Improbable run at spot in postseason continues
BALTIMORE -- The old days are here again in Baltimore.
It has been 15 years since the Orioles were relevant in their home city. As the losses mounted and the frustration grew, local fans simply tuned out. For years home games at Camden Yards against American League East rivals Boston and New York felt like road contests, further eroding player and fan morale.
But the Orioles, universally picked to finish last again in their powerful division, instead have produced a magical 2012 season that has them in prime position for a playoff berth and maybe their first AL East title since 1997. On Thursday, Baltimore completed a three-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays with a thrilling 3-2 victory in 14 innings before a raucous, orange-and-black clad daytime crowd of 25,130.
|Orioles 3, Rays 2 (14)|
|The Orioles have thrived on late-inning magic all season, with their 13 straight extra-inning wins telling the story of their surprising season. It happened again Thursday at Camden Yards when Baltimore prodigy Manny Machado, hitless in his first five plate appearances, blooped a game-winning single to left field to give his club a dramatic 3-2 victory in 14 innings over the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the second game in a row in which Baltimore won in its final at-bat, and in the process it may have crippled the Rays' playoff hopes. Tampa Bay (77-66) was knocked four games behind the second American League wild-card spot.|
With just 19 games left in the regular season, the Orioles (81-62) are tied for the lead in the AL East with the New York Yankees, who won 2-0 over the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night. The Orioles then packed quickly for a long cross-country flight to Oakland and a critical weekend series against the A's (82-61), who hold the first AL wild-card berth.
No one expected these September games to matter. Few thought Baltimore's post-All-Star break push would continue unabated. It has. The Orioles, who finally snapped a miserable string of 14 consecutive losing seasons Thursday, clearly belong. But they aren't finished.
"That's meaningless at this point," closer Jim Johnson said. "If you told the fans that they were going to end the losing seasons, they'd sign up in a heartbeat. But we're not going to settle."
Baltimore certainly wins with theatrics. It is a major league best 27-7 in one-run games this season. It has won 13 consecutive extra-inning contests. Last week the Orioles blew a 6-1 lead in the eighth inning to the Yankees. They simply responded with three home runs in the bottom of that frame and won anyway.
On Wednesday, Nate McLouth, a journeyman who was cut by the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 31 and offered one more chance by Baltimore, smashed a ball just fair off the right-field wall to win that game in the ninth. Manny Machado scored the run. On Thursday, Machado's bloop hit drove home the game-winner in the 14th to complete the sweep. Still, none of this really matters if the Orioles don't finish strong. They don't play for winning seasons, after all.
"There's a bigger goal in mind. [Finishing above .500] wasn't a goal from Day 1 in the spring," manager Buck Showalter said. "It's watching other teams for years and saying, 'We want to do what they're doing.' I'd like to get a chair at the dance."
Baltimore is garnering attention around the sport. Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who played for the Orioles during their glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s and later managed them to playoff berths in 1996 and 1997, is one. Even if the Orioles did beat his club four times in six interleague meetings this season.
"I grew up in this area. I grew up an Oriole fan," Johnson said. "To see them playing like I always think the Orioles should play is great. It's great that the team the Orioles used to whip up on over here [in Washington] is playing good, too. I think it's great for the area."