Center fielder Adam Jones, perhaps the Orioles' best player and vocal leader, walked over to the corner of the Kauffman Stadium visiting clubhouse early Wednesday evening and began hugging teammates, from outfielder Nelson Cruz to pitcher Zach Britton to bullpen catcher Rudy Arias. Few, if any, words were exchanged each time.
Moments before, Jones had been leaning on the dugout railing watching the Kansas City Royals whoop and holler and dogpile on the diamond after their 2-1 victory over the Orioles that completed a four-game sweep in the American League Championship Series.
This wasn't supposed to be the scene — these Orioles who won 96 games, captured the AL East and swept the mighty Detroit Tigers in the AL Division Series weren't expecting to be dismissed so quickly by the wild-card-winning Royals.
These “We Won't Stop” Orioles expected to be celebrating, not consoling. But the ride finally stopped — abruptly — thanks to a Royals club that outhit, outpitched, out-caught and outplayed the Orioles.
“You can't sugarcoat it. They played really good baseball, and they deserve to go to the World Series. Not saying we don't. We just didn't win,” Jones said. “This team that we have is unbelievable. It's been an unbelievable year. Obviously, we'd like to continue, but it didn't happen. To get this far with this group of men has been an honor. Everyone in here has meant the world to myself and to each other and to each other's families.”
There were no tears in the Orioles clubhouse, no anger. Just the stunning reality that it was over.
“It's very difficult,” first baseman Steve Pearce said. “It was such a great season. We fought. We went through a lot of adversity. And we got here. And it's definitely difficult to end a season with a loss.”
In their 60-year history, the Orioles now have been involved in six postseason sweeps. This was the first time they have been on the losing end. That's not the only history that unfolded Wednesday before a rocking, blue-and-white waving announced 40,468 who hadn't witnessed their Royals advance to the World Series since 1985.
These Royals became the first team to start a postseason with eight straight victories — they beat the Oakland Athletics in the one-game wild-card playoff, swept the top-seeded Los Angeles Angels in the Division Series and then won four straight against the Orioles by one or two runs, including consecutive 2-1 games at Kauffman Stadium.
“It's really tough to swallow, honestly,” said Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez, who allowed just two runs (one earned) in 5 2/3 innings Wednesday. “It could have gone either way. We could have had maybe a couple wins, but we didn't. Everything they did, the little things, just went their way.”
Wednesday's game started fittingly for the Royals — with more advantageous moments for Kansas City and more frustration for the Orioles.
Alcides Escobar led off the bottom of the first with an infield single that clipped the second base bag and created a bad hop for second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Gonzalez, who hadn't pitched since Sept. 28, then hit Nori Aoki with a pitch. Lorenzo Cain, the ALCS Most Valuable Player who batted .533 in the series, followed with a sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third bases with one out.
Gonzalez pitched to Eric Hosmer with first base open — typically, the first inning is too early to walk a batter intentionally — and the move seemingly paid off. Hosmer hit a sharp grounder to Pearce for what appeared to be the second out. But catcher Caleb Joseph failed to corral the throw while trying to make a sweep tag. The ball bounced away and Aoki dashed home with the second run.
That was this series in a microcosm: A grounder to first and the Royals scored two runs. Both without the ball leaving the infield. And they didn't need another run.
During the regular season, even early in the postseason, the Orioles would have been on their way to a victory. They were 67-18 in the regular season when their starters allowed two or fewer runs and 2-0 in the ALDS in those situations — but 0-2 in the ALCS.
The Orioles scored just once Wednesday, on Ryan Flaherty's third-inning home run, his first of this postseason and his first in 2014 on the road — he had seven at Camden Yards.
Kansas City left-hander Jason Vargas and the Royals' terrific trio of shutdown relievers — Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland — limited the Orioles to four hits one day after they managed just three. As in the 2012 postseason, when the Orioles don't go deep, they can struggle to score.
The Orioles hit more homers than any other team in the major leagues in the regular season, but they were outhomered 4-2 in the series by the Royals, who had the fewest homers during the regular season.
As a team, the Orioles batted .217 with a .283 on-base percentage and a .297 slugging percentage in the ALCS. They had 30 hits and 29 strikeouts. Pearce, J.J. Hardy, Nick Hundley and Schoop combined to hit .120 (6-for-50) with 12 strikeouts. Jones batted .250, but he struck out in five of his 16 at-bats.
“I think everyone's disappointed,” said Flaherty, who led the team with a .333 average (4-for-12) and a .467 on-base percentage. “We played a good team, and we got outplayed in four games.”
The Orioles hadn't lost more than four games consecutively all year and hadn't dropped four in a row since late May.
“That's hard to do, it really is,” reliever Darren O'Day said. “Anytime in the season you win four games in a row against the same team, that's tough. but it seemed like they got a lot of bounces, a lot of fortuitous happenings. So we'll see how long that lasts for them.”
Along with the fortunate breaks, the Royals caught everything that was hit to them. Third baseman Mike Moustakas, Cain and left fielder Alex Gordon played stupendous defense. And when the Orioles did make solid contact, the balls found the gloves of Kansas City players. That's what happened in the sixth — the Orioles' best scoring chance — when Cruz batted with runners on the corners and two outs and smashed a liner directly at second baseman Omar Infante.
“I keep thinking about something I or we could have done differently. That's what you think about,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has yet to win an ALCS in his illustrious managing career. “But if you care, like our people care, it hurts.”
Ultimately, the Orioles believe they can return to this spot next year. They'll get catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado back from injury and infielder Chris Davis back from suspension — after the first game of the season. But they also could lose outfielders Cruz, Nick Markakis and reliever Andrew Miller, among other pending free agents
“I think we can be even better. We've got this far and we've been down a couple guys for a couple months. But the guys that filled in are such special guys. It's going to be fun to come to spring training,” Jones said. “We've been playing very good baseball for the past three years, and now we've just got to continue that and get over the hump.”