ARLINGTON, TEXAS — — For long-suffering Orioles fans, the prospect must be almost too delicious to contemplate.
They will crowd into Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sunday night to witness the first postseason game there since 1997 and, perhaps fittingly, it will be against their most bitter of rivals, the American League East champion New York Yankees.
The Orioles will be coming home to the warmest of welcomes after defeating the Texas Rangers, 5-1, Friday night in the one-game wild-card round at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. They will host the first two games of the best-of-five Division Series on Sunday and Monday nights at Camden Yards before playing the remaining games at Yankee Stadium.
What more could you want from this surprising, O-mazing season, than to watch the Orioles finally get their first postseason celebration, with manager Buck Showalter watching wistfully like a proud father?
"We talked about it all year," Showalter said. "We rallied around two things. We wanted to recover the faith of the fans and play long enough to give [injured star] Nick Markakis enough time to come back and play."
It remains to be seen whether Markakis can get back from a broken thumb and the Orioles can advance far enough to allow him to appear in the American League Championship Serires or World Series, but the fans are definitely on board.
What more could you ask from a group of players who overcame setback after setback and simply refused to be denied?
It has been the kind of year where the impossible has always seemed possible, so who should really be surprised that left-hander Joe Saunders overcame his winless career record against the Rangers in their ballpark or that the Orioles' bullpen squeezed the breath out of another good lineup?
Either way, the outcome of one game was not going to alter the special nature of the Orioles' truly amazing turnaround season. They confounded the so-called experts — who almost unanimously predicted that they would end 2012 where they ended 2011, in last place — and they renewed the faith of a disenchanted fan following that had waited 15 years for a season like this.
"We couldn't have scripted this season any better, with the Hall of Fame statue series and all the great Orioles players — and even guys like [NFL Hall of Famer] Lenny Moore — taking part in them,'' said Orioles ownership representative Louis Angelos. "It was just such a good feeling around the ballpark."
There is no "was" about it. That feeling will be rekindled Sunday night and undoubtedly amplified by a sellout crowd of Camden crazies.
It has been a season of such strange and magical moments that it quickly drew comparisons to the memorable "Why Not?" season of 1989, when the Orioles bounced back from the worst season in franchise history to take the heavily favored Toronto Blue Jays to the final weekend of the regular season before falling two games short of the American League East title.
There were similarities. This year's team marched through the summer with a no-name starting rotation and delivered a number of fabulous finishes for a fan following that needed much of the season to truly believe. The first real indication that something magical might be happening came in Boston in May, when the Orioles played 17 innings to defeat the Boston Red Sox, and designated hitter Chris Davis pitched the final two innings to get a victory that propelled them into first place.
There was one major difference. That 1989 team didn't get to the postseason and this one did, clinching a wild-card berth on Sunday while they were on a charter flight forced to make an emergency landing on its way to Tampa Bay for the final series of the regular season.
The Orioles didn't really get to celebrate that night. They were one out away from partying with the fans at Camden Yards earlier in the day, but the Los Angeles Angels rallied to beat the Rangers in the first game of a doubleheader to put the first Orioles playoff berth since 1997 on hold for a few more hours.
That was really the first time that the baseball gods seemed to turn their noses up at this new version of Orioles Magic. Then came the rough final series against the Rays that ended the quest for the division title and cast doubt on their ability to generate enough offense to defeat the slumping-but-still-explosive Rangers.
When the Rays pitching tied the Orioles offense in knots for the final three games of the season, message boards started lighting up with frustrated fans who had begun to expect something special every night.
The good news was always that this postseason — whenever it ends — was not going to be the end of the line for this team. For once, the core of talented young players is pretty much locked up for several years, and the Orioles can look forward to the healthy return of Nick Markakis, first-half pitching ace Jason Hammel and maybe even second baseman Brian Roberts.
"It's a young nucleus,'' said Orioles baseball operations chief Dan Duquette. "The fans should be heartened by the fact that they are going to be with us for a few years. We got it turned around this year, and with the players at these ages, we are going to be seeing them for several years."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app