Players celebrate in their clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after winning 5-2 to clinch a wild-card playoff berth. (Video by Eduardo A. Encina)
An Orioles team picked by many to finish last in the American League East this season is going back to the playoffs for the third time in five years.
With their 5-2 win Sunday in New York over the Yankees, the Orioles clinched a wild-card berth and will travel to Toronto to face the Blue Jays Tuesday in a one-game playoff. The winner advances to the American League Division Series to play the Texas Rangers.
Sunday's win capped a tense week where the Orioles faced playoff elimination. But they won two of three games each in Toronto and New York after struggling all season on the road — they were just 35-40 away from Camden Yards heading into the final two series. While fans were frustrated with the lack of consistency and clutch hitting in the second half, the Orioles won seven of their last nine games to reach the postseason.
Laura Stinchcomb, 33, of Edgewater, was watching the game at Sliders Bar and Grill near Camden Yards and said the win felt sweeter because the team beat the Yankees to get in. She said she thought the Orioles could make it to the World Series.
She added: "The last time they made the World Series was the year I was born. So I'm hoping for it."
For Stinchcomb and Orioles fans, that year would be 1983, when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies in five games for their third world championship. In the time since, though, Orioles fans had to endure some near-playoff misses and a stretch of 14 straight losing seasons from 1998-2011 before the team turned it around. It's also fitting the Orioles would reach the playoffs this season because the franchise has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first World Series championship over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966.
During the first half of the season, it didn't look the Orioles would need to play until the final weekend of the season to clinch a playoff berth, and a wild-card game at that. The Orioles were among the best teams in baseball through the All-Star break, stretching their division lead to 5 1/2 games during a dazzling June.
But the team struggled in the second half and was passed by the Boston Red Sox, who won the division, and the Blue Jays, to make for a meaningful September. The anxiety was only relieved in the final regular season game Sunday. Two home runs by catcher Matt Wieters and a strong pitching performance by Kevin Gausman powered the Orioles past the Yankees.
Manager Buck Showalter said he didn't feel vindicated by making the playoffs when experts predicted the Orioles would finish at the bottom of the division.
"Life is too short to have those emotions. Thank goodness people make predictions and think things like that," Showalter said. "We've used them very well. It's kind of who we are, and the way we have to do it. There's a real identity not only with our team, but with the city and everything.
"There's just so much you can do with emotion. You have to have some skills and sometimes that gets overlooked with our guys. These are some talented guys, and they're talented in their ability to be consistent."
The Orioles also appeared in the first American League wild-card game in 2012, defeating the Texas Rangers to move on that year. They're the first AL team to appear in the wild-card game twice. The core of the 2102 team was largely the same as this year's, including center fielder Adam Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Chris Davis, then-rookie third baseman Manny Machado and Wieters.
In some sense, this season lived up to the reputation the Orioles have built under Showalter — they've crushed home runs and shut down opponents late in games with strong relief pitching.
Mark Trumbo led the majors with 47 home runs and combined with Davis (38) and Machado (37) to give the Orioles three players with 30 or more home runs for the first time in franchise history.
As a team, the Orioles hit 251 home runs, just shy of the franchise record but good for most in the majors. More of their runs came on home runs than not, and on the balance, it was enough to push them to the playoffs.
But it made for some tense moments along the way. Because of Zach Britton and the team's reliable relief corps, many of those tight games ended up going in their direction. Britton has had one of the best years of any reliever in baseball history converting all 47 of his save opportunities and posting a 0.54 ERA.
Baltimore Sun's sports columnist Peter Schmuck on the Orioles rises to the playoffs. He talks about the one game playoff with the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Baltimore Sun video)
Britton said he knows the road will be tougher with the wild-card game than it was 2014 when the Orioles won the division and reached the American League Championship Series.
"But at the same time if you look at the last couple teams that have been the wild card sometimes it benefits you to get out there and play right away in the postseason," he said. "We are a team that gets up with the momentum and so if we can carry this into the wild-card game I think we'll be in a good spot."
During a champagne celebration in the locker room after the win over the Yankees, many of the Orioles watched the ninth inning of the Red Sox-Blue Jays game to see if the Red Sox could pull out the win and give the Orioles at least one more game in Camden Yards. The Blue Jays held on and the Orioles packed for Toronto.