Players celebrate in their clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after winning 5-2 to clinch a wild-card playoff berth. (Video by Eduardo A. Encina)
Before they sprayed champagne and Budweiser throughout the visiting clubhouse of Yankee Stadium on Sunday evening, the Orioles' on-field celebration of their third trip to the playoffs in five years was a muted one.
After a 5-2 win over the New York Yankees in the final game of the regular season, their postgame handshake line didn't resemble anything out of the ordinary.
"It's not a division title," said center fielder Adam Jones, yelling over a blasting sound system, with ski goggles raised over his forehead. "When we won the division in 2014, we were celebrating out there like crazy. But we know it's a stepping stone, and I think what we did was, we respected the wild-card game. We're like, 'OK, good, we're in it,' but we're not gonna go all [out] like that on the field. In here, we're celebrating and having a little bit of fun."
Baltimore expects a winning baseball team, and these Orioles have extended their season for at least one more game. They now head to Toronto, where they will play the Blue Jays in the American League wild-card game Tuesday night at the Rogers Centre, fulfilling a goal to get back to the postseason after last year's .500 season fell short of expectations.
Sunday's 5-2 win over the Yankees 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.
"They've grinded, not since February, but since the season ended last year," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I told them in the last conversation [last year], 'This, too, shall pass.' The game's not always fair. This year, it was, because they got a return for what they put into it. …You look up 'grind' in the dictionary, you should have the 2016 Orioles there, because these guys never gave in."
The Orioles' roller-coaster season will continue into the postseason with unfinished business. The Royals swept them in the AL Championship Series two years ago in Kansas City, and the Orioles lost a heartbreaking Game 5 at Yankee Stadium in the ALDS four years ago.
"Our team is strong, and we've got a chance to play in the postseason," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "That's all you can ask for. You just roll the dice and see if you can knock on the door and break through this time. … These guys, they grind it out every day. They're there taking care of business. It's a hardworking club. They knew at the start of the road trip what the job was."
The Orioles, who tied the Blue Jays for second place in the AL East with an 89-73 record but lost the tiebreaker because of Toronto's better head-to-head record, never made it easy on themselves. But by no means did they back into the postseason, winning seven of their past nine, including four on the road, to advance to the playoffs. And they ended up needing every win.
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)
Catcher Matt Wieters, a pending free agent and one of the team's longest-tenured players, was the hero of the day, hitting a pair of two-run homers. The switch-hitting Wieters homered in back-to-back at-bats, becoming the first Orioles player to homer from both sides of the plate since Roberto Alomar on July 25, 1996.
"Any team that makes the playoffs after 162 games, you've been through the ups and down, and this team is no different," Wieters said. "We've been through it all. It's not time for the postseason. We'll enjoy it tonight and then move on to the postseason. … This team is battle-tested. We are ready for whatever gets thrown at us. … We have been through it all, and now it's time to enjoy tonight and get ready for the postseason."
After a 7-3 loss to the Yankees (84-78) on Saturday, the Orioles entered the regular season's final day as one of three teams contending for the two AL wild-card spots. Their win Sunday sealed a spot in the wild-card game, while the Detroit Tigers' loss to the Atlanta Braves ended their bid. But as the Orioles celebrated, they also kept an eye on the end of Toronto's 2-1 win in Boston. A Blue Jays loss would have sent the wild-card game to Camden Yards, and several players, their eyes burning from champagne, noted how strange it was to be rooting for the division rival Red Sox.
A comeback didn't happen, but by just making the postseason, the Orioles already had flipped the script. Many prognosticators picked them to finish last in the division.
"We just proved ourselves, right?" Jones said. "I don't think we cared about anyone else's thoughts. We got to play the game, no matter what others say. You got to get between the lines, and these men right here showed up every single day. Sometimes it wasn't pretty. I wasn't pretty. But at the end of the day, we got the job done."
The Orioles pinned their wild-card hopes on right-hander Kevin Gausman (9-12), who delivered again in the Bronx. Gausman held the Yankees to two runs on eight hits over 7 1/3 innings, ending the season with a 1.10 ERA in six starts — all of them quality starts — against the Yankees.
"When I woke up, I was ready to go," Gausman said. "I wanted the game to start at 12 o'clock. I was pacing back and forth in here a long time, and I wanted the ball today. I think it's even more fun to do it here. They beat us up a lot over the years way past before my time, so it's good to celebrate here."
The aggressiveness these Orioles showed at the plate, which has at times led to frustrating offensive slumps, paid off. Wieters' first homer came on a 3-0 pitch. He turned on a 95-mph fastball from Yankees right-hander starter Luis Cessa (4-4), sending it into the right-field second deck with two outs in the fourth inning to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead.
In his next at-bat, Wieters, now batting from the right side of the plate against left-hander Tommy Layne, drove a 1-2 sinker inside the left-field foul pole, giving him 17 homers this season.
"Cessa was tough today with a good breaking ball and a good changeup, so 3-0, was looking for a fastball, was able to get it and just get the barrel on it," Wieters said. "The one later was a little bit up, I think, and fortunately, it was there."
Now a whirlwind of a season will have another chapter.
"It went by quick for me because 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 got a chance to be a wild card, then you 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."