both still be among baseball’s best teams. But it will provide a test for how the Orioles stack up against one of the other elite clubs in baseball.

Baltimore will have its three best pitchers take the mound: Kyle Bradish (2.62 ERA), Grayson Rodriguez (3.27 ERA) and Corbin Burnes (2.08 ERA), in that order. The Phillies will run out Ranger Suárez (1.81 ERA), Taijuan Walker (5.40 ERA) and Wheeler (2.16 ERA). Sunday’s matchup is particularly compelling, as Burnes and Wheeler are two of baseball’s best right-handed pitchers and perennial Cy Young Award contenders.

While the Phillies and Yankees both have better records than Baltimore, it’s possible the Orioles are the most complete team in baseball.

Entering Thursday, the Orioles ranked in the top in several offensive, defensive and pitching categories. They’re first in runs per game at 5.13, second in fielding percentage at .988 and third in ERA at 3.08.

The offense is perhaps this team’s greatest strength, leading the majors in home runs (106) and slugging percentage (.451). Led by Gunnar Henderson, whose .964 OPS and 21 homers has him in the AL Most Valuable Player conversation, Orioles hitters have an OPS over .750 and seven have at least eight homers. With a 2.99 rotation ERA, their starting corps is one of three in MLB with an ERA south of 3.00. The Phillies have the NL’s best rotation with a 2.85 ERA. Baltimore’s bullpen, while seen as a weakness entering the year, is fourth with a 3.27 ERA.

“We’re doing a phenomenal job of just showing up every day,” Kimbrel said. “Guys preparing for each and every day. We know we’re not going to win every game, but as long as we keep ourselves somewhere close, there’s always an opportunity. We play a lot of close ballgames, which I think kind of helps keeping guys locked in, learning situations and understanding situations. We’re on a pretty good roll right now.”

In St. Louis about three weeks ago, the Orioles were swept for the first time since May 2022, ending their AL-record streak that defined the team’s resilience and consistency. John Means injured his elbow on the final day of the series, and it was later revealed that he and Tyler Wells required surgery and would miss the rest of the season.

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All the Orioles have done since is win 16 of their 21 games, including four-game sweeps of the Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, both on the road. The stretch Baltimore is in the middle of was deemed entering the season as its toughest all year — 41 games in 43 days against mostly tough opponents.

It turns out, this stretch isn’t so difficult for the Orioles; it is for their opponents, though.

“This is a resilient group,” McCann said. “Guys are professionals, guys show up to play, guys don’t let one at-bat, two at-bats, an error, a bad pitch, a bad game — we don’t let it snowball to the next day. … It’s just the culture that’s been created here. It doesn’t matter who you throw at us or what you throw at us, we’re going to show up to fight and to play hard. Guys show up expecting to win.”

Kimbrel, one of the most decorated closers in MLB history, has seen his fair share of dominant teams. He won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2018, pitched for excellent Atlanta Braves teams more than a decade ago and was on a Phillies team that appeared in the NL Championship Series last year.

He believes “the sky’s the limit” for the 2024 Orioles, and perhaps they’ll prove — as if they even need to — this weekend.

“There’s a lot of talent, a lot of youth. We’ve got some veteran presence,” Kimbrel said. “You can see the possibility with some of these guys in here. I think everybody sees it.

“Hopefully this year is the year we put it all together.”

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