The Baltimore Orioles gave up their chance at a glorious regular season in fits and starts, but mostly in one four-day span from Sept. 19-22, when they hosted the first-place Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards for a four-game series in which they were swept, losing by scores of 5-2, 5-2, 5-1, and 5-3. When it was over, a team that had been in first place in the A.L. East as late as the second week of August was in third place, seven games out.
Still, even after you’ve forfeited glory, there’s the wild card. The current single-elimination wild-card format does a nice job of combining reward and punishment, and Baltimore got there through an appropriately grim, ambivalent, and anxious stretch run and final weekend. They blew a would-be playoff-clinching 3-0 lead to the Yankees Saturday, leaving fans to stew about tiebreaker play-in scenarios overnight, then cleanly finished off New York in their final game. Thus they ended up tied with the Blue Jays for second place and for the wild card, and travel to Toronto for the right to enter the real playoffs.
The Baltimore Orioles are a lax, sleepy team that sends out one unimpressive starting pitcher after another, fails to string together any hits to support them, gets demoralized, and writes off a whole week or two. The Baltimore Orioles are a steely, fearless team that doesn’t even care who’s starting, because their defense will shut down any opponent while their mighty home-run bats slug them out to a lead that their bullpen will never relinquish, day after day after day.
If you want to try to put a rational frame around this, to explain a team with three seven-game winning streaks and two five-game losing streaks, you could call these two Orioles teams “August” (13 wins, 16 losses) and “June” (19-9). You could call them “road” (39-42) and “home” (50-31). The final explanation here seems compelling enough that the Orioles, contemplating a three-way tie for the wild card, reportedly planned to decline the chance to play two road games, needing to win only one of them, in favor of a single do-or-die home game.
Third-base hero-genius Manny Machado is a bit of an oddity on the Orioles, as a widely recognized all-around superstar with a chance at being or becoming the best player in the game. It’s tough to argue that his very respectable 37 homers and .294/.343/.533 slash line in 2016 put him ahead of Mike Trout or Mookie Betts, but did Mike Trout or Mookie Betts move off their normal positions to play top-shelf shortstop for a month and a half when the regular shortstop was injured? They certainly did not.
Right fielder Mark Trumbo gave Baltimore the team’s fourth consecutive American League individual home-run crown, with 47 generally majestic blasts, leading an offense that was first in the league with 253 homers. As they did with Nelson Cruz two years ago, the Orioles grabbed their home-run champ on the cheap, this time by trading third-string catcher and future social-media personality Steve Clevenger to the Mariners. The bargain big-bat shopping spree also brought them DH Pedro Alvarez, who only hit 22 home runs but joined Trumbo in the Mark McGwire Club, occupied by those rare brawny souls who score half or more of their runs on their own homers.
Other notable home-run hitting has come from first baseman Chris Davis, who had 38 dingers while batting .221 in the first year of his new seven-year, $161 million contract; center fielder Adam Jones, who hit 29 while maintaining a statesmanlike and accurate perspective on the cultural politics of the game; second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who hit 25 to go with 38 doubles; and catcher Matt Wieters, who had 15 going into the last game of the year and then hit a two-run homer from each side of the plate.
This reliance on the home run helped make it so that backup catcher Caleb Joseph—who weathered a grave testicular injury along the way—had 141 plate appearances without ever driving in any of his teammates, let alone himself. Yet two years ago, Joseph homered in five consecutive games, meaning that there is absolutely no one on the Orioles who would be all that surprising to see hit a home run.
The only Oriole focused on reaching base, rather than just trotting around the bases, has been left fielder Hyun Soo Kim, who joined the team from the Doosan Bears, bombed in spring training, refused to accept a minor-league assignment, and eventually scratched his way off the bench by putting up a .382 OBP. Last week, with the Orioles threatening to sleepwalk into their open grave in a crucial series with Toronto, Kim lived up to his theme song by coming on as a ninth-inning pinch hitter, fouling off a string of tough pitches, and, since he is an Oriole, launching the ninth pitch he saw into the bullpen for the go-ahead two-run homer in a 3-2 victory. Scoring ahead of him was Michael Bourn, a late-season add-on who will be around in the postseason because he also gets on base and, in 24 games, has stolen two bases, good for second place in the team’s stolen-base leaderboard.
The starting pitchers have oscillated from fine to inadequate to sometimes good. The wild-card starter is Chris Tillman, who went 16-6 but spent August battling a bum shoulder. If there are any postseason starts after that, look for the young and sometimes dominant Kevin Gausman, the younger and occasionally dominant Dylan Bundy, the once unplayable but lately decent Ubaldo Jimenez, or ... Wade Miley? Yovani Gallardo?
Between the all-or-nothing offense and the roulette-wheel rotation, the team’s streakiness or its split personality make sense. The easy thing to do is to average out the strengths and weaknesses and decide the Orioles aren’t very good. None of the 55 staffers at FanGraphs who predicted which teams would make the playoffs picked the Orioles, even as a wild card, and their Pythagorean record of 84-78 says those 55 people should have been right.
Yet manager Buck Showalter juggled the available strengths, as he usually does, and the team arrived at the end of the season a bit ahead of where it was supposed to be. And when the Orioles are ahead late, the uncertainty goes away. Out of the bullpen comes one steadying presence after another—Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day—and then, finally, Zach Britton, who went 47 for 47 on saves, giving up four earned runs all year, for an unprecedented 0.54 ERA.
Talking about how great the closer has been doing, on the brink of the postseason, is like bragging about how beautiful your baby is where the evil faeries can hear you. So all there is to say about Britton is that his past three years amount to a relief-pitching peak about as high as anyone has ever reached, and that there’s a surprisingly persuasive pure-sabermetric argument that what he did in 2016—pitching the most important innings near-flawlessly for a team that needed every win—should make him the outright American League MVP.
Among the many ways the Orioles fluctuated between mediocrity and dominance this year was their 14-6 record in interleague play. If the Cardinals were around, which they are not, the Orioles would brush them aside.
As in our post-preseason Orioles roundup, the best baseball chin remains the chin of Manny Machado.
After 14 losing seasons in a row, Baltimore has now recorded its fifth consecutive season at .500 or above. By focusing on slugging, defense, and relief pitching, Showalter and GM Dan Duquette have built and sustained a smart team that plays to win, with no mythology or hocus-pocus and without extravagant spending. Victory for the Orioles is victory for the premise that everyone ought to have the chance to root for a decent ball club.