With 8-2 win Tuesday, Orioles clinch first American League East title since 1997

After the Orioles drained bottles of champagne inside the home clubhouse of Camden Yards, leaving behind not a dry spot in a room littered with corks and empty beer bottles, they ran toward the dugout for a postgame party that Baltimore had long awaited.

They celebrated their first American League East division title in 17 years Tuesday night after their 8-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays with their hometown fans at Camden Yards.

Their coronation as newly recrowned kings of the AL East came in front of a sea of orange -- an announced 34,297 -- entirely on its feet, standing as right-hander Tommy Hunter closed out the game with a grounder to first base. On cue, orange fireworks shot into the sky from the scoreboard and streamers were shot into the seating bowl.

 

“It was really loud,” Hunter said. “It was fun. You got the shakes a little bit from warming up. It was cool. It was a great environment. That’s the environment it should be in Baltimore. These guys love baseball, these fans, this city. We’re bringing it back.”

 

While players sprayed bottles of beer on each other and into a frenzied crowd above the Orioles dugout, manager Buck Showalter stood on the first step of the dugout and watched quietly wearing a AL East division champions cap and a proud smirk.

 

"You get older, you want to get a good angle and a good seat and see good people get a return for what they put into it and what they're trying to achieve,” Showalter said. “And this is a huge step, to get a chance now. We've got to figure out a way to win 11 games."

 

Even though this was the Orioles' ninth division title in franchise history, it was a first for the city of Baltimore. In this 60th anniversary season of Orioles baseball, it marked the first time in club history that they celebrated a division title at home while needing a win to clinch. Back in 1969, the Orioles won the AL East on a day in which they won, but had already sealed the division before their game ended.

“It’s an awesome experience,” said right fielder Nick Markakis, the longest tenured Oriole. “We worked hard all season long to get to where we are now, and we got step one out of the way. Now we’ve got a couple more steps to go ... Just taking it all in and the experience itself is something I’ll never forget.

Center fielder Adam Jones celebrated by giving Markakis a celebratory pie to the face. Jones also later pied a fan. Hunter pied right-hander Darren O’Day. While celebrating with their fans in the area in front of the home dugout, they stepped around empty Budweiser bottles and pie remnants.

“We reached the pinnacle,” Jones said. “It’s a big moment in our history, big moment within this clubhouse. These guys worked their tails off, every last one of them, for the same goal … to win."

And Jones understood how long a wait this has been for Orioles fans.

“I wasn’t able to drink at that time [in 1997], so I couldn’t taste the bubbly, but I can taste it now and it tastes really good. It’s a milestone. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re going to celebrate tonight … the whole city of Baltimore. … It has been a long time coming for the city of Baltimore.”

The Orioles (91-60) are heading to the playoffs for the second time in three years. For a team that endured 14 straight losing seasons before Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette brought winning baseball back to Baltimore, they became the fourth different AL East team to win the division in the last five seasons.

Over the course of the season, the Orioles lost three keystone players -- Matt Wieters, Manny Machado and Chris Davis -- but other role players filled their absences holes.

 

Once one of those players -- first baseman Steve Pearce -- blasted a three-run homer off Toronto right-hander Drew Hutchison to give the Orioles a 3-1 lead in the first inning, anticipation built, ending with a dogpile behind second base following the final out of the game.

 

Pearce, who was reluctantly designated for assignment by the team in April because of a roster crunch, returned to the club days later after an injury to Davis and has had the best season of his career in his first real opportunity to play every day.

 

Pearce gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead with his 18th homer of the season. He took a 0-1 fastball just over the center-field fence with two outs in the bottom of the first.

 

“This is where I wanted to play,” Pearce said. “My decision was a no-brainer. I love everybody here, from the players to the front office, this is where I wanted to play. To have this feeling right now, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

 

Throughout the season, Duquette was savvy with his roster, acquiring players like third baseman Jimmy Paredes -- who hit a solo homer Tuesday -- and left fielder Alejandro De Aza, who laced a three-run triple down the right-field line in the seventh that all but put the game away.

“They all had big roles, but the team is the star,” Duquette said. “And when you have a lot of players who have good habits and do good work and you have good leadership with Buck, you’ve got a chance to do these things.

 

“I’m excited. I’m really happy we are where we are, but I’m looking forward to the next couple of steps, because we’ve got some more work to do.”

 

As they built a sizable lead in the division, an Orioles team that entered the spring as a long shot with 7-to-1 odds to win the AL East showed resilience at every turn.

 

Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who hadn’t pitched since Aug. 31 after being demoted to the bullpen a month ago, overcame a rocky start to hold the Blue Jays to two runs and two hits. 

 

As a team, the Orioles held the Blue Jays to four hits -- and just two after the second inning.

 

Jimenez needed 60 pitches to get through the first two innings -- walking four and allowing two runs in two 30-pitch innings to open the night -- and he was almost certainly headed for a short outing. But Jimenez righted himself to last five innings on 97 pitches.

 

“I struggled in the first couple innings, and it didn’t feel like I was going to make it to the third,” Jimenez said. “But I wanted to find a way to get this team a win. I thank God for everything, and I thank Buck for giving me the opportunity to be there.”

 

The Orioles has struggled against Hutchison, who had a 0.98 ERA in four starts against the Orioles this season before Tuesday, but took a 4-2 lead on him with homers by Pearce and Paredes, extending their major league-leading total to 196.

 

When De Aza -- acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox at the end of August -- lined a pitch from Aaron Loup into the right-field corner with the bases loaded for a three-run triple, it seemed to be just a matter of time before the Orioles could celebrate in front of the home crowd.

 

This marked the second-earliest date the Orioles have clinched the division in franchise history. They sealed the AL East on Sept. 13 in 1969.

Eleven games are left in the regular season, but the Orioles still have something to play for: They entered Tuesday night four games back of the Los Angeles Angels for the best record in the AL and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

 

And even though the high of becoming champions of the AL East will remain, the Orioles anticipate even more memorable atmospheres in Baltimore this postseason. 

 

"It seemed to get bigger as the game went on,” Showalter said. “Was it my imagination? Or maybe just louder. I was telling [pitching coach] Dave [Wallace] during the national anthem. I said, 'Dave, just wait until the playoffs.' He said, 'This place is special.' Of course, I'm biased. I've been in a lot, and I don't think there's any more electric place than this ballpark when something's on the line for the city of Baltimore."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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