Orioles enter September as a contender for first time in 15 years

Somehow, Buck Showalter had steered the conversation to roller coasters.

"I got enough things to be scared of in my life," the Orioles manager said dismissively of the death-defying rides. "We got one-run games. I get on the roller coaster every night, and they don't put the bar down."

Showalter was having a little fun with the writers who cover his team, but his metaphor for the 2012 season wasn't far off. The Orioles, underestimated by everyone from national commentators to their own die-hard fans, have performed magnificently in the tight games that churn managers' stomachs.

As a result, they enter September not only with a strong shot at breaking the franchise's 14-year streak of losing records but as a serious playoff contender. The wider baseball world, which seemed to assume the Orioles would go poof for most of the year, is taking notice.

"I think people are finally starting to understand what a great story is developing in Baltimore," said ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian, a former Orioles beat writer.

Kurkjian has heard the same question on a series of radio and television appearances in the last week: How are they doing this?

"My answer is that I have no idea," he said. "But that's what makes this such a good baseball story."

There is no better question about this year's team, because even a careful analysis of the numbers leaves one grasping for explanations.

Asked what he would opine about the team if he were still an analyst on ESPN, Showalter said, "I would love it, because all the numbers and stuff they crunch up there, we lean against all that. I was talking to [ESPN analyst] John Kruk the other night and he said, 'We can't explain it.'"

The Orioles don't put a high percentage of runners on base. Their patchworked starting rotation is below average at preventing runs. The team's most established players, save for Adam Jones, are posting middling seasons by their own standards. Even Jones has tailed off in recent weeks.

The club hasn't been lucky with injuries. Its young starting pitchers, thought to be the key to the season, have frequently been dispatched to the minors or relegated to the bullpen.

"They ran out of bullets a month ago," Kurkjian said in assessing the club's talent. "And yet they've played even better since then."

Many have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Orioles, who stayed in contention until the penultimate day of the season after losing 107 games the year before. That team's slogan was "Why Not?" Showalter said his players, confronted with expert opinions dismissing their chances, like to respond, "Says Who?"

At its most basic level, baseball, like any sport, is about outscoring the opposition. The Orioles had been outscored by 46 runs overall through Wednesday, putting them in the company of the lowly Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres, far below any other team in playoff contention.

Baseball historian Bill James devised a statistic called Pythagorean winning percentage that projects team records based on the difference between runs scored and runs allowed. James found that the statistic is more predictive of future performance than a team's actual record. By this measure, the Orioles should have been 60-69 through Wednesday, not 71-58. The difference between their actual and projected records is one of the greatest in history, according to

The Orioles take pride in shrugging off such analysis.

"We hear about how terrible we're supposed to be from the national media, according to the stats they choose to care about," said All-Star closer Jim Johnson. "We only care about the wins and losses. They can tell us how bad we are at fielding, how bad we hit with runners in scoring position. All that stuff. We don't care."

What the Orioles do well, better than any team in recent baseball history, is win close games. The common wisdom among baseball's statistical acolytes is that teams should break even in games decided by one run. An excellent or poor record in these games is regarded as a sign of good or bad luck, respectively.

Well, the Orioles were an almost-unfathomable 24-6 in one-run games through Thursday. (Next best in the league were the Cleveland Indians at 15-7.) The Orioles are even better, 12-2, when games go to extra innings.

The best explanation anybody can come up with is a bullpen that has been the team's greatest constant this year. Johnson and his 40 saves get most of the attention, but hard-throwing set-up man Pedro Strop, lefty Troy Patton, veteran Luis Ayala and sidearmer Darren O'Day have been as good or better. Only Johnson pitched more than 30 innings for the club last year.

Through Wednesday, the revamped relief corps ranked fifth in baseball in bullpen ERA, up from 27th in 2011.

"We know if we keep it within one or two runs, they're going to shut the door for us," said designated hitter Chris Davis, who made his own surprise contribution in May when he won an extra-inning game as an emergency reliever.

