I’m one of the guys who thought that the Baltimore Orioles would flame out after their fast start, dead before Labor Day. But they surfed over a rough patch and rallied at the end, and as of Sunday they are in the American League playoffs. By Wednesday, depending how their down-to-the-wire dogfight with the New York Yankees goes, they could be American League East Division champs.
Never thought they would pull it off. As it stands, Buck Showalter is either manager-of-the-year or in a dogfight of his own with Oakland boss Bob Melvin. Stay tuned on that one. Manny Acta isn’t in the running. A year ago the way the Orioles, A’s and Cleveland Indians finished up, it was the Indians acting as if it was the team on the rise.
The Orioles had every chance to fold in September, a la the Red Sox and Braves of 2011, and they just kept scrapping. At the last minute, in need of reinforcements, future Hall of Fame slugger Jim Thome was activated from the injured list and turned in a couple of big hitting games. Having Thome around is a nice designated hitter insurance policy for the Orioles as long as his back and neck hang in there.
Beyond that, Thome, a 600-home-run man, also gives the team an identifiable player with a good backstory. The rest of the roster is pretty much populated by anonymous guys, young guys with potential, and the average fan looks over the names and wonders how this bunch is hanging head-to-head with the Yankees and all of their big-name players.
The first Orioles achievement that must be noted is that the team did not have a losing record. That seems to be a superfluous topic at the moment, but the fact is that Baltimore’s last above-.500 season occurred in 1997, so this is definitely something to place in the plus column.
Back in the day when Earl Weaver was managing and the Orioles displayed such talent as Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and others, the Orioles didn’t sneak up on anybody. They bludgeoned them and toyed with them on the mound. These Orioles, to date winners of 92 games, are still learning what they are capable of.
Just what they can do remains unknown. Going into the final days of the regular season, the Orioles don’t have a .300 hitter or a 100-RBI man. They not only don’t have a 20-game winner, their biggest winner has 12 Ws this season. This doesn’t add up to the kind of success the Orioles have recorded, but the team is very much playing at a collective level higher than its individual talent. Showalter must have been doing some things right.
People to watch in the playoffs are Adam Jones (32 homers, 81 RBIs, .288), designated hitter Chris Davis (31, 82, .272), and Thome. Also, Mark Reynolds (23), Matt Wieters (22), and J.J. Hardy (22) contribute their share of homers. Wei-Yin (I’m not Bruce) Chen weighs in at 12-10, but overall the starting pitching is doing it with mirrors and a closer a bit less publicized than many others, but who has 50 saves, in Jim Johnson.
Back to Thome for a minute. He is closing in on retirement and he signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in the off-season in order what seemed to him to have his best chance to win a World Series. Ironically, the Phillies fizzled, they traded him to Baltimore, and here he is, at the least back in the playoffs with a puncher’s chance.
Can the Orioles keep it up for a few more weeks in October? The AL pennant is there for the taking. The Texas Rangers started off hot, but have spent the entire rest of the year coming back to the pack so that they now have just one more win than the Orioles and Yankees. This is going to be an anything-can-happen playoff year and while the nation will be astounded if the Orioles claim the pennant, I have no doubt that is how they’re thinking in Baltimore.