Orioles Storming Through September
September 12, 2012 by Bob Ekstrom • Print Story •
I've never had much respect for the Baltimore Orioles. That may come across as a spiteful comment given they co-lead the American League East well into September while my team is dead last, but a dissing of the Birds has always been pretty easy to justify. After all, they've made only two postseason appearances in the nearly 29 years since their last World Series championship. To paraphrase John Lennon, the only thing they done was yesterday. Make that 10,589 yesterdays.
To me, the O's will always be that 1988 poster child of incompetence that started the season at 0-21, or the Mother's Day Misfits who blew a 5-run lead with one out in the ninth, or the frauds of fall who single-handedly gave a 12-year-old kid with wandering hands his own Wikipedia entry.
I could also point out that, for 14 consecutive seasons, Baltimore has failed to top 79 wins. Like that crustacean delicacy for which they're renown, Baltimore can only crawl sideways across one calendar after another, unable to move forward. With last-place finishes the past five years, they've spent even more time in the basement than Ann and Mitt Romney.
But as a New Englander, what really sticks in my craw is the 15-39 record the O's compiled against the Yankees over the previous three seasons, even as they grinded out wins against my beloved Red Sox and single-handedly sealed their fate as the greatest collapse in MLB history. In hindsight, the grit and determination they showed last September has become the cornerstone for this year's success.
Yes, things are changing in the East.
The hangover that has lingered in Boston this summer has cleared enough landscape to dig out a new cellar for the division. It will not be in Baltimore this year. Last night, the Birds matched their 15-year high for season wins and they'll clinch a winning record later this week. And this morning, Orioles GM Dan Duquette awoke to his 107th day in first place, far more than his five predecessors combined. But can these paltry milestones serve to lengthen the perennially short Baltimorean autumn?
Sadly for Yankees haters everywhere, not this autumn.
Granted, prophesying the O's demise would be easy in the wake of Nick Markakis's regular season-ending thumb injury last Saturday. The splits are stunning; the O's are 62-42 with Markakis in the starting lineup and 17-20 without. They've struggled all season to find stability at the top of the order as Markakis is now the third lead-off hitter to go down. Along with the absence of a top-line starter — sorry, but Wei-Yin Chen does nothing for me, Tommy Hunter does nothing for anybody, and Jason Hammel went down again last night — and a paucity of power outside of Adam Jones, these Orioles are a long way from being mistaken for any birds of prey.
I get that it is precisely because of these limitations that they've become endeared to America. It also doesn't hurt that they're going up against the goliaths from Boston and New York within their division. The O's have been getting it done with no-names who have heart, and they perfect their craft when it matters most. Everybody loves that. There's Mark Reynolds, who has 21 homers all season, but 9 have come in the last 11 games and a dozen were against either the Red Sox or Yankees. And closer Jim Johnson, who entered 2012 having blown 16 of 37 career save opportunities. The O's are 44-1 in his opportunities this season, and he's saved 7 of 8 against the goliaths, while actually winning the eighth.
Through Bud Selig's added generosity, which gave each league an extra playoff berth starting this year, what was once a small breeze of hope wafting across the Chesapeake Bay has intensified into a 15-year storm that is battering the A.L. East and transforming its coastline. And while its stay will be brief, it has churned up baseball karma to the amusement of many. For instance, ehen was the last time you saw an egregious call cost the Yankees a game rather than their opponents?
With Baltimore and New York currently sharing the top seat in the East, it is not Duquette but rather, Yankees fans who tabulate days in first place. And when they whooped it up as history books got pummeled last year by the blows of Red Sox incompetence, they now turn to history for solace in coping with a 10-game lead lost.
Of course, there's a long way to go. The Yankees already won the East once back in July, and they'll do it again down the September stretch. They've got too much composure and — with Alex Rodriguez and Joba Chamberlain back in the fold, Ivan Nova and Andy Pettitte waiting in the wings, and Mark Teixeira due to return the last week of the regular season — too much ammunition not to.
Then there's the revenge factor. The road to the A.L. East may no longer go through Boston, but with five games remaining against the Yankees, six against the O's, and six more still against the Rays, the Sox certainly stand in the middle of it. Winning the division is all about who can run them over the most. The Yankees slipped off the shoulder and into the ditch last night. Nonetheless, Boston has its own bottle of karma in store for the Orioles. and they'd love to return the favor by knocking them out of this fall's play, even if it means putting New York in. This year more than any, the enemies of Yawkey Way are numerous.
Look for the Yankees to win four of their final five games against the Red Sox, while Boston in turn takes four of six from both Baltimore and Tampa Bay. That leaves the latter contenders to fight it out for Selig's final postseason slot.
Sure, a storm has been brewing in the American League East all season. Doesn't mean we have to break out the umbrellas just yet.