ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — From the moment manager Buck Showalter took over the club in August 2010, there was talk about how he needed to change the culture of losing that permeated everything Orioles.
Not just get this team out of last place in the American League East, but push the Orioles above .500 for the first time since 1997 or, somehow, some way, propel them into the playoffs.
More was needed; an attitude adjustment of sorts.
Whether it's Showalter's commanding presence, an influx of new players or the natural enchantment that comes with finally tasting success, the Orioles return to Camden Yards for Friday's 2013 home opener as a club no longer content on being good enough.
The Orioles won 93 games in 2012, made the postseason for the first time in 15 years and pushed the New York Yankees to a deciding fifth game in the American League Division Series. Now their encore, they believe, must be better.
"We are holding ourselves to a higher standard," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "We all understand that we can be good, but we need to be better than good to get where we want to be."
Case in point: On Tuesday, Jason Hammel, a 30-year-old right-hander who has been traded away by two organizations, got the call to make his first Opening Day start. He pitched six innings, allowed four baserunners and three runs — good enough to secure the win for the Orioles and his first at Tropicana Field in 32 appearances.
Afterward, Hammel described the outing — which qualifies as a quality start under baseball's definition (six or more innings pitched; three or fewer runs allowed) — as "pretty bad" and said "I honestly don't feel like I did anything" to get the win.
"I strive for perfection. Everybody does, I guess, but I wear it on my sleeve," Hammel said a day after his Opening Day victory. "Accountability, that's just the way my parents brought me up. Be responsible for what you do, and if it is not something good enough in your eyes, then do something to improve on it."
Oftentimes in the past, if an Orioles starter got into the fifth or sixth inning giving up four runs or so, he seemed content. And that wasn't appreciated by some of the more polished veterans.
So what did Hammel's Orioles' teammates think about their pitcher's comments this week?
"That is awesome," left fielder Nate McLouth said. "It is awesome he is holding himself to that high of a standard. I can only talk about it since I've been here, but personal accountability is no problem here."
Said right fielder Nick Markakis of Hammel's comments: "It just shows you what kind of person and player and competitor he is."
Markakis has spent his entire career with the Orioles. He was drafted in 2003 and debuted in 2006. He never played on a winning big league team until last year. The vibe in the clubhouse has changed dramatically in the past few years, Markakis said.
"The difference between now and then, we were young and we just had a bunch of guys that were just happy to be here instead of being here and making an impression," Markakis said. "Not necessarily an 'I-don't-care' mentality, but just a lot of guys happy to be here. And, honestly, that's not what you want. I understand they were young and stuff, but as a player you want to be good and stay here. It's not just about being here."
Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said he saw the team's attitude changing last year; Guys like Hammel and Chris Tillman keep pushing themselves, even when they turn in a solid outing. That, he said, is a by-product of learning to be successful.
"When you win like we did last year and everybody knows what it takes to win, you become real good self-evaluators," Adair said. "Tillman's real good with that and Hammel's got to that point. He's evaluating himself well. All these guys are; their standards are high. Mediocrity, they know, is not acceptable in their minds, which is good."
There's a chicken-and-the-egg equation in the Orioles' newfound accountability.
Did Showalter infuse it when he took over? Or did the club bring in a bunch of players who intrinsically had that capability, players such as Hammel and Hardy and Manny Machado.
"I think it's a little bit of both," Markakis said. "Hammel has been around [the majors] a while and he understands what it takes to stay and be successful. But Buck also brought a lot in. His mentality is contagious around the clubhouse, and that's what we lacked here for a long time."
For his part, Showalter likes to say it's the maturity and focus of his players that makes the difference. Maybe he sets the tone, but they police themselves, he says.
"Very few things have to get to my plate. It makes it a lot easier on me to worry about the things that I should be. These guys, we sat down the last day of spring training and they made the guidelines of what they want to be about. So if something gets pulled sideways, they refer back to that," Showalter said. "I learned a long time ago never put a rule in you aren't going to enforce. I ain't chasing them all over Baltimore. I'm too old."
Showalter said he'd like to think that he has a clubhouse filled with players who hold themselves and each other accountable, who own up to mistakes when they make them and who aren't satisfied when they've done a decent job.
"We'll see. I hope so. I think we have that potential. But we have a lot of bridges to cross," he said. "We have the potential to have those guys. It very quietly has turned into the job description here. You want it to be the norm, not the exception."
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