Aside from the bullpen, the Orioles have often relied on inspired moments from players they pulled off the scrap heaps of other franchises. There's 30-year-old infielder Omar Quintanilla, whose three home runs for the Orioles match his previous career total with three teams. There's back-up catcher Taylor Teagarden, who through Friday only has five hits all year but won games with two of them and drove in runs with two others. There was outfielder Steve Pearce, who was around for less than two months but drove in five runs in one game and all three runs in a one-run victory in another.

"This season, we've definitely seen something new every day," Johnson said. "It always seems like there's something special about to happen. That's part of why this team has confidence."

The club's best starter, Wei-Yin Chen, was a semi-obscure pick-up from Taiwan, overshadowed by Japanese sensation Yu Darvish (whose ERA for the Texas Rangers was 53 points higher than Chen's through Wednesday). And the Orioles received a run of strong starts from Miguel Gonzalez, who could never crack the majors in seven years with two other franchises.

Showalter, managing with his fourth franchise and tinted red by so many days in the sun, isn't sure if this team reminds him of any other. He sees a group of similar personalities, with little emotional volatility or tolerance for divas. "I like the players," he said in his small-town Florida drawl. "They're guys you'd like to hang out with every day, in the offseason. They're just good people. If somebody came in here who didn't fit the mold, they'd bury the poor guy."

These Orioles have little patience for the idea that they're some cute collection of novices, oddities and reclamation projects.

"I think we expected to be in this position, just as a club, to be in contention for the playoffs," said Davis, a former top prospect discarded by the Rangers. "I don't know if a lot of other people did. But as far as outside expectations are concerned, I don't think we have much use for them."

Many fans say they'll be satisfied with a winning record, playoffs or no. Not the players.

Jones, the All-Star center fielder, sounded positively grouchy at the suggestion. "You only get remembered if you win a ring," he said in a clipped tone, barely staring up from his iPad. "Besides that, you're just another player. I don't aim to be just another player."

Said Showalter: "People keep talking about the wild card. Heck, we're trying to catch the Yankees."

At that moment, he glanced up at the television in his office, where the division-leading New York nemesis was playing the Toronto Blue Jays.

In a sure sign that the playoffs now feel like a real beacon, the players have also become eager scoreboard watchers.

"How'd the Blue Jays take the lead?" asked third baseman Mark Reynolds as he bounced into the clubhouse a few moments later.

"Ohhhh!" catcher Matt Wieters yelped, as he looked up from a game of cards to see a ball bounce the Yankees' way.

The small crowds at recent home games have been one mild disappointment in a season full of pleasant surprises. Though up about 4,000 per game from 2011, crowds averaged less than 21,000 in August, down from a peak of more than 32,000 in June.

"It's a little frustrating," Davis said. "I always hear about how long people have waited for a winning team. I would think as a fan, it's something that you'd want to witness. Whether they think it's a fluke or it's not going to pan out, the team is winning right now, and we deserve their support."

Kurkjian was "incredulous" when he showed up for Wednesday's game against the contending Chicago White Sox and saw only 13,098 people in the stands. "I am confused, because I've always told people what a great baseball town Baltimore can be," he said. "I understand why people might have stayed away, but it's time to come back."

Orioles players and officials have grumbled about the set-up for the Grand Prix of Baltimore, which has closed nearby roads and, they believe, dampened walk-up attendance over the last week.

Waiting along Eutaw Street for Wednesday's game, father and son Loyal and Scott Hartmann offered a broader explanation.

The Canton residents compared the Orioles to a restaurant that has served lousy food for years and hires a big-name chef, expecting people to flock back immediately.

"It doesn't matter," said Scott Hartmann, who attends 20-30 games a year. "Because it's been too long."

As a die-hard, however, he's loving every magic minute. "There's really no rhyme or reason to why this happening," he said. "In fact, I'm still waiting for it to blow up. But this is why baseball is such a great game."