As the year comes to a close, it seems appropriate to look back on the most lasting Orioles memories of 2011.
It's no easy task, as there plenty of things that stood out in the past 12 months, and there are many ways to go about this. But I'm going to name a best memory and worst memory, both on and off the field. (Of course, as one would expect of a 69-93 season, there are far more bad on-field memories than good ones, but I'm sticking to one each.)
Below are the things that left the biggest impression on me. We'd like to hear yours in the comments section.
Best on-field memory:
Well, OK, it's pretty much impossible to top the finish to the last game of the season, Sept. 28, which saw Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold and Robert Andino team up to effectively end the Boston Red Sox's playoff hopes with a two-out, two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth at Camden Yards. That half-inning, a large part of perhaps the best day of baseball of all time, is something that I will always remember. However, plenty of people have recounted it with more detail and grace than I ever could, so I'm going to go in a different direction.
When the Orioles acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy (and infielder Brendan Harris) from the Minnesota Twins on Dec. 9, 2010, for relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, I liked the trade. After all, the Orioles were getting a one-time All-Star — albeit one with a lengthy injury history — for two minor leaguer relievers. I certainly didn't believe, however, that Hardy would have perhaps the biggest impact of any Orioles player in 2011.
Despite missing a month of the season with an oblique strain, Hardy hit 30 homers, drove in 80 runs, scored 76 and slugged a team-best .491 while playing fantastic defense at short.
For the sabermetrically inclined, he was good for 4.8 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs.com and 4.1 according to Baseball-Reference.com, either total making him the most valuable Orioles player in 2011. He also posted an ultimate zone rating of 10.7, making him — arguably — the second-best-fielding shortstop in the major leagues behind the Chicago White Sox's Alexei Ramirez.
Those statistics would be impressive in a vacuum, but they're eye-opening when you compare them with Hardy's performance the previous two seasons. Hardy was limited to 115 games with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009 before being traded to the Twins for Carlos Gomez in the offseason. He played in just 101 games with Minnesota. Over those two years, he combined for just 17 homers and 85 RBIs, and his highest slugging percentage was .394 in 2010. He posted a total of 3.9 WAR according to FanGraphs, just 2.0 according to Baseball-Reference.
When you throw in the fact that Hardy filled in admirably for Brian Roberts at the top of the Orioles' batting order — the first time in his career that he batted leadoff — you have one heck of an impressive season and, to me, easily the most pleasant surprise of 2011.
Honorable mention: Matt Wieters' emergence as an All-Star catcher
Best off-field memory:
Even picking at the top of the amateur draft year after year, the Orioles haven't consistently ended up with future stars. And there's certainly no guarantee that their first pick in 2011 will develop into a major league ace.
However, in high school right-hander Dylan Bundy, the club landed a pitcher with sky-high potential. Some draft pundits considered Bundy, the No. 4 overall selection, the best pitching prospect available.
Baseball America recently named Bundy the Orioles' top prospect, ahead of the club's 2010 first-round pick, shortstop Manny Machado. Bundy's high-90s fastball, said to have reached 100 mph his senior season, is already the best in the Orioles' system, according to Baseball America. On top of that, the publication also ranked him as having the top curveball among the club's prospects.
Makeup doesn't figure to be a problem, as Bundy's work ethic and workout regimen are the stuff of legend. Long story short, he has all the tools to be the ace the Orioles have been longing for since Mike Mussina left for the New York Yankees.
Orioles fans are justifiably fed up with the team's losing ways, and some criticized the decision to pick a high school pitcher who won't arrive in the majors until, at the earliest, 2013. I certainly understand that sentiment, but it was encouraging to see the club select, for the second straight year, the player who had perhaps the highest ceiling in the draft.
Honorable mention: Though the Orioles organization wasn't involved, Brooks Robinson's statue near Camden Yards was more than deserved.
Worst on-field memory:
When you watch so many losses, and so many terrible losses, they have a way of blending together, many of them indistinguishable from one another. So, even though there are some particularly bad defeats that stand out from the 2011 season, it's hard to consider one of them all that much worse than the other 92.
Instead, the biggest disappointment of the Orioles' season was the collapse of Brian Matusz.
After a promising finish to the 2010 season, the young left-hander had an inexplicably disastrous 2011. Matusz didn't just pitch poorly, he pitched historically poorly, finishing 1-9 in 12 starts, including losing his last nine decisions. He ended the season with a 10.69 ERA, the highest in baseball history for a pitcher who made 10 or more starts. He gave up no fewer than five runs in each of his last eight starts and lasted less than five innings in five of them. Matusz ended the season having allowed a jaw-dropping 3.26 home runs per nine innings.
The source of Matusz's struggles is unclear. He insisted he wasn't injured after returning to the majors in June following an intercostal strain that cost him two months. What is clear, however, is that Matusz's future as a major league pitcher is in serious question.
Honorable mention: These individual games were pretty awful: a 17-5 home loss to the Washington Nationals on May 20, a 6-5 home loss to the Cleveland Indians on July 15 that capped a nine-game losing streak, a 1-5 West Coast trip that ended with the Orioles' 7-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 21.
Worst off-field memory:
Sadly, this is a category in which one particular incident stands alone. News of Mike Flanagan's suicide Aug. 24 shook Orioles fans, Orioles players past and present, and the baseball world.
The abrupt end to the popular former Cy Young Award winner and MASN broadcaster, and the violent manner in which he took his own life, were shocking. Perhaps the most shocking thing I've had to cover in my five years at The Sun.
I didn't know Flanagan personally, though I had met him when I was a child, but to lose such a charming, witty, talented person, and to lose him so publicly and in such a way, was — still is — difficult to comprehend.
Watching a weeping Jim Palmer talk about his old friend after the Orioles' game that night was one of the saddest and yet most touching things I've ever seen. We use the word "heartbreaking" far too carelessly when talking about things as fleeting and ultimately inconsequential as sporting events. This was a time the word fit.