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Commentary: O's hard to believe

I was having a discussion with a colleague who covers the Baltimore Orioles the other day, debating which players should be on the team's postseason roster, who would ideally be the starting pitcher for their first postseason game, when I stopped in mid-sentence.

"Can you believe we're actually having this conversation?" I asked.

Hard to believe.

This is the 21st century Baltimore Orioles we're talking about. A team that had endured 14 consecutive losing seasons. A team that had taken up residence in the AL East basement. A team that went 69-93 last season and didn't exactly shake up the baseball world with its offseason moves.

Now it's a team that went into this Saturday 22 games over .500, 4 1/2 games ahead in the AL wild-card race, and only one game behind the Yankees in the AL East.

Barring a complete collapse, they'll be back in the postseason for the first time since 1997 and they'll have the second-biggest win improvement from one season to the next in franchise history.

Hard to believe.

The only time the Orioles had a bigger one-year improvement was in 1989, when a team that went 54-107 the year before finished 87-75. As surprising as that season was, however, it can't touch this one.

The Orioles had gone through only three straight losing seasons before 1989 and had won the World Series only six years previously. This year, there were drivers on Maryland highways who had no idea the team had ever won more than 79 games in a season.

Even the most optimistic Baltimore fans merely hoped for an 81-win season. A postseason berth? Please.

These days, readers like to remind us that no one on our staff picked the Orioles to have a winning season back in April, but that hardly made us unique.

In its preview issue, Sports Illustrated called them "a potential 100-loss team" adding "you can pencil them in for fifth place." The magazine said trading Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel was the worst deal of the entire offseason and suggested they trade Adam Jones to add pieces that might make them competitive by 2015.

ESPN expert Buster Olney had about the same take on the team. He wrote that, best-case scenario, they would crumble under the weight of the brutal division and fail to win 70 games. And that was the "best-case scenario." Worst case? The Orioles would set a club record with more than 107 losses.

So everyone looks a little foolish now, but only because of the most surprising season in Baltimore Orioles' history.

Hard to believe.

The Orioles went into Saturday 86-64 despite having been outscored on the year by the competition. According to Baseball-reference.com, based on a formula created by Bill James, the team's record should've been 74-76 at that point.

But instead of fighting for .500 they're on the verge of the playoffs for reasons no formula could ever take into account. It almost makes you want to believe in team chemistry and indomitable spirit.

The Orioles went into the weekend 52-21 in games decided by two runs or fewer. They were 67-0 when leading after seven innings. They had won an incomprehensible 15 consecutive extra-inning games.

This is partly because of young stars coming through in the clutch. Like Adam Jones. Sixteen of his home runs have given the Orioles the lead (and they're 21-8 when he homers). Like Jim Johnson. He tied Randy Myers' club record for saves on Wednesday, when he lowered his ERA to 0.45 over his past 21 games. Like Matt Wieters. He is only fifth on the team in his, but leads in RBIs and has done a fabulous job with a patchwork pitching staff.

One of those three will be named Orioles MVP, but this team is where it is not just because of the well-known players. It's also because of the knack players like Taylor Teagarden, Nate McLouth and others have had for timely hits. And because for the likes of Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Miguel Gonzalez and Joe Saunders came out of nowhere to make quality starts. And because prospect Manny Machado took over third base on Aug. 8 and turned the worst fielding Orioles team in 50 years into the best fielding team in the American League.

And if it's a surprise to Sports Illustrated and ESPN, imagine what it is to those around here who have watched the Orioles on a daily basis for so long.It's causing some unexpected conversations and forcing fans to rethink plans in October.

Hard to believe.

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