No. 1 Sports Story of 2012: After 14 losing seasons, Orioles make the playoffs

The Baltimore Orioles made a stunning return to the postseason in 2012 after 14 consecutive losing seasons.

They did so sans superstars, going 93-69 after a quiet offseason with largely the same roster that won only 69 games the year before.

They did so in remarkably dramatic fashion, going 16-2 in extra-inning games including 5-0 in games that went at least 14 innings with position player Chris Davis tossing two scoreless innings to win the season's signature game, 9-6 in 17 innings, on May 6 in Boston.

They did so despite being universally picked for yet another losing season. Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue summed it up, saying "pencil them in for fifth place."

"Obviously, we were supposed to finish last," starting pitcher Jason Hammel said before the AL Division Series. "That didn't happen."

Just how did it happen?

It happened because Adam Jones justified the team's faith in signing him to a lucrative extension and won his second consecutive Most Valuable Oriole award.

It happened because sinkerballer Jim Johnson flourished in his first season as full-time closer, setting a team record with 51 saves and helping the Orioles go 29-9 in one-run games, the best percentage in history.

It happened because rookie Manny Machado made a seamless transition both the minor leagues to the majors and from shortstop to third base, helping the Orioles go from the worst fielding team in the majors before he was called up on Aug. 9, to the team with the best fielding percentage from Aug. 9 on.

It happened because manager Buck Showalter found a way to get the most out of an ever-changing roster that included 52 players, many of them - like catcher Taylor Teagarden, starting pitchers Miguel Gonzalez and Steve Johnson, reliever Darren O'Day, and left fielder Nate McLouth - taking hero turns at various points, often filling in for the numerous players at key positions who came down with serious injuries.

"It's come to an expectation for us. Somebody's going to get it done, and every night it's somebody different," said Hammel, who missed most of the second half of the season with knee injuries.

Showalter, at least, had an inkling of what was to come.

"I don't want to beat the drums too much, but I kind of like where we are," he said at Fanfest last January.

He liked it more when they were 14-9 at the end of April. And when they were still in contention at the All-Star break. And when they fashioned the best record in baseball over the final two months of the season. And when they earned a wild-card berth and then beat the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers in a one-game playoff. Their season finally ended in the ALDS, where they lost to the New York Yankees three games to two.

Along the way, the Orioles reconnected with a fan base that had been largely apathetic since the team's last playoff appearance in 1997. Attendance, which plunged from an average of more than 45,000 per game in 1998 to less than 22,000 in 2010 and 2011, increased by 20 percent and the decibel level at Camden Yards increased by much more than that.

"The feeling, with the crowd screaming and waving the towels, you couldn't hear yourself think," first baseman Mark Reynolds said.

A key player during the 2012 turnaround, Reynolds won't be around in 2013. He signed with the Cleveland Indians earlier this month. Others, such as the traded Robert Andino, also will be playing elsewhere.

But Showalter, runner-up for AL Manager of the Year, will be back. Gold Glove winners Jones, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy will be back. And so will Johnson, Machado, Davis and nearly all the key contributors when spring training begins in February, all of them hoping for an encore to a special 2012.

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