NEW YORK — Everything about the Orioles' amazing 2012 season has been hard to believe, including the sad fact that it is over.
The end came on Friday night in a place where the dreams of baseball players that are not clad in pinstripes do not often come true. New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia made sure of that, stifling the surprising O's in Game 5 of the Division Series at Yankee Stadium to move into an American League Championship Series matchup with the Detroit Tigers.
The Orioles headed home with plenty to be proud of — most notably a 93-win turnaround season and their first trip to the playoffs in 15 years — but the end of a season is always bittersweet unless it comes a lot later in October.
"We've got to remember this feeling, that we were that close,'' said 2012 Most Valuable Oriole Adam Jones. "We've taken steps in the right direction. Now, we've just got to get over that hump. The postseason is where you want to be. We had a hell of a year ... a hell of a year as a team. Some people had career years individually, but as a team the Baltimore Orioles had a sensational year. It [stinks] to end so soon, but all these men in here ... we all busted our [butts] this year from the first day of spring training until today. We came up a little short, but what don't kill you makes you stronger."
That's certainly the right attitude for a bunch of hungry young players to take into 2013, but it will be a while before they will be able to truly appreciate what they accomplished. It's too raw right now. They came too close to smile and fist-bump and just say "We'll get 'em next time."
Sure, 2012 has been fun and at least everybody got to enjoy a playoff run before the Mayan calendar runs out in December, but we're talking about the Yankees here. This wasn't just some run-of-the-mill postseason matchup against the Angels or Tigers. It was a series against the Orioles' most storied and bitter rival — the franchise that all others are measured against.
"For it to end this way, it stings," said first baseman Mark Reynolds, "but we had a good run, we got some experience and hopefully next year we'll be back in the same situation."
Manager Buck Showalter admitted that he got very emotional when he addressed the team for several minutes soon after the final out, but it was not so much because they failed to advance to the ALCS. It was because of what they accomplished against all odds.
"It's been about as much fun as I have had in the big leagues watching how they play the game every day, the standard they held themselves to and the way they raised the bar in Baltimore with each other,'' he said.
They did not come up short by a lot, but that is one of the few reasons for regret as the franchise heads into an offseason of still-necessary self-reflection and evaluation. The Orioles scored just 10 runs in five games against the Yankees, and the series was so closely contested that you can make the case that one more well-placed hit in Game 3 and the O's might be opening the ALCS at Detroit's Comerica Park on Saturday.
It was not a new issue. The young O's struggled with plate discipline all year and were chronically inconsistent with runners in scoring position, but they overcame that deficiency during the regular season with a constant shower of home runs and a bullpen that was all but impermeable.
The Division Series was an entirely different story. The Orioles scored as many as three runs in only one of the five games, and the heart of the lineup was almost silent. Jones had just two hits in 23 at-bats (.087) and the main five hitters in the lineup (J.J. Hardy, Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds) combined to bat .150 with no home runs and three RBIs.
"We fought, fought, fought,'' Jones said. "It's just unfortunate that a lot of guys got cold at the wrong time. If we had two or three guys hitting, it would have been different. But it's postseason baseball. You've got to manufacture. You've got to play the game. To their credit, both pitching staffs did deal. They had some hitters that didn't hit too well. We did also, but both pitching staffs dealt. We went out there and gave it our all. There are no excuses. We'd love to be on the other end of it, but we gave it our all."
It is true that no one could have expected the Orioles to accomplish anything close to this much when they opened spring training eight months ago, but they have created a new normal that made it possible for some fans to come away from the season unfulfilled.
Showalter can talk all he wants about how his guys were "playing with house money," but there comes a time in every gambler's hot streak that he realizes the money actually belongs to him now. For this team, that moment probably arrived when the Orioles were dousing each other with champagne during that wild clubhouse celebration at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
It probably arrived for the Orioles' long-suffering fan base a few weeks earlier, when the team was assured of passing the .500 mark for the first time since 1997 and the playoffs were no longer just a pipe dream.
Now, they have a right to expect a highly competitive team next year, and owner Peter Angelos seemed to promise them that when he made a brief appearance in the clubhouse after the game.
"As far as the local team here [the Yankees] is concerned, we just want to tell them we will be back next year,'' Angelos said. "They better get ready for it."
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