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Orioles fans cautiously optimistic as season begins

With a new baseball season around the corner, the Rev. Martha Macgill knew just what to do to get in the mood.

Over and over, the Episcopal priest and ardent Orioles fan watched the same clip: Delmon Young driving his game-winning double into the left-field corner at Camden Yards during Game 2 of last year's American League Divisional Series.

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Macgill was in the stands that day, just above where Young's line drive scooted. She called it "the most exciting, amazing moment in sports in my life!"

So exciting that she found herself yelping each time she replayed the moment. So exciting that the memory has her hungry to watch the Orioles open a new season despite a winter of dispiriting player departures and lingering injuries.

"The Tigers series from last year definitely keeps my spirits high for Opening Day," Macgill said, as she prepared for Easter services at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Cumberland.

Her sentiment is a common one among Orioles fans as they prepare to watch their team open the season on the road Monday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Fans didn't necessarily enjoy the offseason as they watched key players depart in free agency and learned of health setbacks for some of the stars who remained. Yet they've developed a deep faith in the players and decision-makers who brought winning baseball back to Baltimore. And they're leaning on it now, even as the wider baseball world seems to dismiss the Orioles' chances for a playoff repeat.

"Buck Showalter has shown O's fans that he knows how to build a winning team," said Rishi Kadiwar, a fan who grew up in Rockville and lives in Connecticut. "In modern-day baseball, players come and go, but it's up to the manager to handle the fluidity of the game."

That belief in Showalter, executive vice president Dan Duquette and the team they've assembled has translated to a steady rise in attendance at Camden Yards, from 21,943 fans per game in 2011 to 30,805 in 2014. Team spokesman Greg Bader said there has been so much demand for season tickets that for the first time in eight years, the Orioles couldn't promise Opening Day seats to everyone who bought a 13-game plan.

The Orioles will open their home schedule Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

These should be jubilant times for Orioles fans as they reflect on the team's first American League East championship in 17 years and look ahead to another season under Showalter, the reigning American League Manager of the Year.

But the successes of the past three seasons aren't enough to eliminate a subtle sense of disquiet that crept in over the offseason. Since the Orioles left the field in October after being swept in the AL Championship Series by the Kansas City Royals, news from the team offices has trended toward the unsettling.

Nelson Cruz, the jovial slugger who carried the Orioles' offense early last season, fled for greater riches in Seattle. Dominant relief pitcher Andrew Miller jumped to the New York Yankees in free agency. And finally, Nick Markakis, dean of the crew that resurrected the franchise, signed with the Atlanta Braves amid reports the Orioles had hedged on a long-term offer.

Fans waited for a flurry of late signings akin to that of 2014, but the big moves never came. Instead, they had to settle for a couple of bargain-priced players and months of speculation that Duquette would become CEO of the Blue Jays. (Toronto ended its pursuit of Duquette in late January.)

As spring training began, the optimistic view held that injury-free seasons from third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters and a return to form by first baseman Chris Davis would mitigate the free-agent losses.

But that feeling was undermined with news of Wieters' setback in his recovery from elbow surgery and a fresh shoulder injury to shortstop J.J. Hardy. Neither player will be available for Opening Day, and Davis will be out of the lineup Monday as he serves the last game of his suspension for using the banned stimulant Adderall.

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Add that up and you won't find many national analysts picking the Orioles to repeat as AL East champs.

And come the end of the season, nearly half the roster, including Davis and Wieters, can hit free agency and seek contracts with another team.

It's enough to make a die-hard fan nervous — even coming off the thrills of 2014.

"Buck is a master with the lineup card day today," said Ralph Watson, a Defense Department mathematician who grew up in Highlandtown. "I'm not that worried about the health of Wieters and Hardy in the short term, but if those injuries persist, then it will hurt the Orioles, especially since [the team] didn't do much to bolster the offense."

Watson said the Orioles can still win the division, but he quickly added that real threats loom from Toronto and the Boston Red Sox, which were more active in adding to their rosters in the offseason.

Terry Cook of Parkville bought season tickets this winter but deemed his optimism "extremely cautious." He said he was particularly troubled by Duquette's dalliance with the Blue Jays.

"Along with most reasonable fans, I didn't think or want the Orioles to go out and spend a billion dollars in a weak free-agent market," Cook said. "But I think we did expect some moves to be made to cover for the losses of Cruz and [Markakis]. This was an extremely active trade season league-wide, and Duquette barely participated.

"Maybe he had a plan. Maybe he doesn't. But in the back of my mind all winter, all spring, and what will be all summer, is the thought that he was more concerned with positioning himself than the club."

Anxiety over the state of the team is hardly limited to fans.

Center fielder Adam Jones let his offseason discomfort be known on Twitter, where he questioned the state of communications between the team's top decision-makers and its best players. Jones later said he was glad Markakis had talked about his disappointment with the Orioles' negotiating approach.

Then Davis spoke out, saying the front office's direction would play into his thinking about re-signing with the Orioles.

"Some things are going to have to change, as far as contracts are concerned, because we have a lot of young guys that you're going to have a chance to sign before free agency, and I'll tell you one thing: I'm not going to play for a team that has no shot at competing every year," he said in early March.

Duquette, for his part, said he respected the players' passion but suggested that the team would stick with its emphasis on scouting and player development over impulsive spending. He called it "the best way to have a good team year in and year out."

With the season almost here, players have mostly returned to the buoyant attitudes of recent years.

The Orioles are frankly accustomed to hearing that the front office didn't sign enough stars in the winter and to being underestimated in preseason predictions. Few picked them to win a division title last year either.

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"I don't think we are going to miss a beat," said infielder-outfielder Steve Pearce, one of the most pleasant surprises on the 2014 team. "Obviously, it hurts to lose the guys that have left and the guys that are hurt. ... But we've got guys chomping at the bit, ready to get in there, guys that want to play and guys who can step up. So, as a whole, we know we still have a really good team."

Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

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