Rise Or Fall, Showalter's Guys Have Given Fans Summer Thrill
By Matt Palmer
For more than a decade, the Orioles were accused of looking like a Triple-A team.
This year, they're unabashedly proud of it, and winning at the same time. They also might be a playoff team. The result is a rare buzz in Baltimore for baseball, even while training camp has started for the Ravens.
"One of the goals we wanted to attack was the depth at the Triple-A level," manager Buck Showalter said. "We don't look at it as a 25-man roster. We look at it as 40-50 guys. We're able to bring some people in because one thing we can offer that two or three other teams can't offer is opportunity. We can offer opportunity. We've had to make a lot of moves to keep the ship in the water, and we'll continue to do that."
That line of thinking was clear after the trade deadline. Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, offered conflicting messages during the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, saying the team's answers were within, a sentiment similar to Showalter's. At the same time, he promised the club was going to be aggressive.
That didn't happen.
By staying out of the trade market, the Orioles decided that their first playoff push in 14 years would be largely with the players on their roster.
But, questions remain. Do they have enough to compete through August and September? What do they have to do to remain in the hunt for the American League East or a wild-card slot?
"We're all excited," right fielder Nick Markakis said. "The biggest thing is the fans are excited, too."
The 2012 Orioles have surprised virtually everyone in Major League Baseball. Showalter's masterful job has made him one of the front-runners for Manager of the Year. The Opening Day rotation was depleted by August, with injuries and demotions sidelining all but Wei-Yin Chen at least once during the season. Following a 3-1 win against the Seattle Mariners Aug. 6, the Baltimore pitching staff was 19th in total ERA, 26th in quality starts, 21st in WHIP and 21st in batting average against.
Offensively, the Orioles are in the same boat. The club was in the lower third in almost every statistical category, except slugging percentage, which was still just 17th best in baseball.
There is no magic formula for the Orioles. Coaches and players sometimes say, "We just found a way to win today," and that's what the Orioles have done. During a stretch between July and early August, the Orioles won 11 straight one-run games. Twenty-two of their 59 total wins through Aug. 7 were by one run.
The Orioles' run differential found them more than 70 runs behind their competition in early August.
By any measure, all the statistical evidence should be pointing to an Orioles team on the decline. After being seven games better than a .500 record in April and May, the Orioles were barely above even at other times during the season.
It's a team comfortable squeaking by, and perhaps the pressure of the playoff chase is in its wheelhouse.
Of the players that started on Opening Day at their assigned positions, only shortstop J.J. Hardy, catcher Matt Wieters and center fielder Adam Jones have been there the entire season.
Throughout the summer, players such as Steve Tolleson, Steve Pearce, Lew Ford and Ryan Flaherty were among those playing semi-regularly for the Birds. On the mound, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, two players who spent the first half of the year in Norfolk, were becoming some of the team's best starting pitchers in August.
The Orioles, under Showalter in 2010 and 2011, picked up steam in September and salvaged what could best described as miserable seasons. How will the Orioles, now molded completely in the image of Showalter and in the playoff chase, respond as fall begins?
So many people around Baltimore have uttered the words, "Why Not?" when talking about this season. It's a phrase that was used to describe the 1989 Orioles, a team no one expected to be competitive. That team didn't make the postseason.
The Orioles have dealt their own cards. Now, it's time to see whether they're holding a winning hand.
"We're not done," Tillman said. "We've got a long way to go here. We've got a lot of season left. We've got to keep working until we're done."
Issue 176: August 2012