Orioles confident their storybook season will be 'continued' in 2013

Team points to its cohesion, health and depth as reasons last year was just the beginning

March 30, 2013|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

The message on the black T-shirts that Orioles players have often worn around the clubhouse during spring training speaks volumes. It highlights their belief that last year's sudden success -- in which the Orioles shocked baseball and returned to the postseason for the first time in 15 years -- wasn't a fluke, but just a beginning.

"To Be Continued ... " the shirts, provided by center fielder Adam Jones, say in orange lettering.

Some of the Orioles' achievements during last year's magical season will be nearly impossible to duplicate -- the 16 straight extra-inning wins and the 29-9 record in one-run games -- and that's why most baseball experts don't believe the club can keep winning.

But that's just fine with these Orioles.

"We're back lying in the weeds again, and that's fine," manager Buck Showalter said. "We work pretty good out of the weeds. And I appreciate everyone helping us get back there, whether it be Toronto and what they did in the offseason or it's the national media. All that stuff is short-lived, all that doubting us. Sooner or later, that stuff goes away and the novelty wears off and the issue is, 'Are you good enough?' And last year, we were good enough."

The Orioles return a team mostly intact from last season, when they won 93 games after losing 93 in 2011. They excelled in the face of doubt and believe they can build on a season that ended with the Orioles dropping a decisive Game 5 to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.

"The whole entire year was motivating," Jones said. "It was special. I think the way it ended made us hungry. You see the light. You see the good side of this game. Now, we've put ourselves in a gantlet of 162 games in order to do it all over again. We know we have six months ahead of just pure hell because this division hasn't gotten any easier."

When executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette arrived in Baltimore before last season, he set a goal of fielding a .500 team in 2012. Their 24-win improvement far surpassed that and -- coupled with beating the Texas Rangers in the AL wild-card game -- raised the bar.

"Then the next benchmark would be to win the division consistently and field teams that make the playoffs every year," Duquette said. "And one of these times, with some luck in the playoffs, break through with a championship year. That's the idea, and we're making steady progress."

Duquette points to a quote from Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, whose Rays were one of the teams the Orioles outlasted to make the playoffs last season.

"He said, 'The Orioles used to show up to play. Now they show up to win,'" Duquette said. "That's a cultural shift. I thought that was a nice compliment."

Betting on cohesion

While other AL East teams had busy offseasons, the Orioles enter 2013 without many changes. The team's major move was re-signing outfielder Nate McLouth -- a spark plug last season after being recalled from Triple-A Norfolk in August -- to a one-year, $2million contract. The Orioles allowed first baseman Mark Reynolds and left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders to walk.

That's part of the reason the Orioles, on paper, are a popular choice to regress. A formula for predicting win-loss records based on run differential -- the Pythagorean record -- said the Orioles should have finished 82-80 last season. This year, sabermetricians expect the Orioles bullpen -- which compiled a 3.00 ERA last year, fifth-best in baseball -- to slip.

But the Orioles believe the players the team has assembled, the leadership of those players and the cohesion within the clubhouse can't be measured by statistics.

"I think the team aspect is overlooked quite a bit at this level," said reliever Darren O'Day, who was signed to a two-year, $5.8 million extension this spring with a third-year club option. "You take as much talent as you can, you assemble it and put it together, and see if it works. Sometimes it does and you have a dynasty, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's crash and burn.

"There was a method they had for hand-selecting guys who complemented each other and they knew would be good clubhouse guys. It's tough to explain to an outsider or even to witness, because it's very seamless in here. And a lot of the atmosphere and togetherness and synergy comes from the top and comes from Buck."

O'Day points to the pingpong, bumper billiards and cornhole games in the Orioles' spring training clubhouse. The activities bring players from different corners of the clubhouse together and keep them there past clock-out time.

"Where do you think all this comes from?" O'Day said. "That's all from Buck. He wants us to hang out and be friends. I've stayed here until 4 o'clock playing pingpong before. That's certainly time I'd otherwise be spending sitting on the couch or something."

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