BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 06: Mark Ellis #14 of the Oakland Athletics forces out Nick Markakis #21 of the Baltimore Orioles to start a double play in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 6, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Don't look now, but the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics are in prime position to take the two American League Wild Card spots while your Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers sit at home in October. How exactly did this happen?
The MLB playoff teams aren't set in stone just yet, but after the past two weeks of play, it's become apparent that the two hot teams, the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, have the momentum to be the two Wild Card representatives in the American League. Gasp! In case you've been living on Jupiter for the past five months, let me repeat... the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics have the momentum to be the two Wild Card recipients in the American League. And you know what? It's good for baseball.
Don't worry, the Yankees will make it, too. Not everything is out of sorts in the baseball world this season. But for the first time in as long as I can remember, the two stingiest teams with low payrolls, weak fan bases, and little hope and promise, have risen to the top. Finally.
Let's look at the Orioles. With owner Peter Angelos at helm, this organization has suffered for 14 consecutive losing seasons solely due to Angelos' lack of effort and desire to win. With no sense urgency to create a winning atmosphere, Angelos' hiring of Manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette were probably the two best moves he's made in his tenure. I personally thought former President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail had one foot out the door for way too long. So when Duquette came along it was easy for him to prove he could make a difference.
For example, trading away Jeremy Guthrie for Matt Lindstrom and Jason Hammel (8-6), only to later swap Lindstrom for pitcher Joe Saunders, got the O's two arms for the price of one. Brilliant. Digging his nose deep into international scouting (and getting evicted from China along the way) and coming up with Wei-Yin Chen (12-9) was just another move that has put a smile on a fan base that hasn't seen a promising move since 1997.
"The O's have been the biggest surprise of the year," one American League manager told me. "Nobody. I mean nobody would have thought they could have stayed on top through September. We're used to taking them a little lightly, now we have to prepare even harder when we face them. It's been... different."
After spending two years traveling from Baltimore to Triple-A Norfolk, something finally clicked with Chris Tillman, who has emerged as one of the better young arms on the staff. Now 8-2, Tillman is no longer living in the shadow of fellow young teammates Jake Arietta, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton. In fact, they're living in his.
The bullpen deserves their share of credit as well with guys such as Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day and closer Jim Johnson sharing the spotlight. And of course, you can't win games without scoring runs, and you can attribute the bats of Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds and Matt Wieters - along with his defense behind the plate - for the incredible surge the offense has provided. Add all this together and you have yourself a winning formula... in Baltimore. I know, it's crazy. In addition to the maturation of the youth, top prospects Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy have gotten their taste of the big leagues and are proving they deserve to stay. In fact, after just six weeks in the majors, Machado will likely be the starting third baseman in the ALDS if the Orioles were to see October baseball.
At some point, especially after 14 consecutive losing seasons, a team is bound to turn things around, right? I mean, we all saw the Red Sox break an 86-year curse and win eight straight playoffs games (down 0-3 in the ALCS) to earn themselves their first ring since Babe Ruth went over to the dark side. So what's common denominator? The manager.
Like Terry Francona in 2004, Buck Showalter has provided leadership, discipline, authority, baseball knowledge and a somewhat cool sense of humor to help right the ship. In addition, he's been somewhat of an assistant to Duquette by adding his two cents (or more) with each and every move the organization has made. Buck spoke and the players finally listened, something that wasn't happening with Dave Trembley in house. Somebody from the World Champion 2003 Florida Marlins once told me (and no it wasn't Josh Beckett), you have to have all the right pieces, on and off the field, to be champions. Do the Orioles have the right "nugget," to use one of Showalter's terms? We'll soon find out.
Until then, they have the Oakland Athletics to compete with. I think more people predicted the A's to have a worse season than the Orioles, especially after watching Gio Gonzalez pitch his way to a 20-game season in Washington. With a $52-million payroll, somehow the Oakland A's are making good things happen.
Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel.
Pick the A or the O. Either way, it's a good choice.
But something special is happening in Baltimore and nobody can stop it. The players possess an abundance of confidence they were lacking in previous years, they appear to be playing with more heart and fight than every other team in their division, and most important, they believe in themselves. They aren't arriving to the ballpark expecting to lose, they aren't playing a three-hour game knowing a win won't help them advance in the standings, and they don't feel inferior to the big bad Yankees and the Red Sox.
Whether they make it to the postseason or not, the Orioles have a bright future because they finally learned their identity. It won't affect Showalter's chances of earning Manager of the Year honors nor Duquette's shot at becoming Executive of the Year. What's done is done. The Orioles have their first winning season since 1997. And you know what? It's good for baseball.