Orioles carry relevance into August, enough to compete with Ravens

August 15, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

If you follow sports, you know this is the sweetest August we've had around here in a long time.

Remember how it was for most of the last 14 years? The minute the Ravens opened training camp in July, the Orioles seemed to drop off the face of the earth for most fans.

Back then people around here seemed more interested in hearing about the Ravens' third-string nose tackle than about anything the Orioles were doing.

Oh, the Ravens are still huge. It's still a football town, I give you that. And the NFL is this great monolithic entity that has somehow convinced the public that everything it does 365 days of the year — combines, drafts, minicamps, pre-season games — is the most important thing in the whole world.

But this summer, the buzz around the Orioles just gets louder and louder, too.

And why shouldn't it? In one of the great turnarounds in the game, the O's find themselves in second place in the American League East. They find themselves scrapping and clawing for a playoff spot. They find themselves playing meaningful games night after night.

Imagine that. It's the third week of August. And to use the trendy word of the day, the Orioles are still relevant.

"Relevant," Buck Showalter repeated when someone used that word the other day.

He sat back in the chair behind his desk and let that sink in for a moment. Then he flashed that thin gunslinger's smile, the one the rest of the league is seeing more and more as the Orioles refuse to follow the script and fold the way they're supposed to.

"That's a good word," he said finally.

And relevant is what the Orioles are, all right. Ask the rest of the league.

They win games just about every way you can win them. They win in extra innings. They win despite a lousy run differential. They win with their best pitcher (Jason Hammel) on the disabled list. They win with players you've never heard of, who are then replaced by more players you never heard of.

They win when everyone in baseball keeps waiting for them to lose.

No wonder the whole thing hearkens eerily back to the famous 1989 "Why Not?" season. The year before, the Orioles started 0-21 and finished with 108 losses. Everyone expected another horror show in '89. And all that team did was finish 87-75, just two games out of first place.

Can history repeat itself? We'll see. But the buzz around the Orioles this summer is because the future looks bright, too.

Look what happened last week. Top prospect Manny Machado is called up from Bowie and promptly morphs into a young Brooks Robinson.

Is that blasphemy? Comparing a 20-year-old who's been in The Show for a cup of coffee to the sainted Brooks?

Maybe. But Machado goes 6-for-16 with three homers, a triple, a double and seven RBIs in his first four games. In his fifth game, he charges a swinging bunt down the third base line, bare-hands it and slings it to first to get the runner. Just like ol' you-know-who used to do it.

Then there's right-hander Dylan Bundy, the stud prospect in all of baseball to hear some tell it, who's showing off his 98-mph heater at Double-A Bowie and could make it to The Show in a couple weeks.

And this year's No. 1 draft choice, quirky righty Kevin Gausman — quirky in a good way, the kid is a joy to be around — was so lights out for short-season Single-A Aberdeen with his mid-90's fastball and killer changeup that he's just been promoted to High-A Frederick.

But the bottom line is this: none of the buzz happens if the Orioles aren't winning. And making a run at October baseball for the first time in forever.

"People are excited about us being in the hunt," Chris Davis said. "Everywhere we go, people are fired up about the Orioles."

The O's designated hitter knows this first-hand. He goes out with his wife, Jill, to Abbey Burger Bistro in Federal Hill and people want to talk about this team. He goes to Harris Teeter, the big grocery store in Locust Point, and it's the same thing, fans telling him how special this summer is because of the Orioles.

"Me, I don't go anywhere," Showalter said when I told him what Davis had found in his travels. "I get up and come to the ballpark. I leave here around 12:30 every [morning] and go home. If you drew a direct line between the stadium and where I live, that's where I go."

Showalter says he's been out to dinner in town "maybe four times" since the season started.

"But," he says, "it's a lot of fun leaving here after a day game and seeing all the people in orange walking around."

Oh, Showalter feels how different this summer is in Baltimore, too. Feels it at the ballpark, mainly. There are nights at Camden Yards when the crowd is so electric, he gets goose-bumps.

"We've tried real hard to raise the bar around here," he said.

They've definitely done that. To use Showalter's new favorite word, the Orioles have made themselves relevant again.

Relevant in August. Imagine that.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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