TORONTO — It seems like so long ago when the Orioles ran out to baseball's best start, winning their first seven games of the season. That's because since then, they've taken their fans for a whirlwind 162-game ride that ultimately led to tonight's American League wild-card game against the division-rival Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
This Orioles team has been as confusing at it has been complex. As easily as the club can get on a roll and look unbeatable, it can look lost the next day. Now, the Orioles are in a win-or-else situation in the wild-card game, with one night determining whether they will advance to the American League Division Series.
"We're a group that has stuck together," Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "I think it's been like a roller coaster just like every team, but I think our roller coaster has had some higher [highs] and some lower [lows]. A lot of win streaks, a lot of losing streaks. We're capable of being as good as or better than anyone at any given time, but we've had times where pitching was carrying us and the hitting wasn't doing anything and we've had times when the hitting was doing it. I guess every team is similar in a way. I mean, in 162 games, anything can happen."
The Orioles needed to win seven of their last nine to clinch a postseason berth, mainly because of a 25-30 record in July and August. This is a team that spent most of the season leading the AL East, including 109 of the season's first 129 days. They spent most of the past seven weeks fighting for positioning in the division with the Boston Red Sox and Blue Jays, and all along three AL East teams were positioned to make the postseason.
"I think the biggest thing is we were in first place for a long time and then to fall out of that and be fighting for our lives for a wild-card spot just showed the resilience, I thought," closer Zach Britton said. I think the biggest thing about coming to the field every day with these guys is that the mindset never changed. It was always the same, even when we had our struggles. That's the main reason why we were able to fight through it and win on this last day in a game that we needed to."
The Orioles were just one game over .500 after the All-Star break (38-37), and after their seven wins to start the season were just nine games over .500 (82-73). But they were 17-12 from Sept. 1 on, a stretch that included big series wins on the road in Detroit, Boston, Toronto and New York.
"It's definitely been a different season than some of our other years," catcher Matt Wieters said. "It's almost been a bend-don't-break type of mentality. We've seen how good we can be and then we've had stretches where things just haven't clicked for us in certain stretches. But no matter how bad it might have looked for a spell of four, five, six games, it was never, 'That's us.'
"We were the team that was winning seven in a row, that was gonna put up seven or eight runs. I think it's kind of something with the offense we are that it's a possibility that good pitching is going to beat good hitting more times than not. I just think we've been really good at handling some of the struggles this year and not getting too down on ourselves, and knowing we have the capability to turn it around just like that."
In late June, the Orioles were riding high out west. They were 17 games over .500 when they were swept in four games in Seattle, the first of several stretches when the Orioles' power bats went silent. But after losing their series opener at Dodger Stadium, they salvaged the road trip with one of their best wins of the year, a 14-inning victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Jonathan Schoop's go-ahead two-run double.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Orioles won two, then lost four, then won five, then lost five, then won three, one of the most striking up-and-down stretches of the season. In August, they lost three of four in Oakland, a series that opened the door for their AL East rivals. But the Orioles then took two of three in San Francisco against an eventual playoff team.
Some might call the Orioles' play erratic and inconsistent, but manager Buck Showalter describes it more as resilient.
"This team was involved in the competition right from day one and never really got away from it," Showalter said. "You go through periods where you've got a chance to win the division, you've got a chance to be a wild card, then you've got a chance even not to be in it. You don't overcome that without having a real strong mentality. So many times we started to say something to these guys, and I just backed off. They got it. Sometimes the best managing you do is the managing you don't do."
In 2012, when the Orioles made their trip to the postseason in 15 years, everything was new. That club was characterized by its one-run wins and extra-inning heroics. In 2014, they pulled away from a muddled division race in the final two months, behind the leadership of a playoff-tested veteran in Nelson Cruz, who willed the team to victory on some nights.
Finding team's identity this year is more difficult. Center fielder Adam Jones — the team's longest-tenured player — said the club's strength going into the postseason is its seasoning. Players who had three to five years of experience five years ago are now unquestioned veteran leaders who have been through the ups and downs of the regular season and the playoffs.
"We're just older," Jones said. "We're veterans. … This year it's a culmination of, 'OK guys, we've been here before.' Now we understand what it takes to get in and you see it. We're done the hard part of getting in here. … I think that comes with having just a little more experience in these situations and having a little more leadership.
"… We know how to play together, we know how to win together. I think as a team we know how to win together. The core of this team — me and Wieters have been together since '09 — and the majority of this team has been together since '11 and '12. That's a long time."
Whether the ups and downs help this team as it chases the city's first World Series title since 1983 remains to be seen, but they know momentum can propel a team through the postseason. Two years ago, both World Series teams — the Giants and Kansas City Royals — emerged from the wild-card game. But in a must-win wild-card game, this roller-coaster ride of a season can either stop quickly or continue deeper into October.
"We've been in situations where we've kind of put ourselves behind the 8- ball, but I never felt like there was ever any panic," first baseman Chris Davis said. "I felt like it was also a mentality like we were going to get it done. It may not look great right now, but we're just going to keep grinding it and turning it around. I think that's big, especially the way the playoffs are set up now. It's really, everything goes down to the wire and the good thing about it is if you get hot at the right moment, a lot of times that can carry you through the postseason."