Orioles clinch first playoff spot in 15 years

BALTIMORE - The Orioles' home finale Sunday ended very much like the first game of teh season back in April, with Baltimore beating its opponent in front of a big crowd.

Only this time, the circumstances were completely different.

Instead of the traditional Opening Day atmosphere, Camden Yards was abuzz with something else - playoff fever.

Many of the 41,257 fans who watched the Orioles beat the Red Sox 6-3, sweeping Boston in the final home series of the regular season, stayed and kept their eyes glued to the video board out in center field. That's where the ninth inning of the Angels-Rangers game was being shown, and the Orioles stood together around the infield to see how it turned out.

Thousands of Baltimore fans rooted for the Rangers because a Texas win would've allowed the Orioles to clinch a postseason berth. The Angels rallied to win, disappointing the fans.

But it only delayed the celebration. Texas beat the Angels 8-7 in the second game of a day-night doubleheader putting the Orioles in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

That's something virtually no one expected on Opening Day. Not after 14 consecutive losing seasons.

While the Orioles have clinched at least a spot in Friday's wild-card playoff game, they still have a chance to win the AL East. They remain tied with the New York Yankees for first in the division at 92-67 with three games to play.

"Today it really reminded me of when the Brewers made it and we stayed out on the field waiting for a game to end," said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who returned to a clubhouse where giant sheets of plastic were rolled up above the players' lockers. "It kind of brought back flashbacks. But it's one step closer. It would have been nice to clinch, but we're still looking for the division."

When it became clear they weren't going to be clinching in front of the home fans, the Orioles slowly made their way back toward the dugout.

But not before acknowledging those fans by waving and tipping their caps.

"It's fun playing in front of 40,000 Orioles fans," said center fielder Adam Jones. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't."

Manager Buck Showalter added a few fist pumps to several sections of fans as he left the field, and said he never considered not showing his appreciation to the crowd after Sunday's game.

"People make a decision on a Sunday afternoon, whether to bring their family, come by themselves," Showalter said. "They have a lot of different things going on in their lives, and they decide to come to Camden Yards, traffic, parking, whatever, and come watch us play. Is there any other way?

"That's faith, and that's trust, to come to a game. A game like today, you really want to have them go home and go, 'Yeah, I hope they play well enough to come back and we play some more home games here.'"

The Orioles jumped on Red Sox starter Zach Stewart with three runs in the first, keyed by a Nate McLouth lead-off homer. Stewart didn't make it out of the third inning, and Boston (69-90) dropped its fifth in a row and reached 90 losses for the first time since 1966.

Meanwhile, Hardy and Chris Davis added solo shots later in the game to give Baltimore starter Joe Saunders a 5-1 lead after five innings.

Saunders made it through 7 1-3 innings (three runs, five strikeouts, no walks) before yielding to Darren O'Day and getting a standing ovation from the hometown fans.

Saunders (3-3) said it was "awkward" coming back inside and not being able to celebrate a playoff spot at home.

The Orioles wrap up the regular season with three games in Tampa Bay.

"It's always weird when you're watching other teams try to win and you kind of want to do it on your own terms," he said,

O'Day gave way to Jim Johnson, who tossed a perfect ninth inning and recorded his 50th save. Johnson became the 10th pitcher in major-league history to notch 50 saves in a season since the statistic became official in 1969. Johnson downplayed the achievement.

"It's a crazy number, obviously," he said. "But we still have three more games, and that's pretty much where my focus is at right now. ... We're close, we're right there. We're smelling it and obviously want to finish it off. We'll get it done, that's our mindset."

Baltimore's 92 wins are the most since 1997 and the club is 25 games over .500 for the first time since that same season, when the Orioles finished 98-64 and won the AL East crown.

Another division title remains a possibility, as does the top wild-card spot which would mean another home game.

And with it, meaningful October baseball for the first time in 15 years.

"Every win is a step closer," said first baseman Mark Reynolds. "We did our job and got the sweep here."