KANSAS CITY, MO. — When the bottom drops out of an otherwise exciting and uplifting season, how exactly are Orioles fans supposed to feel?
All of the above?
Probably the same as the Orioles players who were on top of the baseball world just a week ago and looking a bit stunned Wednesday night after being swept away by an unstoppable force called the Kansas City Royals.
The case can certainly be made that the Orioles overachieved this year. They weren't really picked to do anything, and that was before they lost All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, Platinum Glove third baseman Manny Machado and 2013 home run king Chris Davis for significant chunks of the schedule.
The case also can be made that all the things the Orioles overcame over the course of the regular season finally overcame them during the four-game fall from grace in the American League Championship Series.
When it was over, when the blue-clad Royals faithful were partying on the field at Kauffman Stadium and looking ahead to whoever their sizzling team will play in the World Series, the Orioles could only concede the obvious about a playoff series that spun totally out of their control as they try to keep their eyes on the larger picture.
"I can't be more proud of my teammates," said Nelson Cruz, who joined this team unexpectedly in February and would end up being voted its most valuable player. "We did an awesome job. We lost Wieters, Machado and Chris Davis during the season and we still found a way to get it done with the guys that we have. It was a special year for us."
It certainly was that, and it continued an upward trend for a franchise that has been moving solidly in the right direction since Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette took the organizational baton from former baseball operations chief Andy McPhail.
"In 2012, we obviously were unexpected," center fielder Adam Jones said. "In '13, we had expectations and here we were doing something that hasn't been done in a long time. We've raised the expectations in Baltimore and that's good, because we're going to come back in the spring and try to get back into this position."
That's why it's fair to have mixed feelings. The Orioles languished for so long at or near the bottom of the American League East standings that there's a natural inclination to count your blessings after falling just short of the mountaintop.
Fourteen straight losing seasons — even now that they should be fading into memory — still play in the overall perspective, but this team turned a major corner midway through this regular season and evolved into one of the best teams in baseball. The Orioles won 96 games and swept their division series against a team that featured three former Cy Young Award winners. So, their fans had every right to expect more than what happened in the ALCS.
The Royals didn't even win their division, but they staged that miracle comeback in the American League wild-card game and they turned out to be the ones who wouldn't stop. They didn't even pause. They have won all eight of their playoff games — seven of them against the two winningest teams in either league.
Sure, the ball bounced their way, but that's what happens when you're on that kind of roll. The Orioles had no answer and their inability to score more than one run in each of the final two games called into question whether they had truly overcome the loss of their key players.
"We've been through a lot," said Steve Pearce, whose emergence as a productive starter was a positive factor in the club's division title run. "If you look at what happened to us this year. There were so many bad things. [Wieters] going down. Machado going down. What happened to Chris. To make it all the way here. We were one swing away every single game. It could easily be us celebrating right now, but when it's all said and done, we fought very well together and that's why we made it this far."
It might be tougher for the fans if they thought that there wasn't more to come next year. The decision to re-sign shortstop J.J. Hardy last week and the fact that Wieters, Machado and Davis are expected back in 2015 gives reason to believe the Orioles might be in this position again soon.
"This team has accomplished a ton and this isn't the end for us," said former Towson resident Steve Duncan, who drove down from St. Louis for Game 4. "I'm still excited for where we're going to be next year."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.