When the playoff microscope gets rolled out next week and experts begin to dissect the Orioles — assuming they hold on to at least an American League wild-card spot — one of the primary criticisms is going to be the club's overall lack of postseason experience.
No current Orioles player has won a World Series. Only four players on the current 40-man roster, not including those on the 60-day disabled list, have played in one — designated hitter Jim Thome in 1995 and 1997 with the Cleveland Indians, outfielder Endy Chavez with the 2011 Texas Rangers and pitchers Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day with the 2010 Rangers.
All told, the Orioles have 13 players on their active 40-man roster who have played in a postseason game, but only Thome has what can be considered extensive experience.
So are the Orioles at a major disadvantage with so many players who have not endured the postseason spotlight, or will blissful ignorance play in their favor?
"It works both ways. I think as you get further into it, [experience] plays more," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who lost in the first round of the playoffs with the New York Yankees (1995) and Arizona Diamondbacks (1999). "The problem is there are not many times through the year that you play with finality. Lose this game you go home, win this game you get to continue. That doesn't happen much in baseball, so that's a different environment than they are used to."
As the Orioles' surprising season progressed and the playoffs became a more realistic scenario, club executive vice president Dan Duquette began looking to add players with postseason experience. He traded for Thome and veteran right-handed pitcher Joe Saunders, signed lefty Randy Wolf (now on the 60-day DL) and promoted 30-something outfielders Lew Ford and Nate McLouth from the minors.
"We targeted players for late-season additions that had playoff experience," Duquette said. "It's important you have some playoff experience on your team, so the guys that have been through the playoffs can show the other guys the way."
Thome, a likely Hall of Famer, was the most significant acquisition. He has had 217 at-bats and played in 67 games in the postseason in his 22 years as a big leaguer. Consider that the rest of the Orioles' active 40-man roster, including pitchers, has appeared in 71 playoff games and the position players have logged 131 total postseason at-bats.
"Playoff experience is hard to replace," Thome said. "My history of it is just enjoy every moment, it goes really quick. Take the time and sit back and breathe and really understand that you may not ever get this opportunity again. So enjoy every moment."
Thome's first postseason was in 1995 with the Cleveland Indians, a mix of hungry young stars such as Thome and Manny Ramirez and established veterans such as Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield.
"We had guys who had a calming presence. I think that's the big thing," Thome said. "Let's face it, when you have a manager like Buck, he is that calming presence, which rubs off on all of our guys whether you're a veteran or a young guy or a rookie. That's a big thing. You kind of feed off your general, your guy and we've done that with Buck."
Still, no matter how much Showalter prepares his team for the postseason, initially it will be an overwhelming experience. That's just the nature of high-profile sports these days.
"It is a whirlwind, it was definitely a lot. People try to tell you, 'Hey, prepare for it.' The media is gonna be unbelievable," said Hunter, who at age 24 started a game in each round of the playoffs, including the World Series, for the 2010 Rangers. "I'll be honest, that was the tough part. Going out and playing the game, that was the fun part of the day. The terrible part of the day, I hate to say it, was the media. That's to be expected now, and I understand it."
Everything is magnified in the postseason, Hunter said, and young players need to make sure they don't lose focus or they can become a legendary goat in a matter of moments.
"Especially on the road, you have to make sure you take it one pitch at a time," Hunter said. "I had a couple instances when you fall behind and one hit turned into two runs quick, because you start thinking about stuff."
No one in the Orioles' clubhouse knows the lasting effect of the postseason glare more than Chavez, who became a cult hero in New York City in 2006 when he made an amazing, leaping snare of a Scott Rolen would-be home run in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series that the Mets eventually lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1.
Not only did Chavez make the circus catch, but he had the awareness to immediately throw the ball back to the infield to double up Jim Edmonds at first base to keep the score tied at 1-1. Forever known as "The Catch," in Mets history, Chavez took two curtain calls that day at Shea Stadium, and the play has been immortalized with a plaque at the Mets' new home, Citi Field.
"The thing that happened in that game can happen to anybody at anytime. Honestly, when I made that catch I didn't think it was going to be a big deal here in the United States," said Chavez, a native of Venezuela. "But now when people see me, they just want to talk about the catch. I am not famous; the catch is famous."
Scott McGregor pitched in 356 regular season games with the Orioles, winning 138 of them. He also made six postseason starts, including losing Game 7 of the 1979 World Series after allowing two runs in eight innings, and a complete game shutout in Game 5 of the 1983 World Series to clinch the franchise's last championship. For some, those are the only games that mattered in McGregor's career.
"People say, 'Hey, I saw you pitch [on TV] today.' I'm like, 'Did I win or lose? Was it '79 or '83?'" McGregor, now the organization's pitching rehab coordinator, said. "It's something that is going to stay with you for the rest of your life. … The people in Baltimore can remember what pitch I threw when. It's a pretty amazing thing to get to a World Series and win. It never goes away, never goes away."
McGregor said these current Orioles remind him of the 1979 group that had budding stars such as Eddie Murray and Mike Flanagan and respected veterans such as Lee May and Terry Crowley. Playoff experience is helpful, McGregor said, but "can be a little overrated."
What matters most, he said, is that this team doesn't change its even-keel approach.
"The big thing you have to watch out for if you get into the playoffs is if you try to do more than you can. If you go, "OK, I'm in the playoffs now, I've got to be Superman.' Just keep doing what you are doing," McGregor said. "It is valuable experience, but the main thing that's happened here is that they have finally become a team and they have the winning attitude. And that's really what it is all about."
Despite popular belief, Thome said he's not convinced that veteran clubs with deep postseason experiences like the New York Yankees or the Texas Rangers hold an advantage over upstarts like the Orioles or Washington Nationals. Ultimately, he said, it's about ability and determination.
"Young talent is a big thing in this game. This is a young man's game. It is. Look at the young players coming up," Thome, 42, said. "Having a mixture of good veterans can help along the way. Not necessarily guide, but be that voice that maybe a young guy wants to go to."
Said Showalter: "Experience only goes so far. It's one thing to have been there, it's another thing be there [again]. Every team and every situation is different. But I think every time you get faced with something that you've done before, there is a certain comfort level. We'll see."
Current Orioles with playoff experience
(40-man roster players not including those on the 60-day disabled list)
Name Postseason Series World Series Total Games Record Innings ERA
Joe Saunders 3 0 4 0-1 18 6.00
Tommy Hunter 3 1 3 0-2 11 1/3 5.56
Darren O'Day 3 1 11 0-1 4 2/3 7.71
Jason Hammel 1 0 1 0-0 3 2/3 9.82
Luis Ayala 1 0 2 0-0 1 1/3 6.75
Name Postseason Series World Series Total ABs Avg. HRs OBP Slugging
Jim Thome 15 2 217 .217 17 .320 .470
Endy Chavez 4 1 40 .200 0 .200 .250
Mark Reynolds 2 0 26 .154 2 .241 .385
J.J. Hardy 2 0 24 .292 0 .346 .375
Wilson Betemit 5 0 19 .263 1 .333 .474
Lew Ford 3 0 12 .250 0 .357 .333
Bill Hall 1 0 8 .250 0 .333 .250
Nate McLouth 1 0 2 .500 0 .500 .500
Source: baseball-reference.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun