When the Toronto Blue Jays overtook the New York Yankees for second place earlier this week and then won their game Wednesday night, the Blue Jays guaranteed that the Orioles couldn't capture the American League East crown until Monday at the earliest.
That ruined a delicious scenario for the Orioles this weekend, potentially sweeping the Yankees at Camden Yards to clinch their first division title in 17 years. You would have needed a jumbo, battery-charged broom for that one.
As it stands, the most the Orioles can do this weekend is eliminate the Yankees from the divisional race, which, for an organization that has been in the deep shadows of the Bronx Bombers for decades, is a solid consolation prize. At least it is for Orioles fans.
"I've seen the Yankees celebrate a few times in our face, but it's not like a revenge thing. It's a game, it's the sport," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "If they were the ones there, trust me, we're going to celebrate on the field. But if it is another team, we are going to do the same thing."
The Orioles begin a 10-game homestand starting with Friday's split doubleheader against the Yankees. They play New York for four games through the weekend, the Blue Jays for three from Monday through Wednesday and then finish up their regular season home schedule with three versus the Boston Red Sox from Sept. 19-21. The Orioles' season ends with seven games on the road at Yankee Stadium in New York and Rogers Centre in Toronto.
With a 10-game lead over the Blue Jays and 11 over the Yankees heading into Thursday night with 17 games to play — and the magic number for clinching the division at eight — the Orioles should be in a "when" and not an "if" mode when considering the playoffs.
But don't tell that to manager Buck Showalter. He'll talk about the postseason the day after the Orioles actually clinch, or maybe a day after that. He practically broke out in hives when reporters inquired about clinching scenarios during the most recent road trip in Boston.
"If that comes to be the potential for that to happen … that's a long way away," Showalter said in Boston on Wednesday. "I haven't gotten involved in the math. I've gotten into the math of the nine innings we're playing today. I think our club's had that mentality, too. I've kind of fed off their mentality as much as they've probably fed off the junk they have to listen to with me."
Pretty much since he became manager in August 2010, the Orioles have taken their cues from Showalter, the never-take-things-for-granted, eye-on-the-prize skipper. And that's not wavering as they inch toward a title.
"Clinching, a lot of it has to do with how the other teams play, too," closer Zach Britton said. "We've been really good this year at avoiding worrying about what other people are doing and just focusing on winning games. As long as we continue winning games, it's going to eventually happen. So that's our only goal right now."
Throwing out the "if" and "when" leaves one mystery: Where?
There has been just one "clinching" celebration in Camden Yards' 23-season history, after the Orioles beat Randy Johnson and the Seattle Mariners in Game 4 of the 1997 American League Division Series to advance to the AL Championship Series.
When the club broke its 14-year losing skid by making the playoffs in 2012, the team received word while sitting on a plane in Jacksonville, Fla., after an unexpected landing and delay due to a minor malfunction aboard the charter plane. The subsequent jaunt from Jacksonville to St. Petersburg, Fla., didn't exactly resemble Times Square on New Year's Eve.
"The plane was rocking," Showalter joked. "Up at 30,000 feet, you don't push the envelope too much."
The Orioles did get to pop champagne corks in 2012 after beating the Texas Rangers in the one-game AL wild-card playoff, but it was in the visiting clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The Orioles haven't clinched a division title at home since September 1979, and that was following a loss to the Cleveland Indians because the Orioles' closest divisional competitor, the Milwaukee Brewers, also lost. They haven't clinched a division title with a win at home since 1969.
That could change this week.
"I looked at that, too," Jones said. "We go home for a 10-day stretch that could potentially springboard us into the playoffs already and let us align ourselves for the playoffs accordingly."
How much pleasure would the Orioles take in clinching at home? Well, it sort of depends on who you ask.
"To celebrate in Baltimore, to celebrate at home, would be awesome," Jones said. "But, for me personally, I honestly love doing things on the road. Like hitting a home run on the road because it is all quiet, and it's just you and the stadium that's just quiet. That's awesome. But, obviously, being at home and being able to celebrate with your fans. I'd want to throw a party and invite everybody."
Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis missed most of September 2012 and the playoffs that year with a broken thumb.
Although he was with the team for its celebration in Texas, it wasn't the same for him; he felt more like a spectator than a participant. So, with all due respect to Orioles fans, he just wants to be in the middle of a team that clinches a playoff spot.
"I don't really care if it is away or at home," Markakis said. "You'd like to do it at home with the fans back home … But we aren't thinking about [where it occurs]."
Jones said his buddy Markakis still can't believe that it is happening, that after all the losses he has endured and his literal and figurative pain at the end of 2012, he may soon be a division champion with a goal much loftier.
"He's kind of still in shock that the opportunity of being in the playoffs is really among us," Jones laughed. "He's still in shock about it right now. He's saying, 'We have a pretty good shot.'"
That's about as cocky as these Orioles are going to get. They'll let the pundits say the division is sewn up. But can they really ignore what the other teams are doing and focus solely on each individual game?
"It's tough. It's really tough. We are human, we're not robots. It's not like we can just go out there and perform," Britton said. "You are always constantly looking and seeing what other people are doing. Maybe you're not fully engaged, 'Oh, my God,' inning to inning.
"But you're looking at scores. Every stadium has a scoreboard, and you're glancing, especially with all the time we have in the bullpen. But it is just exciting that we are playing good baseball and that we have a chance to win a division."
The bottom line is, barring a major collapse, the Orioles soon will be AL East champions. They can eliminate the Yankees with a sweep this weekend and, if they follow that up by winning two of three against Toronto, they would eliminate the Blue Jays, too. In a seven-game period, the Orioles can dismiss two of their rivals without backing into a title and give the home crowd a thrill it hasn't experienced in years.
"To do it in front of your home fans and have them celebrate with you, yeah, awesome." Jones said. "I know they can't run on the field like they used to do, like in the original 'Major League,' (movie), but to celebrate in front of them and have them go nuts for us. That's what sports is all about."
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