There's no question in Steve Pearce's mind what his career highlight has been so far: Picking up Ryan Goins' grounder in the top of the ninth on Sept. 16, 2014, running to first to step on the bag and then throwing his hands up in the air as Camden Yards roared.
"Number one. That was a special moment," Pearce said Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the Orioles clinching their first division title in 17 years. "It was everything I had dreamed of: The postgame celebration, partying with your teammates, coaches, the front office, everybody here. We were all celebrating together, spraying the champagne. It was definitely, definitely number one."
Plenty has changed in one calendar year since the Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-2, to win the American League East. The Blue Jays are now the club that most likely will win the division this season, while the Orioles entered play Wednesday 5½ games out of the final AL wild-card spot.
The man who threw the final pitch, Tommy Hunter, and the catcher on that last out, Nick Hundley, are with other teams. So are Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller and Bud Norris, among others. But there are plenty of Orioles from that team who are still around.
"It was a wonderful experience. It was a wonderful day, especially for me," said Ubaldo Jimenez, who allowed two runs in five innings to get the win that night. "I wasn't part of the rotation late in that season and having the opportunity to win that game was huge. … Those kinds of moments you'll never forget."
There were plenty of lasting images from that Tuesday evening, whether it was Adam Jones doing a victory lap around the warning track and smashing pies into the faces of some fans or Markakis, with a remnants of a Jones-smashed pie on his cheek, holding his son in his arms or Hunter spraying beer on an enthralled crowd while Baltimore City police officers stood by and smiled.
On Wednesday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had trouble picking his favorite moment from that night.
"I think watching, just kinda sitting back and watching everybody after the game," Showalter said. "Coming back out on the field with the fans and how proud I was of them and everybody in the organization."
In one sense, there could be some lingering bitterness Wednesday, thinking about what happened a year ago and what likely won't this year. But Pearce said that's not the way he's looking at it. Instead, he said the one-year anniversary can serve as further inspiration as the Orioles attempt to get back to the postseason.
"We know we're a long shot, but we still have a shot. There's nothing saying we can't do that again," Pearce said. "That's what we are playing for. That's why we keep showing up to the park. We may have been kicked down, but we're still fighting, we're not giving up."
Prospect Christian Walker is back with the Orioles and hoping to show the major league staff that he is making progress in his attempt to become a quality defensive first baseman.
"I really focused on that," he said. "I know that's a big priority and I really don't want that to be the reason why I'm not in the big leagues. So I want to eliminate that [concern] and turn that weakness into a strength for me. I'm still learning. I'm still getting better, but I've definitely made some strides."
Showalter acknowledged that during his pregame news conference Wednesday. Walker had a big second half at Triple-A Norfolk, but he will have to show marked improvement with the glove to make the major league roster next year.
"There's never ever a given, whether it's Christian or whether it's [Trey] Mancini, you don't know. … It's a huge jump," Showalter said. "The thing that allows you to let them, if you feel confident that they'll figure it out, a la Manny [Machado] or [Jonathan] Schoop or whoever — even Adam at a young age — the thing that allows you to keep running them out there is, can they defend? … Can they turn a hit into an out?
"I think Christian has made strides. Not that he was bad. He wasn't bad. It's just the way we have to do things. Knowing who we are, we have to be good."
Governor Hogan visits Oriole Park
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was on the field before the game, promoting a new partnership with the Orioles to fight pediatric cancer and blood cancer. The club is hosting a fundraising effort that began Wednesday and also presented Hogan with a check for $50,000 to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Hogan, who was struck with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three months ago, is currently undergoing chemotherapy, but said that he's feeling well and continuing to perform his duties on a full-time basis.
"I feel pretty strong, actually," he said. "I don't know if I'm ready to play, but I'm well enough to cheer them all."
Hogan made a similar appearance at the Washington Redskins opener and got a standing ovation from the crowd at FedEx Field. He also is going to team with the Ravens and appear at their home opener.
Gonzalez takes another step
Miguel Gonzalez continues to rehabilitate his sore elbow and shoulder. He long-tossed 90 feet Wednesday and Showalter said Gonzalez seems to feel pretty good about where he is right now.
Gonzalez claims that the soreness became an issue during his last couple of starts. But Showalter said he suspects the problem dates back further than that, considering Gonzalez's command issues in the second half.
"If I was a betting man, knowing Miguel, yeah I do," Showalter said. "Miguel, that's one of the things that you like about him. There are no excuses. He feels like that he can compete and give us a chance to win like most pitchers do that aren't 100 percent."
The Double-A Bowie Baysox evened the best-of-five Eastern League finals at 1-1 with a 10-3 victory over Reading on Wednesday night. Garabez Rosa had three hits and two RBIs and Nick Additon pitched seven solid innings for the Baysox. ... Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez will line up in the rotation for the four-game road series against the Tampa Bay Rays that starts Thursday night at Tropicana Field. … The Orioles return to the region to open a three-game series against the Nationals on Monday night in Washington, D.C. The remaining 10 games of the regular season will be against AL East rivals.