Despite all they've had to overcome, Orioles have what it takes

Club dealt with season-ending injuries, suspensions, struggles on its way to first AL East title since 1997

Orioles celebrate American League East title

Orioles celebrate American League East title (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / September 16, 2014)

Sorry, Oriole Magic fans, there was nothing supernatural about the way the club ran away from the rest of the American League East this year, even if it does defy logical explanation.

They clinched the division title in surprisingly short order with one of baseball’s best all-around catchers on the shelf for five months, their Platinum Glove third baseman recovering from another serious knee injury, and last year’s most explosive major league hitter shockingly suspended for violating the sport’s amphetamine policy.

How much more could a team projected to finish near the bottom of the division be expected to overcome?

Well, plenty.

If someone had told you during spring training that $50 million free-agent pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez would be so ineffective that he would end the season as an afterthought, and J.J. Hardy would have to play through a variety of injuries that stole his home run swing, could you have imagined that the Orioles would be the first team in the American League to clinch a division title?

No one seriously could have expected anything like that, but Team Counterintuitive turned statistical convention on its head all season long and proved that chemistry can trump both luck and talent if there’s no other alternative.

Buck Showalter obviously was the mixmaster here, but baseball operations guru Dan Duquette and his staff never tired in their search for the key additions that allowed the Orioles to meet every unexpected challenge.

And it’s only fair to credit former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail for laying the foundation that helped make the club’s string of three straight winning seasons and two postseason berths a happy reality for long-suffering Orioles fans.

Though there are all sorts of points over the course of an exciting and successful title run that could reasonably be designated as watershed moments on the road to the playoffs, the first indication that the Orioles might have a special kind of resilience came at the end of the first week of the season.

They won their season opener and then promptly lost four straight games to paint themselves into a corner with Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander going for a series sweep at Comerica Field. The Tigers would win six of Verlander’s first seven starts, but not that one. The Orioles outlasted him and followed that up by winning a three-game series at Yankee Stadium.

Ten days into the season, they were 4-5, but had beaten both Red Sox ace Jon Lester and Verlander and became the only opposing team to win a game started by Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka during the first seven weeks of the season.

It would be a strange pattern that would continue throughout the season.

The Orioles played some of their best baseball against the league’s best pitchers, yet often struggled against unknown rookies or high-ERA journeymen. Their ability to rise to an occasion, however, more than counterbalanced their one-dimensional offensive attack and —until the final months of the season — an inconsistent starting rotation.

Each challenge was an opportunity to silence their critics. When Chris Davis went down for 12 games with a strained oblique in late April, the Orioles won nine of those 12. When Manny Machado was suspended and had to sit out five games from June 30 to July 4, the Orioles won the first four, and after he suffered his season-ending knee injury, they won 20 of their next 29 games.

The Orioles have had one of the most airtight bullpens in the game, but when closer Tommy Hunter faltered in mid-May, Zach Britton moved into the role and converted 37 of 41 save opportunities.

While we’re in “Who’d a thunk it?” mode, who really could have predicted that the guy who missed 50 games last year serving a drug suspension would bounce back to be the team’s Most Valuable Player, while last year’s team MVP ended the regular season this year serving a drug suspension? Not sure that technically constitutes irony, but you have to admit it’s an intriguing twist.

The Orioles will enter the playoffs against the Tigers on Thursday with all of the same issues that failed to torpedo their winningest season in nearly two decades. They started the season with Machado waiting to complete an all-but-set lineup and ended it integrating a host of role players who performed so well that Showalter was lying awake nights in September trying to figure out how he could fit them all on the 25-man playoff roster.

They somehow hit more than 200 home runs for the third season in a row with only half of Davis’ 2013 production and barely a third of Hardy’s home run total. The starting rotation evolved into one of the most consistent in the league in the second half under new pitching coach Dave Wallace. The defense remained sound no matter how many different configurations Showalter was forced to employ.

Whether it all plays that way in the postseason remains to be determined. The Orioles aren’t the best team in the AL on paper, but they have proved over a very long and eventful regular season that they have what it takes to compete with anyone.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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