A Miracle at Camden Yards, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles
Okay, at the start of this season, I had my hometown team, the Baltimore Orioles, losing 100 games and not being any threat to anyone in the tough American League East. In fact, you can check out my predictions for the season here: http://catfish33.hubpages.com/hub/My-baseball-predictions-for-the-2012-season I thought, like most reasonable people, that the O's would stink just like they had for the past 15 years.
But there were some hopeful signs. The magnificient September the O's had in 2011, in which the O's knocked the Boston Red Sox out of the playoffs on the final day of the season showed that the team had heart. More importantly, baseball guru Bill James has maintained that late-season performance in the previous season is a predictor of good things to come in the next season. Still, it was hard to get excited about a team with no legitimate leadoff man, no real cleanup hitter, and a pitching staff full of rookies and second year men. Plus, what few O's fans were left were complaining when the team traded away Jeremy Guthrie, the "ace" of the staff only by virtue of being here since 2007. Sure, he led the American League in losses twice, and he gave up the longball, but he was at least a mound fulcrum, someone who could be relied on for 200 innings a year.
There was a lot of potential for the team, particularly with the young pitchers like Jake Arietta, Zack Britton, and Brian Matusz, but young pitchers take a while to get their feet wet, and 2012 was seen as a season in which the youngsters took their lumps while waiting for greater things to come in three or four years.
The best thing to happen to the O's in the off-season, with the exception of resurrecting the cartoon bird logo (LOVE IT!), was the signing of Dan Duquette to be the general manager. This move was ridiculed by a lot of people, including me, but he has made some great moves to help the team this season.
There were some big problems coming into the 2012 season. Mark Reynolds, while a legit home run threat, may be the worst fielding third baseman I have ever seen. The man led the A.L. in errors in 2011, and that wasn't an aberration. His arm was a joke. It seemed as if the fans in the first base seats needed to wear suits of armor whenever he picked up a ball to throw it to first.
Closer Kevin Gregg was a nibbler in the Don Stanhouse sense, refusing to give in to a hitter. Problem was, he was too cute, and was getting lit up most every night. He ended up losing his closer's job towards the end of the 2011 season, and it was announced that Jim Johnson, a journeyman pitcher up to that point, would be the new closer.
With all that being said, the O's won their first three games, a sweep over the Minnesota Twins at home, then got swept by the New York Yankees at Camden Yards. Same old O's, most of us thought. But the team began to win, and closed April with 14-9 mark.
May followed with a 15-13 mark, and one of the most enduring games of the season, a 17-inning win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, a game in which outfielder Chris Davis ended up pitching two scoreless innings to get the win. When you win games like this, it feels like something special is going on.
June and July were low points for the team as they went 26-27 over the two months, and worse yet, Arietta and Matusz were sent to the minor leagues, having suffered enough. But Jason Hammel, acquired from Colorado in the Guthrie trade, became a fine pitcher. I guess getting out of the thin air of Coors Field had something to do with it, but he was the staff ace until he went down with a knee injury. Korean import Wei-Yin Chen proved himself as a reliable starting pitcher, and an unknown 28-year-old named Miguel Gonzalez came up from Norfolk and has pitched very well this season.
The pitching staff got an unexpected boost when Joe Saunders was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is a steady mound presence that can go seven-plus innings in each start, and he hasn't disappointed.
Plus the bullpen has been outstanding. Arms like Pedro Strop, sidearm specialist Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, and Luis Ayala have been wonderful support to an uneven rotation, and the key to the O's success in one-run games. And Jim Johnson has 50 saves at this moment, setting a team record, and has been one of the best closers in baseball.
The team started to take off again in August, going 18-9. Three things happened which helped the offense, which had been iffy all year up to that point. Firstly, Nick Markakis was put in the leadoff spot, and he thrived there, providing an instant spark to the team. Secondly, following some injuries, Mark Reynolds was put at first base. It took a while, but he taken to the position like a duck to water, and it revived his offense as well. Thirdly, highly touted prospect Manny Machado was brought up from Double-A ball on August 9th, and has been a fixture ever since, wowing the home crowd with his hitting and baseball instincts. The "Man-ny" chants at Camden Yards reminded me of the "Ed-die" chants that accompanied Hall of Famer Eddie Murray at Memorial Stadium.
All of a sudden, this team was starting to look like a contender, and after being 10 games out of first place on July 18th, the O's win in Toronto on September 4th had them tied for first place in the A.L. East with the mighty Yankees. As of tonight, they are still tied for first.
A 19-9 September culminated with the O's earning a playoff spot on September 30th, after defeating the Red Sox and a Los Angeles Angels loss later on that evening. The atmosphere in Camden Yards was breathtaking. Instead of crowds of people wearing other teams' caps and gear to the park, the place was filled with black and orange. And it was fantastic.
Of course, there have been hardships along the way. On September, 9th, C.C. Sabathia plunked Markakis on the hand, breaking Nick's thumb, ending his regular season. Did the O's panic? No, they just put Nate McLouth in the leadoff spot, and he has done very well in that position. Injuries to pitchers Hammel and Troy Patton have hurt, but the team has survived, and thrived in spite of those injuries.
What's remarkable about the season is how manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette have been working together to plug holes in the lineup. The O's have gotten production out of McLouth, Ryan Flaherty, and Lew Ford. Ford hadn't been in the major leagues since 2007, but he has contributed to the O's as a fine bench player. The O's brain trust seemed to be hitting on all cylinder this year.
And the O's have gotten great seasons out of All-Star center fielder Adam Jones, who has hit 32 home runs this season, outfielder/first baseman/DH/emergency pitcher Chris Davis, who has been red-hot lately, with 31 bombs on the season. The O's stole him and pitcher Tommy Hunter in a trade with Texas last year for Koji Uehara. And that trade will pay off for years to come.Matt Wieters is arguably the best catcher in the American League, who bat has heated up in the second half of the season. J.J. Hardy has not had a great year with the bat, but his glove work has been first-rate. In fact, the O's defense has made a remarkable turnaround from the beginning of the year, espcially in the infield. Machado's presence at third base has been a key to that.
Another key to this team has been its play in one-run games, going 28-9 in those contests. And their extra inning success has been ridiculous, 16-2 in those contests, with a 16-game winning streak in extended play. That has been one of the big stories of the year, and the big reason the O's have been so successful this season.
When you consider what has gone wrong this season, with Markakis' injuries, the failed comeback of Brian Roberts, the regression of Arietta and Matusz, the injury to Jim Thome (a great mid-season pickup from the Philles), not to mention the inconsistency in the starting rotation, it is a major miracle that this team is where it is. And the cut-and-paste job that Showalter has done with a lineup full of free-swingers that never met a pitch they didn't want to swing at has been nothing short of remarkable.
And the way this area, which has been a football-first town thanks to the success of the Ravens, has taken to the team warms my old heart. Adam Jones remarked how great it was to play for packed house at Camden Yards, and the fans are coming back. They believe in this team. And it shows.
So, here's to a great season, no matter what happens. It's now cool to wear black and orange again!
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