Orioles catcher Matt Wieters is congratulated by his teammates… (Getty Images )
OAKLAND — On a bright, breezy afternoon in the Northern California ballpark that has given the franchise more trouble than any other in recent years, the Orioles officially exorcised the ghosts of losing seasons past while using their current tried and true formula of, “help us win, no matter who you are.”
Good thing, too, because the Orioles may be back at the Oakland Coliseum in less than three weeks, playing in their first postseason in 15 years.
With a 9-5 victory Sunday, the Orioles (82-64) clinched their first winning season since 1997, remained one game behind the New York Yankees in the American League East hunt and tightened their grasp on the second AL wild-card berth.
They also avoided a three-game sweep by the A’s (84-62), who currently have the top AL wild card spot and would host the Orioles for a one-game playoff on October 5 if the current standings hold through season’s end.
“We’re trying to win our division and we are trying to get to the playoffs in that order,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “We will think about (returning to Oakland) if we get that opportunity. But games like this give you that opportunity.”
Really, this entire Orioles season has been about creating opportunity for forgotten or forgettable players. Sunday’s three-and-half-hour marathon was the embodiment of that philosophy.
With Jason Hammel dealing with a right knee injury, the Orioles needed a spot starter and turned to 36-year-old lefty Randy Wolf, who was released by the Milwaukee Brewers last month and signed by the Orioles on Aug, 31, the last day he could be eligible for the club’s playoff roster.
Wolf had pitched in three games as an Orioles reliever, but hadn’t started since he gave up five runs for the Brewers against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 18. After his first five batters Sunday, it was understandable why he hadn’t gotten the starting call since.
He allowed two doubles, a walk and a two-run homer to A’s outfielder Josh Reddick in the first before getting a comebacker that he turned into a double play to escape further damage. He settled after that.
“You can’t panic about it. You give up two runs. OK, you’ve got to go from there. You just work on trying to get one out at a time and luckily I got a double play ball,” said Wolf, who lasted four innings, yielding just the two runs on six hits and two walks. “I think that was probably the biggest break of the game, getting that double play ball.”
After throwing 72 pitches in his first four innings, Showalter replaced Wolf with right-hander Tommy Hunter, who threw one scoreless inning. He turned the ball over to Brian Matusz, another pitcher who has reinvented himself to become a key cog in the club’s pennant push.
Matusz, who had a 5.42 ERA as starter in 2012, has been superb since he was converted to the bullpen and recalled from Triple-A Norfolk on Aug. 24. Matusz (6-10) threw two perfect innings on Sunday, dropping his bullpen ERA to 1.93 while earning the first relief win of his career.
“I’m having a blast going out there every day and having an opportunity to pitch and just taking advantage of the opportunities and throwing strikes,” Matusz said. “So far it has been a lot of fun. And it’s even more fun when you come away with wins like that.”
After scoring just 10 runs in their past four games, the Orioles plated nine Sunday on 13 hits. Four came off the bat of veteran outfielder Endy Chavez, whom the club took off its 40-man roster in August.
Chavez was home with his family in New York City last week after Triple-A Norfolk’s season ended when he received the call that he was needed in Baltimore because Nick Markakis had suffered a season-ending thumb injury.
So Chavez, who had batted under .200 for both the Orioles and Tides this season, rejoined the club Tuesday and five days later reached base five times and tied a career high with four hits, including a two-run single that proved to be crucial.
“Everything is positive,” Chavez, 34, said. “I know they had to wait a little bit to see me again but I am back in the big leagues.”
Chavez was one of four Orioles with multiple hits and one of seven with RBIs – furthering Showalter’s mantra that this is team that is “the sum of its parts.”
“Especially when you get a big park like this, you are going to have to do that. You are going to have to work some walks, and came up with some big hits, and you never know what part of the lineup is going to come up with big hits,” said catcher Matt Wieters, who had two solo home runs for his third multi-homer game of the season. “In this ballpark especially, you are going to need different guys to step up and we’ve been able to have that all year.”
What the Orioles haven’t been able to do is win in Oakland. They had lost 16 of their last 18 at the Coliseum before Sunday.
“Today was a big win for us,” Matusz said. “Coming out and dropping the first two, we definitely wanted to come out today and make a statement and get back on the winning track.”
It also was win No 82 – guaranteeing that 2012 will be a winning season, no matter what happens after this.
But that no longer seems important to the Orioles.
“Eighty-two doesn’t get you to the playoffs and that’s the feeling that we have,” Showalter said. “But I understand the significance of it and I’m not so cold to that to not know that it’s a good step for us and a good step for us in this season now. It’s something for us later in this offseason to pontificate on.” firstname.lastname@example.org