The Orioles' chances of returning to the playoffs have gone from improbable to highly unlikely recently, but their top two affiliates began postseason play Wednesday night.
Triple-A Norfolk, winner of the International League South Division for the first time since 2005, began its best-of-five first-round series against the Columbus Clippers in Norfolk on Wednesday night.
Double-A Bowie won the Western Division of the Eastern League — its second division crown in franchise history — and traveled to Altoona, Pa., for the beginning of a best-of-five first-round series against the Curve.
Norfolk lost, 5-2, in Game 1.
The Orioles system has been widely considered one of the weakest in baseball, but nearly every affiliate has had success this year. And player development director Brian Graham said that definitely says something.
"The fact that five out of six teams finished over .500 makes me proud and happy. There was a lot of really good work that went into it by our staffs and our players," Graham said. "They all did a great job and to have two teams in the playoffs is certainly a good feeling because it means you are doing something well."
The Tides had never previously captured the division as an Orioles affiliate, but they won 78 games this season under manager Ron Johnson, who was named the IL Manager of the Year. It was a particularly impressive job considering the Orioles' constant round-trip shuttle of players from Norfolk to Baltimore.
"Managing Triple-A is one of the toughest jobs in baseball," Graham said. "You have such a variety of players and such a variety of personalities. And the fact that so many come up and go down throughout the course of the season, you've got to handle the ups and downs of players' mentalities."
The Tides are a veteran group that includes only a few considered legitimate prospects, such as first baseman Christian Walker and pitcher Tyler Wilson — both of whom had brief call-ups with the Orioles in 2015. Of the Tides' four starting pitchers set for the first round of the playoffs, three came from other organizations. And in Wednesday's starting lineup, only Cuban defector Henry Urrutia and Walker, were signed originally by the Orioles.
The Tides could have had more homegrown pitchers in their rotation by September, but lower-level starters Dylan Bundy, Branden Kline and Parker Bridwell were shut down because of arm injuries.
"I'm OK with the way it has played out because at this point this is what we have to do. We have a lot of good pitchers, we have some injuries and we've been able to supplement our rosters with good players, guys that have done a good job," Graham said. "The biggest thing at the end of the day is do we have players to help Buck [Showalter] up here fill in and help us win in the big leagues? And we've had a really good run of players that have been able to do that this year."
Bowie, managed by Baltimore native and longtime organizational stalwart Gary Kendall, is the team with the better collection of prospects, led by first baseman Trey Mancini, catcher Chance Sisco and third baseman Drew Dosch. The Baysox pitching staff includes 23-year-old right-hander Joe Gunkel, who the organization acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the Alejandro De Aza deal, and right-hander David Hess, who was the club's fifth-round draft pick in 2014.
Graham said he feels good about both teams' chances to have a strong postseason showing. And Showalter said he's excited, too.
"Are you kidding? Sure it is [exciting]," Showalter said. "Whether it's state championships, Little League, it's all relevant — to be the best of the best in a league when everybody's playing the same games and competing for the same thing and had the opportunity to sign the same players."
In talking about the club's minor league prospects Wednesday, Showalter raved again about Mancini, a 23-year-old first baseman who was an eighth-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2013. In combined stints at High-A Frederick and Bowie, Mancini hit 21 homers and batted .341 in 136 games.
"Good-looking player. I don't know what else you could ask a guy to do," Showalter said. "What's he got,  doubles? … The games I've seen, and I've watched a lot of tape, too, he hits the ball the other way. I like that. Made some improvements at first base."
Mancini won the Eastern League batting crown, though it took a league rule to make it happen. He hit .359 at Bowie but was 29 plate appearances shy of the 383 needed to qualify. So, as part of league rule 9.22a, he was given an 0-for-29 after the season ended and his adjusted batting average of .330 was still good enough for the title.
It's possible that the Orioles could promote Mancini or Walker toward the end of the month to help out at first base, Showalter said. But that'll be decided after the minor league playoffs.
"Christian maybe, I don't know about all that stuff with the roster with Trey," Showalter said. "I think he may be having as good an overall year as anybody in the minor leagues. I'm not talking about just us, either."
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones was out of the lineup for the second consecutive night because of a sore right shoulder. Showalter said Jones probably could have played, but he decided to give Jones three straight days to rest his beat-up body with Thursday's day off.
"If we give him another day he ends up with three in a row. And we might be able to have him as close to being right as he can be the rest of the way," Showalter said. "So that really kind of won out a little bit today. … I feel confident he'll be a player Friday."
Jones, who left Monday's game in the eighth inning, said he feels better, so he's sticking with Showalter's plan.
"It's a lot better than it was the other day," Jones said. "Time heals all wounds, man."
There has been at least one coaching move in each offseason Showalter has been with the Orioles, but he said Wednesday he doesn't "anticipate any changes" for 2016. … Mancini and Hess were named the organization's Player and Pitcher of the Month for August. … Showalter has yet to name his starter for Sunday night at Camden Yards versus the Kansas City Royals. Mike Wright pitches Friday and Chris Tillman starts Saturday. ... Low-A Delmarva third baseman Jomar Reyes, 18, was selected with the No. 2 pick by Licey of the Dominican Winter League to play there this offseason.