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8/21/2014 10:00 A.M. ET

Surging Orioles set for challenges of stretch run

Rotation's continued success, Machado's return keys for Baltimore in pennant race

CHICAGO -- The Orioles, winners in nine of their past 10 series, have their largest lead -- nine games -- in the American League East since 1997, and they are playing some of their best baseball down the stretch. You know things are going well when manager Buck Showalter admits he's got a little bit of a "man crush" on his club, which enters Thursday's off-day with an AL-leading 39 road wins.

So what's going exactly? And how did the O's get here? Let's take a closer look at some of the questions, numbers and overall chatter surrounding first-place Baltimore ...

Three questions down the stretch

1. How will the red-hot rotation fare?

It's no secret that the Orioles' surge has been fueled by its pitching, a group that stands to get better with right-hander Miguel Gonzalez taking the spot of struggling right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who was demoted to the bullpen. Opening Day starter Chris Tillman has pitched to a 2.23 ERA in his past 12 starts; Wei-Yin Chen is having a fantastic second half, along with righty Bud Norris; and 23-year-old Kevin Gausman is finding ways to get the job done despite pitching deeper into the year than ever before.

"You can't say enough about them," catcher Nick Hundley said of a group of starters who have posted a 2.82 ERA over their past 17 road games. "Our offense gets more publicity, but there's no way we'd be in this spot if we didn't get quality start after quality start from all five, six of our guys. So it's been really impressive since I've been here. I've been really impressed with the quality and depth of the rotation."

That rotation has set up one of the most lethal back-end bullpens in baseball in Darren O'Day, closer Zach Britton and newly acquired Andrew Miller. If the O's can keep getting consistent outings from the rotation, it will ensure their 'pen stays fresh and effective when they need it most.

Food for thought: Pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti are really thought of as co-pitching coaches. And while their contributions don't show up in the box score, the pitchers will gladly rave about what the duo has accomplished.

"This team had a lot of talent going into the year, and the co-pitching coaches have helped get the most out of everybody," O'Day said. "Everybody is pitching up to their capability now, instead of -- I don't want to stay wasting talent, but we've had a lot of guys step up this year."

2. When will Manny Machado return?

The Orioles haven't exactly been forthcoming about Machado, who suffered a sprain right knee ligament and has been on the disabled list for about a week. Showalter said initially he felt good about Machado coming back the first day he's eligible to be activated from the 15-day DL, although Machado indicated he wouldn't rush things and would only come back when he could "be Manny Machado" again.

The 22-year-old Machado has been with the Orioles on their road trip, and he is focusing on strengthening the area around his knee first. In a perfect world, the O's will send Machado out to get some at-bats at an affiliate on Monday when they return to Baltimore, although there won't be any rush with September callups around the corner.

Food for thought: Roster expansion aside, the Orioles have actually fared quite well without Machado this season, going 26-17. After a losing April, they won four of the five games he was suspended and have had a fantastic August, with Chris Davis filling in quite well at third. Are they a better team without Machado? Of course not. But the O's, who have been without Matt Wieters most of the season, are a resilient group that doesn't rely on just one or two guys.

3. Will the offense be consistent?

There's no way to predict how the rest of this season will go for a homer-happy Orioles lineup that's also strikeout prone. To be fair, the O's have faced some tough pitching on their current road trip, including Cleveland's Corey Kluber and Chicago's Chris Sale, two pitchers likely to be in the AL Cy Young Award race. Yes, their lineup has gone into slumps. But having a group that's hit a Major League-leading 161 homers is the kind of scary lineup that most clubs would kill for, and the Orioles have done a good job of not letting a bad few games snowball.

And that's without Davis hitting up to his capabilities. If they can find a way to get Davis hot, the O's offense could go a long ways in taking some pressure off the pitching staff.

Food for thought: Yes, they've been inconsistent at times, but the Orioles have gone 72 consecutive games without a three-game losing streak.

"You look at the veterans in here -- guys like Jones, [Nick] Markakis, [J.J.] Hardy and [Matt] Wieters, even though he's hurt, he's still a leader," Britton said of the club's even-keeled approach. "As a younger guy, we all watch how they react, and they never seem to let anything bother them."

Critical stats

2.87: The O's team ERA since June 30, a span in which they have the best record in baseball (31-13).

48-10:The team's record when scoring first, which is the best in the Majors. The Os are also 62-25 when they hit at least one home run.

Summing it up: "First and foremost what everyone kept talking about is, 'Our pitching staff couldn't. And can't.' That was what everyone said across the whole board, the league, across the power rankings. [They said that] we can hit, we can play defense, but we can't pitch," Jones said. "We are doing something that we knew as a ballclub we could do. If you have confidence in yourself and have confidence in your fellow teammates, it works wonders in how things can work out in your favor. We've just been a collective group of things happening."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.