It was a sight to warm any Baltimore baseball fan's heart: In the top of the eighth inning of the All-Star Gameon Tuesday, with the eyes of the sports world fixed on Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, fully one-third of the players on the field were sporting Oriole uniforms.
Unfortunately, center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Jim Johnson were not able to do much to boost the prospects of the American League team, which fell to the National League by a lopsided 8-0 in the Midsummer Classic.
But that didn't really matter. Fact is, in recent years it has sometimes seemed a stretch finding even one Oriole worthy of sharing a bench with the game's best players (Ty Wigginton, anyone?). That the O's had three representatives in Kansas City this week suggests that there is something different about the team this year.
The Orioles begin the second half of their season Friday night in a position that few would have predicted on Opening Day: five games over .500 and in second place in the American League East. If the season were to end right now, the Orioles would qualify for a one-game wild card playoff under baseball's new postseason rules.
How they got to this point is a bit mysterious. The Orioles are the worst-fielding team in baseball and, despite an early burst of home run prowess, one of the lightest-hitting. Their starting pitching has been wildly inconsistent. Only the bullpen — baseball's best, anchored by Mr. Johnson, who leads the major leagues in saves — has been reliable on a near-daily basis. Injuries to almost all the outfielders on the roster forced a head-spinning procession of call-ups from the minors. And yet, somehow, here we are.
Orioles fans, hardened by 14 consecutive losing seasons, are not about to get carried away with optimism. They have seen too many late-season implosions, perhaps most notably in 2005, when after spending 62 days in first place the team tumbled into a disappointing fourth-place finish. When your heart has been broken so often, it's not so easy to trust again.
And yet ... there is something different in the air, and on the airwaves. Listen to sports radio in this town, and you'll hear things that would seem unimaginable in an ordinary year: Should the Orioles spend big on a potentially game-changing ace pitcher before the trade deadline? Should they consider accelerating the progress toward the majors of young Dylan Bundy, perhaps the best minor league pitching prospect in all of baseball? These are questions that are asked by a team and its fans when success — even a pennant chase — is a realistic possibility. They are questions they have not been part of the midseason conversation about the Orioles in the Baltimore area's bars and basements for many years.
There's a sense of fun and potential with these Orioles. So many extra-inning, come-from-behind victories. So many stirring performances from unlikely candidates — ex-Pirate Steve Pearce driving in five runs in a game against his former team, rookie Miguel Gonzalez allowing only three hits in his first major league start. Attendance is up at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which after 20 years is still widely hailed as the best place in the majors to take in a game.
There's also been frustration aplenty: too many balls booted on routine plays; second-baseman Brian Roberts back on the disabled list after missing more than a year with a concussion; the team's best batters in a group slump for most of June; young pitchers Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz still failing to live up to the hype that has surrounded them the last several years.
Will the team break Baltimore's heart again? Or will Manager Buck Showalter, who found ways to turn losing teams into winners in New York, Texas and Arizona, work his magic one more time? As Orioles radio broadcaster Joe Angel likes to say, "You never know." We don't, but we intend to have fun finding out.