Forget the ending. The most improbable season in Orioles history was also the most enjoyable and satisfying to the team's fans.

And to the players. One after another told reporters after losing three games to two to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series how much fun they had.

Closer Jim Johnson was drafted by Baltimore in 2001, the fourth of 14 consecutive losing seasons before the just-completed 93-69 breakthrough. He said the clubhouse this year was nothing like previous seasons, and that it had a lot to do with the way the team played.

"We all trust each other in here," he said. "We're all grown men. We've had our lumps and bumps along the way. It's one of those team atmospheres where everyone's got each other's back. I've never been in a clubhouse like that before so that's what makes this year a little more special."

A lot more special. And memorable. But ...

Cue the fast-talking announcer guy with the great radio voice.

"Past performance does not predict future success."

It would be nice if the long-suffering fan base of the Orioles, while savoring this season, could confidently expect that it was merely the beginning. That the Orioles were entering into a golden age like the period from 1966-83 when they were the most successful franchise in baseball.

Unfortunately, recent MLB history is rife with teams who came out of nowhere to make the postseason only to revert the next year. The Arizona Diamondbacks were such a team last season. Before that came the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and Cleveland Indians.

Some statistical evidence suggests a regression to the mean would only be logical. After all, no team in history had gone 29-9 in one-run games. No team in decades had been as successful in extra-inning games or at avoiding walk-off losses. And there's probably never been a team that made more transactions or got more mileage out of seemingly inconsequential call-ups and signings.

Consider Baltimore's lineup in Game 5 of the division series. The left fielder began the season in Pittsburgh, the right fielder began the season at first base, the first baseman began the season at third, the third baseman began the season in Class AA, and the designated hitter began the season in an independent league.

Consider the starting rotation. Miguel Gonzalez went 9-4, winning big games in September and holding New York to one run in Game 3. He was 0-7 in 2011 with three minor league teams. If he weren't their best pitcher after the All-Star break it was Chris Tillman, who finished 9-3. He was widely considered a bust after going 7-15 with a 5.58 ERA from 2009-11.

Consider the bullpen. It may have been the best in the game. Problem is, relief pitchers are wildly inconsistent because it can be such a small body of work. One year's sharp grounders to shortstop that turn into double plays are the next year's RBI singles up the middle.

Darren O'Day and Pedro Strop were castoffs. Luis Ayala had had one good season since 2007. Troy Patton was an unknown quantity. Brian Matusz had never pitched in relief. Johnson had a grand total of 21 saves in four seasons. They were remarkable. Can they do it again?

The offense's ALDS performance, too, could've been telling in a few ways.

The Orioles were far too reliant on the home run in 2012 and when the weather changes from hot and humid to chilly - and when the opposition changes from Kansas City, Minnesota and Toronto to New York - home runs become much more scarce.

The meat of an order that was both powerful and productive during the season - J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds - combined for just 15 hits in 104 at-bats (.144) with no home runs and three RBIs during the division series loss to the Yankees.

Also, as dominant as Johnson was all season, converting 51 of 54 save opportunities, stat geeks repeatedly pointed out that his 5.37 strikeouts per nine innings wasn't good enough - in fact, it ranked 554th out of the 662 pitchers who threw in the big leagues this season - and meant that twice as many balls were being put into play against him as several other top closers. (When balls are put into play, bad things can happen. See ALDS Game 1 and ALDS Game 3.)

Still, there's nothing that says 2012 can't be the start of something big. Many pieces are in place.

Jones, Wieters and Hardy are in their prime and make the team strong up the middle defensively. Davis emerged. Manny Machado looks to be a fixture on third base. Nick Markakis can't have this much bad luck with injuries two years in a row. Nate McLouth should be re-signed immediately.

The bullpen is likely to return largely intact.

As should a starting rotation that more than held its own against the Bronx Bombers. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Joe Saunders pitched to a 2.08 ERA in the ALDS, allowing only seven earned runs in five starts.

They could all be among the 10 or so live-armed starters competing for spots in the rotation or used in trades in the offseason. And everything points to Dylan Bundy one day becoming an ace. Maybe Kevin Gausman, too.

Two other positive factors: The team gained invaluable experience this season, and the owner may actually be willing to start spending money again.

It was a tremendous season. There's no way of knowing right now whether it will be looked back on as the year the losing finally stopped, or merely as a welcome break from it. Fans and players alike hope the fun is just starting.

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