Fan faith grows as Orioles hold first place

Two years ago, when the Orioles unleashed the region's pent-up baseball passion with their first playoff run in years, they did it by walking baseball's version of a tightrope.

They played a lot of nail-biters — winning 29 games by just one run. They snatched 16 of 18 in extra innings. They didn't nab a wild-card playoff spot until the last week of the season.

This year has been a steadier march. These O's have seen no major streaks, good or bad, but they've won six or so games out of every 10, climbing to the top of the American League East, where they've been since early July.

The O's are in first place, eight games ahead of the Yankees with 28 games to go, and the faithful are loving it even more than the white-knuckle ride of 2012.

"There was a lot of excitement they just got to the playoffs after 14 [losing] years. But that only gave us inspiration to rise higher," said longtime fan Edward Knox, who was decked out in screaming orange at a home game against the Tampa Bay Rays this week. "Now there's more confidence. It feels like we're not going to fall back down. I believe we're good enough to win."

Across town and around the region, fans are looking forward to October baseball and hoping this Baltimore team can be the first to reach the World Series in 31 years. They're wearing their optimism in Oriole orange and black, sporting O's T-shirts, ball caps and wigs, spreading the mania from the Inner Harbor to the distant suburbs.

At a time of year when the attention of sports fans is usually on the Ravens' approaching season, more people than ever seem to be thrilling to Oriole Magic, 2014-style.

"Two years ago, it was great, but you still kind of thought, 'I don't know if I can trust this,'" said Andy Makris, a lifelong O's fan who owns Pepe's Pizza, a restaurant near a light rail stop in Mount Washington. "Now fans are packing our place before they ride downtown for games. They're stopping in afterward, spending money, talking baseball and having fun. It's a special time to be in Baltimore."

What's causing the furor is a team fans say delivers steady results, rarely getting carried away with a win or downtrodden by a loss. It's a long baseball season.

It's the kind of club a blue-collar town can warm to. And it's a better Orioles team than Baltimore has seen in years. The Orioles haven't taken the division since 1997. Even two years ago, the team lost to the Yankees shortly after winning the wild-card spot.

"This is such an easy team to root for," said fan Ruth MacGregor, who was in the stands with her daughter, Andrea Hongtong, for Wednesday night's game against Tampa Bay. "There are no egos. It's not about a Derek Jeter or an A-Rod. This is a team."

To be sure, power hitter Nelson Cruz was leading baseball with 34 homers, closer Zach Britton was fifth in the American League with 30 saves, and the team's 173 home runs was tops in the majors.

This year's fans are also impressed their team can stay in the hunt even after losing All-Stars like catcher Matt Wieters in May and third baseman Manny Machado for much of the season.

When Wieters underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, little-known backup Caleb Joseph emerged to throw out 44 percent of would-be base stealers. With Machado sidelined by knee injuries and a suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct, the team has won 31 of its past 52 games.

"I think we'll be all right," said fan Matt Cornelia, 32, from his seat near home plate as the ballpark filled up. "They've had setbacks, but they adjust."

At Camden Yards, where attendance has averaged about 30,000 this season, fans have been energized, gyrating to country and hip-hop, clapping in unison and starting chants.

On Friday, Chris Davis hit a grand slam — his 24th home run — in the fourth inning, and the place went bananas.

Some fans have started believing.

The team has already built winning records against some of the top teams in each league, said Antoine Pollard, a longtime fan from Reisterstown. And though it lacks a postseason veteran on the mound that some say is key in the playoffs, the bullpen is so reliable it makes up for the shortcoming, he said.

Still, an Oriole Nation that still recalls the losing years can be wary, as though hoping too much is a recipe for heartbreak.

Kevin Weiner of Reisterstown said he gets nervous when the team goes on a hitting tear, as it did again on Friday, because he fears they will run out of mojo, quite possibly at the wrong time.

"If you're not superstitious, you're not a baseball fan," he said.

Even in the Warehouse, where team officials have been mailing out invoices for playoff tickets, few are taking things for granted.

"There's a sense of excitement here, but we're taking our cues from [manager Buck Showalter] and the players by not getting ahead of ourselves," said Greg Bader, the team's vice president of communications. "We've got a lot of regular-season games to play, a lot of tickets to sell."

One group has more easily given its heart away. A growing horde has been showing up at road games, sporting the team colors and hollering "O" during the national anthem.

"We got to see them win in Cleveland and then sweep the [Chicago] White Sox. This is the best year to do a trip like this because we are going to the postseason," said Jessica Daniele of Bel Air, who drove to the Midwest with her husband, Mike, her two children and 25 friends to see several games.

Bobby Haines of Dundalk said that when Showalter took the field before one game at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, he pumped his fist like former University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams before a game, and fans and players alike fed on the energy.

"You could see the players were in awe of it, too. They were at ease. You can tell they were having fun," said Haines, who made the 12-hour drive to Chicago with his family.

Those still harboring doubts should note that the team entered the final month of the regular season with one of the most comfortable leads in all of baseball. ESPN's baseball analysts rate the O's chances of making the playoffs at better than 97 percent, and if they win just half their remaining games, New York would have to win more than 70 percent of their games to catch them.

Fans are saying if any Orioles team is solid enough not to falter, it's this one. For one thing, it has avoided streaks. Though the team has never won more than five straight games, it also has never dropped more than four.

Showalter said there's no formula for such reliability: "We're just trying like heck to have an opportunity to win."

After one Tampa Bay game, though, he gave a glimpse at a deeper mindset.

"What has happened in the past doesn't necessarily mean that's what's going to happen in the future," the manager said. "If it did, don't you think life would be boring?"

Count Makris, the restaurant owner, as one who is embracing hope.

"There's something about 'em this year," he said. "It doesn't seem like they're going to lose."

Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.

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