Showalter Stresses Positive, Even After Loss To Rays
By Jim Henneman
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Leaving Tropicana Filed after the 162nd game of the season, it was easy to draw the conclusion the team going home was better equipped to survive the playoffs and reach the World Series than any of the five American League teams that will begin the journey this weekend.
The Tampa Bay Rays are not in the hunt, though they have more of what teams want and need than most other major league teams.
"This time of year, if anybody says it's not about the pitching ... believe me, it's about the pitching," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said both before and after his team absorbed a 4-1 defeat that was … all about the pitching (plus four solo home runs, three by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay's missing link for more than half the season).
For the second straight night, the O's were mesmerized by the Rays' pitching, especially starter Jeremy Hellickson, who followed James Shield's 15-strikeout effort during a 1-0 losing cause the night before with a gem of his own. Hellickson surrendered one hit and one walk during 5.1 innings before manager Joe Maddon decided to turn proceedings over to the bullpen. And as the Orioles found out, there is no letdown when Maddon goes to his "backups."
The loss denied the Orioles their first chance to do something that Showalter identified as a priority: playing postseason baseball in Baltimore. But when a reporter attempted to parlay that desire with the disappointment of losing game No. 162, Showalter would have none of it, ending the conversation with the observation, "We still have that opportunity."
The idea of facing the Texas Rangers in a potential one-and-done elimination game on the road was not the main focus.
"We're proud of the opportunity we have," said Showalter, preferring to dwell on what the Orioles had accomplished rather than what many considered a daunting task at hand. "We still have that opportunity. ... It's in our hands."
The possibility of ending the season so swiftly after such a joyous, though occasionally turbulent, ride was a theme throughout the postgame discussion, but Showalter managed to stress the positive rather than the negative.
"We could also win one and be in -- and we look forward to that opportunity," Showalter said. "We feel good about where we are."
The land of postseason opportunity would be better served in front of a raucous crowd at Camden Yards. All indications are that the Orioles don't match up well with the Rangers, and have lost five of seven to the two-time defending American League champions this year, but this might not be the worst time for a one-game showdown.
Not only are the Rangers coming off an embarrassing three-game sweep at the hands of the Oakland A's and their rookie-laden pitching staff, including turning a 5-1 lead into a 12-5 loss during the decisive game on Wednesday, they are also staring at the possibility of the second-worst collapse in baseball history. At one time, Texas owned a 13-game lead in the AL West.
The Orioles will have to face a fourth-straight ace in Yu Darvish, but they can at least be comforted that he probably won't be as good as the pitchers they've seen the last three nights.
In addition to facing the Rays' pitching, the Orioles also got a glimpse of what might have been for Tampa had Longoria not missed more than half the season. After a rollicking start during the first month, the slugging third baseman went out with a leg injury and wound up missing 88 games. During the 74 he played, Tampa Bay was 47-27.
Every team in the AL East had injury problems, but it seemed as if people always heard more about some teams' problems than others. Somehow Longoria's name didn't enter the discussion, at least not as much as it should have. After his Oct. 3 barrage against the Orioles, Longoria finished the season with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs during just 273 at-bats.
Statisticians haven't invented a way to measure the unknown (although that WAR start would seem to be a start), but suffice it to say that if Longoria was around for the full season, there would have been another name to consider for the AL MVP, because the Rays could have been sitting with the No. 1 seed, waiting for the playoffs to begin.
That the Orioles won the season series from the Rays (10-8) speaks volumes to the improvements they've made. The Orioles dropped their team ERA to less than 4.00 for the first time since rookie Manny Machado was in pre-K. Consider that the Rays, who won 12 of their last 14 by outscoring the opposition 84-31, finished with 90 wins for the third straight year -- only the Yankees and Rangers can match that -- and the fourth time during the last five years.
"That team over there," said Showalter, nodding toward the other clubhouse, "has 90 wins and has to go home. It shows you how tough it is."
The message was as clear as it was unstated. It was Showalter's way of pointing out that the Orioles had 93 wins -- the same total as their losses of a year ago -- and would continue, in pursuit of the opportunity to continue some more.
As he has on an almost daily basis lately, Showalter hedged on confirming that Joe Saunders would start the game in Texas Oct. 5. Steve Johnson, who might have started a potential tie-breaker against the Yankees Oct. 4 had it been necessary, is another option. Quite possibly Johnson is the only other starting pitcher who will be listed on the 25-man roster.
Postseason rosters change with each new series, and Showlater has already indicated he'll probably backload his staff with relief pitchers for the one-and-done opening round, keeping a second starter only as an emergency backup.
Posted Oct. 4, 2012