Hours before Camden Yards went dark for the final time this baseball season, the Orioles clubhouse emptied out quickly Sunday evening as lockers were cleaned out, moving boxes filled and good-bye hugs given.
The Orioles' 2013 season ended with a 7-6 comeback win over the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox on Sunday in front of an announced sellout crowd of 44,230. The club O's ended the season with 85 wins, tied for third-place in the American League AL East. For the first time since 1996 and 1997, the Orioles finished with back-to-back winning seasons.
But for this team and this city, this season ended with an unmistakable level sense of disappointment because coming off last year's breakout playoff berth, the Orioles expected to once again play October baseball.
"It was a frustrating season, a difficult, maybe disappointing season, for a lot of us and that's because we have expectations of where we should be," said closer Jim Johnson, who became the first AL pitcher to record back-to-back 50-save seasons with his 50th save Sunday. "And that's unfortunately [not] where we ended up."
The Orioles (85-77) ended the season winning four of their last five games and were the only division team to have a winning record (10-8) against the AL East champion Red Sox.
On Sunday, they rallied from an early five-run deficit, getting contributions throughout a lineup that was without center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters.
First baseman Chris Davis, who received the annual Louis M. Hatter Most Valuable Oriole Award award before the game, became the first Orioles' player to lead the major leagues in home runs (53) since Frank Robinson's Triple Crown season in 1966, but left the game after suffering a left wrist sprain following a collision with Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury at first base in the top of the fourth inning.
His replacement, Ryan Flaherty, drove in the eventual game-winning run in the bottom of the sixth on a two-out double to right field.
"We get down 5-0, it eats at the players and us and Chris and everybody," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "This isn't a club that went into the season trying to be the wild card. We were trying to win the division. And we competed well with the team that's probably the best in the American League, record-wise."
When the gates at Camden Yards opened two hours before first pitch on Sunday afternoon, long lines of orange-and-black-clad fans had already snaked around the outside of the ballpark. The announced sellout was the seventh of the season and the Orioles' season total surpassed the 2.3-million mark for the first time since 2005.
"I thought they just came for the bobbleheads," Johnson said jokingly, referring to the 25,000 Chris Davis bobbleheads given to fans. "No, but the fans here, if you've been around for the last several years, you see how the crowds have changed and how you can walk around the town and see orange all the time, even during football season, so that's a good sign. Hopefully it's something that continues for a long time here."
Few outsiders believed that the Orioles could duplicate their 93-win season in 2012. And They couldn't replicate the 29-9 record in one-run games, going 18-31. Johnson blew a majors-leading nine saves after blowing just three saves in 2012. The starting rotation and bullpen battled through roadbumps of injury and inconsistency and the offense fell flat with runners in scoring position down the stretch.
But after last year's success, this year's club wasn't sneaking up on anyone.
"Last year, with the one-run wins and extra-inning wins, that's something that's really tough to duplicate," Davis said. "But I think we might be more of a complete team this year. I think last year we really rode the fact that it was all kind of new to us and we were just kind of riding a high -- even into the postseason. I think a lot of guys had some expectations this year. Last year, we were just kind of playing and having fun. It's definitely a positive thing to be in the mix. It gives the fans something to cheer about."
Showalter realized that this team would have to find new paths to success. But the expectations this season were the same, if not higher.
"That's our goal," Showalter said. "When you don't reach the goal, it's frustrating. Frustrating and disappointing sometimes are two different things. I'd be disappointed if we didn't have effort or if we hadn't been sincere about it. I've been there. I've watched them. They don't give themselves days off. ... I've been fortunate to watch it. I know. I've seen it when it's not that way this time of year. But I also know what the bottom line of the business is."
Breakout seasons by Davis, who became the second Orioles player to lead the majors in RBIs (138), and third baseman Manny Machado, who led the majors AL in doubles (51), helped. The Orioles also finished the season with a .991 fielding percentage, the best in major-league history.
In their final game, the Orioles came back from an early 5-0 deficit and took a lead in the sixth inning on a wild pitch by Boston's Matt Thornton, scoring Jonathan Schoop from third base. Later that inning, Flaherty's two-out double to right field scored Brian Roberts to give the Orioles a two-run cushion.
Johnson stranded the tying run on third base in the top of the ninth, needing a 5-4-3 double play to secure for his 50th save of the season. Johnson became the first player in AL history to record back-to-back 50-save seasons after Eric Gagne did it for the National League's Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002 and 2003.
Following the game, the teams went their separate ways. The Red Sox moved on to the AL Division Series, while the Orioles retreated to the offseason.
"Our guys, it's more than just them expecting," Showalter said. "I don't think anybody felt last year was good enough, as evidenced by the competitiveness again that came in — and will be again. These guys, you are not always going to be laying in the weeds, Cinderella, all that stuff. You got to graduate."
Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman struggled in his fourth attempt for his 17th win of the season. He allowed five runs, including two homers, in five innings.
Despite Sunday's outing, Tillman emerged as the club's ace — though he allowed 33 homers, third-most in the majors.
Injuries mounted for the Orioles last week, and one more on Sunday took the breath out of the crowd in the fourth inning.
The crowd fell silent in the fourth. With two on and one out, when catcher Steve Clevenger fielded Jacoby Ellsbury's grounder to the left of home plate and threw to first. Clevenger's throw was down the line and as Davis reached out to catch the throw, Ellsbury ran through his left arm, jolting Davis' wrist back as his mitt flew off.
Davis held his left hand in pain as Showalter and head trainer Richie Bancells rushed out of the dugout. After examining Davis on the field, Davis took a few practice tosses before leaving the game to a standing ovation from the fans. Davis received another standing ovation following the seventh inning, when he was shown on the video board sitting in the dugout.
"It's a weird feeling because you don't have a chance to go back in the game, but the fact that they hung around and showed their appreciation is huge," Davis said. "It makes it all that much more sweeter whenever you get a chance to go out and play in front of the group of fans that we have."
After Johnson induced the game-ending double play, the sea of black and orange at Camden Yards lurked before leaving, almost as if waiting for something more.
Showalter said he hoped the Orioles are able to give that to them sooner than later.
"We don't take it for granted," Showalter said. "My dad never was a great patter-on-the-backer. It was just expected. But every once in a while he'd say 'I'm proud of you,' and them showing up today, that's their way of saying they're still proud of the team and the competitiveness they've had.
"It's frustrating for our fans not to get where we wanted to get," Showalter added, "But I think a lot of it, they want it for the right reasons because that knew that our club effort-wise and sincerity-wise, was worthy of it. And that's what's frustrating."