Orioles still in contention as calendar hits June

The Orioles are in last place. The good news is last place in the American League East is just six games back. That means it's mid-June and the Orioles are technically still in it. It's a revelation noted by O's center fielder Adam Jones.

"I know the last few years here at this point and time we were already counted out," Jones said. "The Yankees, Red Sox, Rays had already built their 10-to-12-game lead, but this division is a lot more competitive this year."

The last time the AL East was this tight this late in the season was 1994. Rays manager Joe Maddon saw the competition coming.

"I totally expected this," Maddon said. "I knew the Orioles were going to be better. I knew the Blue Jays were going to be better. I was most concerned about us. We've had so much transition to go through. I was most concerned about us, but I did know that all these other teams would be better."

When O's manager Buck Showalter sized up the competition coming into the season, he never counted out the Blue Jays despite their fourth-place finish in 2010.

"I've said before," Showalter said. "I said this spring I thought Toronto had one of the best offseasons of any team. Their young pitching and the things they're able to do, especially against left-handed pitching ..."

The Jays are better. The defending AL East-champion Rays are just three games behind the division-leading Red Sox. Can we say there's parity in the division?

Showalter says yes, for now, but that can quickly change especially as the calendar turns to July and August when contenders rise in the standings and pretenders are exposed.

"It's that time of year when teams start separating themselves. It's usually hand in hand when the weather starts heating up," said Showalter. "There's a lot of good teams in it, we're just trying to be one of them. "

In order to do that, O's reliever Jim Johnson says the focus need to shift to wins within the division.

"I think we need to play better against those teams," said Johnson. "Most of those games it's been small instances of why we've won or lost. It's not like we're overmatched. We just have to figure out ways to get it done and when you're playing in your division, that's a full game in the standings. That's what makes the difference. "

Gone are the days where it was assumed the Yankees and Red Sox would battle for the first in the AL East and all the other teams would prepare for an early October vacation. The Tampa Bay Rays are to thank for that. They've finished atop the AL East two out of the last three years despite extremely young rosters and low payroll.

Maddon believes the competition in the East helped his team thrive.

"There's no better place to play than the American League East," he said. "The reason we got better quicker is because we play here. You have to play New York often. You have to play Boston often. Baltimore, listen I know you guys are coming back, I've always had a lot of respect for this franchise, Toronto etc. So in order to be the best you have to beat the best, and that's why it's best to play in the AL East."

Showalter says the Rays' rise up the ranks is good for not only the division but the Orioles.

"I've appreciated the fact that they've eliminated a lot of excuses for people that don't spend like the Yankees and Red Sox and some other clubs do," Showalter said. "It can be done."