No one could have seen this magical Orioles season coming

Few experts thought this Baltimore team could compete this year; they were wrong

September 16, 2014|Peter Schmuck

It’s almost hard to get your arms around. Three years ago, the Orioles were a divisional doormat with a 14-year losing streak and a frustrated fan base that didn’t know if the franchise would ever figure out which way was up.

Six months ago, they were a projected third-place team — at best — with a one-dimensional offense and a questionable pitching staff.

Today, they are American League East champions and they are headed for the postseason with a chance to reach the World Series for the first time since 1983.

Who, really, could have seen this coming?

Certainly not the preseason prognosticators, very few of whom picked the Orioles to upstage the defending world champion Boston Red Sox or the pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays. Certainly not the stat geeks who were certain that the starting rotation would wear out the bullpen and the offensive lineup would not get on base enough.

But this city believed. The Orioles’ faithful saw what Buck Showalter did to turn the franchise around in 2012 and never lost belief that the strong young nucleus of this team would find a way to take the next step. It didn’t happen last year, but the Orioles had their second straight winning season.

So much has happened since then that should have made Tuesday night’s champagne celebration happen in some other AL East city, but Showalter and his merry band of pie-faced heroes overcame every obstacle and met every challenge.

Every time the Orioles lost a star-quality player for an extended period — and it would happen at three different junctures of the season — they simply turned that job over to the next guy in line.

There were plenty of fans wondering how they would replace All-Star catcher Matt Wieters when he was lost for the season with an elbow injury, but a minor leaguer named Caleb Joseph suddenly emerged.

When Manny Machado, baseball’s best defensive player last year, went down with his second serious knee injury in less than a year, some wondered if the record-breaking defense he anchored at third base would come unraveled. Instead, the Orioles didn’t miss a beat down the stretch.

When everything that could possibly go awry for 2013 American League home run king Chris Davis, including the positive drug test that ended his regular season last week, somebody else was there to put a charge in the Orioles lineup.

What were the odds?

Who cares?

Sometimes, the race really doesn’t go to the swift. Sometimes, it goes to the team that just wants it more. This time, it went to a group of guys so resilient that there simply was nothing that was going to stop them from proving everybody wrong.

“When you’ve got good people and you’ve got people that care, the sky’s always the limit,’’ Showalter said. “When everybody’s pulling on the same rope and you’ve got one heartbeat, your goal is that heartbeat and some things that you wouldn’t think can be done can be done.”

Give some credit to baseball operations chief Dan Duquette for going out last spring and signing veteran slugger Nelson Cruz just months after he finished serving a 50-game suspension for his part in a performance-enhancing drug scandal. Duquette’s other big signing — starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez — didn’t work out quite so well, but it didn’t matter because the Orioles rotation came into its own during the second half of the season without him.

Give some credit to owner Peter G. Angelos for finally putting his team in very capable hands and then allowing Duquette and Showalter to work their magic for the past three seasons without significant interference.

Of course, it was Showalter who truly changed the franchise when he took over as manager. He created the environment that spawned a team that reflects his scrappy personality and unflinching attention to detail. He proved that developing the right chemistry was just as important as assembling the right talent.

The result was the kind of team that an earlier generation of Orioles fans would recognize in an instant … the kind of team that would have made the Earl of Baltimore — Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver — proud.

The only question left is what happens next. If the Orioles remain one of the top two playoff seeds until season’s end, they will host the first game of the American League Division Series on Oct. 2 at Camden Yards against the AL Central Division champion. If the season were to end today, that would be the Detroit Tigers.

No matter who they end up playing, navigating the road to the World Series will require the same kind of resourcefulness and resilience that got the Orioles to the point where they could drench each other in cheap bubbly Tuesday night and act like joyous children.

It would be tough to bet against them at this point. They have passed every test and silenced every critic.

They also have unveiled a new slogan — “We won’t stop!” — and will give out T-shirts on Wednesday bearing it.

Might be time to take them at their word.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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