Every Orioles win over the last month-plus — all 21 of them — has come with a caveat about who they’re beating, with Friday’s series-opener in Atlanta always marked as the time that was going to change.

The Braves, Rays and Pirates are good. So are the Orioles. Not to absolve them of any expectations in this stretch if it goes poorly, but good or bad, that’s not really what matters. It’s easy and obvious to say these next few weeks will define Baltimore’s season. It’s valuable that the Orioles are going to be tested against teams who are playing well at this early stage of the season.

When they come up for air, whenever that is, the part that will matter most is how the people running the organization react to it.

If the Orioles keep up their winnings ways, continue playing fun baseball (even if it’s frustrating at times) and ride through this tough stretch without giving up too much ground, it will be very difficult to deny that this team is a legitimate playoff contender. There’s no real endpoint to this difficult stretch — they play the Royals again in mid-June, but every team on their schedule until then has started well — but the longer this goes on, the more real it will feel.

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It might not change the way their season is modeled to finish in a projection system, but it might make it overly difficult to ignore what’s already happened. The question then becomes the extent to which the front office supports this current team.

The trade deadline has been an occasion for the Orioles to shed parts in recent seasons. When the Orioles traded Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini off an ascendant roster last year, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said it was “not a probability” that they’d secure a wild card spot, even though there was a chance.

Even if the Orioles’ own internal projections — which are based on individual players’ past performances and comparable precedents — don’t make it probable, playing winning baseball against good teams after winning over two-thirds of your games in the first fifth of the season certainly helps. Maintaining a healthy distance from a .500 record over the next month or so will only increase the appetite for improvements that can make this team even better.

There will be capital for a trade. If teams want major-league ready prospects for their top players at the deadline, the Orioles can offer Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, and by that point possibly Heston Kjerstad. The secondary pieces and lottery tickets they could include are too many to list. They could also decide any of those players can upgrade what they have on the major league roster and supplement that way, hoping for the same kind of boost Adley Rutschman gave them last May or Gunnar Henderson last August.

It’s not something that a few series in May will decide, but to come through a run of games against teams that are proving to be among the league’s best with a few series wins will solidify that this team, regardless of what the numbers say, needs to be upgraded.

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And what if the Orioles fall apart against stiffer competition? Thursday’s 13-10 win over the Royals, replete with a difficult Grayson Rodriguez performance and a series of body blows to the bullpen, doesn’t send them to Atlanta feeling as good as it should.

No one needs to squint to see the possibility that one or any of these teams can grind down the Orioles’ starters, shut down their hitters, and in doing so remove the Orioles from the conversation about the game’s top teams.

Same question applies, though: How would the front office respond? It would be sobering, to be sure, to come down from the highs of the first month to underperform against better competition. It would also all happen with more than 100 games left on the schedule, and thus plenty of chances for the Orioles to get back to winning and continue a playoff push.

It’s fair to wonder, given how last year’s deadline went, whether the trades of established (and expensive) experienced players would resume if these Orioles aren’t materially better than .500 and within true striking distance of a playoff spot when July hits. The upgrades would certainly be more modest, if they happened at all, and to make that decision based on a couple weeks in May might feel like giving up too soon — especially to the fans who thought last year’s trades went too far.

Alternatively, it could spark general manager Elias to make internal changes — to alter the bench mix so there are higher-caliber hitters available, shuffle the rotation to bring up someone like DL Hall, or shift roles in the bullpen. We saw last month that the Orioles losing patience after just three starts with Cole Irvin reset their pitching staff and made it materially better. There are other starters who are testing the team’s patience, and this stretch is probably time for them to rebound or be sent to regroup in the minors.

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Pretty much everything these days is a sign of how much better things are for the Orioles than they have been. The combination of anticipation, nerves and fascination with what this team looks like against the league’s best is another one.

It’s also May. And whether this stretch goes well or not might influence the Orioles’ playoff fates in many ways.

The influence of the outcomes on how they go about pursuing that playoff spot will tell us what Elias and his team actually think about how close this team is to contention.


Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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