The Orioles knew their chances of making the playoffs this season were minuscule entering Tuesday night -- a less than 0.1 percent chance, according to CoolStandings.com -- but manager Buck Showalter had his team believing down to that last sliver of hope.
That’s why the scene inside the Orioles clubhouse following their 3-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in 10 innings -- a defeat that officially eliminated the team from playoff contention -- was so sullen.
“We play from Feb. 15 to get to the playoffs and play in October,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “And tonight, knowing that we’re not going to be able to, is disappointing.”
The Orioles had long turned the page from last season’s memorable march to the postseason, and despite the ups and downs, despite the one-run losses, the Orioles believed they could eventually channel some of that 2012 mojo because they had the same core group as last year -- including several players who had better offensive seasons this year.
At the end of the day, the Orioles’ 31 one-run losses were the difference between the season ending this weekend and something more, especially a stretch of 13 losses in their past 16 one-run games.
Fans likely will -- but it’s far too easy to -- lump it all on closer Jim Johnson, whose nine blown saves were an ugly blemish to the season. There were times when the starting rotation didn’t give the bullpen the innings to win. The Orioles offense was too inconsistent down the stretch, unable to manufacture runs in close games later in the season.
The Orioles will clinch back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996 and 1997 if they win one of the five remaining games, but this club faced suddenly raised expectations this season. Those 14 straight losing seasons? They quickly became just a bad memory. Anything less than the playoffs is considered a disappointment now -- and the Orioles knew that.
“It's tough because, when we got there last year, we didn't just expect to be there again this year,” Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth said. “It's tough to get to the playoffs and being in one of the toughest divisions probably makes it a little tougher. Having that be your expectation and your goal, for it to not come to be [the playoffs], is disappointing, because it's such a long season and we go through so many ups and downs and with that being the ultimate goal, now that's out there, so it's a tough night.”
The one memorable highlight Tuesday didn’t happen on the field, but occurred in the middle of the fifth inning, when injured third baseman Manny Machado received a standing ovation from the sparse Camden Yards crowd while, sitting in the Orioles dugout, he was shown on the video board. Machado tipped his cap to the fans, who then cheered louder.
The news earlier in the day was as good as one could expect after the harrowing scene at Tropicana Field on Monday -- Machado on the ground clutching his left knee. Tests revealed no damage to his major knee ligaments, and it appears Machado will avoid surgery, can return to light running within six to eight weeks and will be healthy in time for spring training.
Inside the Orioles clubhouse, the Orioles were optimistic that Machado would return as the same player he was before the injury.
“He will,” McLouth said. “I was thinking about this yesterday. There was a young third baseman for the Atlanta Braves [Chipper Jones] who blew out his knee his first season and he went on to do pretty good. He does things the right way and he works hard. It’s a tough situation. ... but he’ll be fine.”
Machado wasn’t available to the media before or after Tuesday’s game, so he will make his first public comments since the injury this afternoon, but Machado was seen smiling with his teammates in the dugout, a very good sign given his last 48 hours.
And inside the seating bowl of Camden Yards, you could tell it was important for fans to be able to give Machado one final ovation for a splendid 2013 season. As seen by the growing number of Machado jerseys inside the ballpark and all around the Baltimore area, he's a huge part of the team's future -- and the fan base's optimism for the future.
"In all honesty, I think it's good for the organization and our fans in general,” Showalter said. “I think people the last few years understand we're trying to get a grip on who we are and Manny's part of who we are. I think there was a little semi-sigh. But I think they would have felt that about a lot of our guys who had that same problem because they know we're counting on everybody. A piece of the chain, so to speak. Manny's potentially a big piece of that."