NEW YORK — The Orioles clubhouse was hushed as a red-eyed Buck Showalter emerged moments after the 3-1 loss that ended his team's unexpected and thrilling 2012 season.
One day, perhaps, the club might take solace in snapping the franchise's streak of 14 straight losing seasons or in returning playoff baseball to Baltimore for the first time since 1997. But Friday's American League Division Series loss — another excruciatingly close battle with the New York Yankees — hurt a little too much for perspective to come easily.
"You know, not right now," said right fielder Chris Davis when asked if the team was proud. "I think there's more frustration and disappointment. But in the next few days when you sit down and reflect over what's happened the last six or seven months, we've got a lot of things to be proud of."
Showalter was certainly proud.
"It's been about as much fun as I have had in the big leagues," he said. "Watching how they play the game every day, the standard they held themselves to and the way they raised the bar in Baltimore."
Orioles owner Peter Angelos met with team members after the game and spoke defiantly of the future.
"As far as the local team here is concerned," he said, speaking of the Yankees, "we just want to tell them we will be back next year. They better get ready for it."
The Orioles fell to a brilliant pitching performance by Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia, who went all nine innings and worked out of a bases-loaded threat in eighth.
The game carried a whiff of injustice. The Orioles appeared to tie it in the sixth inning when Nate McLouth lifted a ball deep into the rightfield seats. Slow-motion replays showed the ball changing trajectory as it apparently pinged off the outside of the foul pole. But umpires called it foul, both initially and after they reviewed it on video.
The Yankees added two runs after the controversial call and held on through the Orioles' rally in the eighth inning.
Back in Baltimore, fans came to Pickles Pub, just across from Camden Yards, to see if the Orioles could extend the season. There was a moment of silence in the bar with the final out, but then more than 200 people erupted in applause for the team that brought winning baseball back to the city. Tyronna Freeland, 39, of Baltimore, works in concessions for Camden Yards, and even though Friday technically was an off-day for her, she found that she couldn't stay away.
So she came to Pickles by herself because she wanted to recapture the feelings that made coming to work this summer so much fun for her.
"You had to be there to understand what it was like," she said. "There was just so much excitement in the ballpark. Last year, maybe 8,000 people came to the games. This year, they were sold out. There were the kids in their little uniforms, the fans in their face paint. And, everybody got along.
"I am so proud of this team."
Of course, Friday's game was supposed to be a mismatch from the start. Sabathia's $24 million salary, for instance, dwarfed the combined income of the Orioles' four-man playoff pitching rotation. But considerations of pedigree went out the window long ago as the teams split 22 games over the regular season and playoffs.
By Friday, the equation was simple for the Orioles: If they could beat the Yankees' star pitcher, they would fly to Detroit and keep playing on Saturday. If they couldn't, their delirious, once-inconceivable ride would grind to a halt.
Showalter did not let on if he was feeling the tension of the moment. Ninety minutes before first pitch, he chatted amiably about his beloved Mississippi State football.
As usual, the Yankees were shrouded in intrigue, the result of manager Joe Girardi's decision to sit his $29 million third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, for the decisive contest. The pre-game questions all focused on Rodriguez and whether the Yankees were falling apart as they faced an unthinkable end to their season.
"Panic?" Girardi said, with a half-grin that suggested he had heard it all before. "There is nobody panicking in that room. What does panic look like? I told you one day I would be really concerned if we all of a sudden took the field and every player ran out of the stadium. Now that's panic."
After the game, however, Yankees players admitted they were relieved to be rid of the Orioles, who dogged them step for step over the last three months. "Absolutely," said New York first baseman and Severna Park native Mark Teixeira. "I give them so much credit. … If we had played a 25-game series, it might be 13-12, because that's the way we've played them all year."
Try to think back to February and what a non-entity these Orioles were in the view of the wider baseball world. Almost everyone picked them to finish last in the American League East, and season previews decreed that they faced more questions than any Baltimore team in recent memory, which is saying something.
No one in Baltimore had given a second thought to Miguel Gonzalez or McLouth. All-Star relief pitcher Jim Johnson was still talked about as a possible starter. Manny Machado was a teenager expected to help some year in the nebulous future.
But this team — with its dominance in one-run games, its resourcefulness in plugging holes, the unstinting excellence of its relief pitching — has burned itself into the imagination of Baltimore baseball fans.
It will always be the club that ended 14 straight years of losing, the one that made a city don purple and orange for the first September in memory, the one that brought playoff baseball back to a rocking Camden Yards.
Maybe it will be filed with the "Why Not?" season of 1989, a wonderful surprise that did not foretell a full franchise turnaround. Or maybe it will be like 1960, the club's first winning season in Baltimore and the harbinger of a real sea change. Either way, it will be remembered.
"I think it's a changing of the guard," said Adam Wheatley of Cambridge, Md., who attended Games 4 and 5 in New York with his younger brother, Kyle.
The brothers firmly expected the Orioles to win but wanted to witness the pivotal games regardless.
"In my lifetime, there haven't been many chances to celebrate the Orioles like this," said Kyle Wheatley, 23. "You hope this is the first season of many like this, but you also have to take the moment while it's there."
When Diane Bindel slipped on her Orioles jersey Friday morning, she thought she'd go for a normal workday in Ellicott City and then watch Game 5 on television. Bu then her friend, LeeAnne Barbee, stopped at her desk and said, "How adventurous are you feeling?"
By 3:30 p.m., the women were standing in the first row at Yankee Stadium, watching their Orioles warm up.
"I've watched every pitch this season," Barbee said. "I love them. You know how long it's been since the Orioles had a good team?"
Bindel was aware that the drive back to Baltimore could be a sad one if the Orioles' season ended in the Bronx.
"But I don't think it will be sad, because it's so much fun that they've come so far," she said. "I'll always remember walking out of the stadium after the last home game and seeing everybody in O's shirts and a car rolling down the road, blaring 'Orioles Magic.'
"It was the coolest thing."
The Orioles, who will return most of their core players, expect to be back in contention next year. And the Yankees, eternal powerhouse of the AL East, expect the battle to carry over.
"You know, it's not a Baltimore team that you've seen in the past," Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson saud. "It's going to be a very good Baltimore team for a long time to come."
Baltimore Sun reporter Mary McCauley contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun