Reasons for Optimism
I wrote last month that June presented the Baltimore Orioles with “a chance to put space between themselves and the Red Sox, push the Rays further into the basement, overtake the Yankees, and bring the Blue Jays back down to earth.” We are now one week into July, and while I wouldn’t suggest hanging any enormous “Mission Accomplished” banners quite yet, Baltimore sports fans have to be happy with where the team stands. The Birds are in sole possession of first place in the chaotic American League East, and the air at the top is sweet.
Of course, the perch on which the Orioles (48-40) currently sit is a perilous one, and the fact that they have so quickly overcome a Toronto Blue Jays (47-43) team that looked like world beaters a month ago is a testament to that danger. The division is the tightest in baseball, with only nine games separating worst and first. Every team, including the Red Sox (39-49) and Rays (41-50), is capable of reaching up from the depths and dragging Buck’s squad below. While it would be nice for the O’s to spend the rest of the season building on their two-game lead and never looking back, it seems likely that the first-place baton will be passed a few more times before the 2014 season is all said and done.
The Orioles went 16-12 in June and have followed that up with a 5-1 record in early July. They are likely to hit 50 wins before next week’s All-Star break, an accomplishment that is generally seen as a positive indicator of a team’s chances down the stretch. If they can split the four-game beltway series with the Nationals and take two of three at home against the Yankees during the next week, they would go into the recess with 52 wins.
They are going to need every one of those marks in the “W” column to help maintain their divisional lead after the break, because the schedule is downright brutal. The Birds jump right into a 10-game road trip against the A’s, the Angels, and the Mariners, all teams with equal or better records than they have right now. They then get to come home for three-game sets with the Angels and Mariners. It’s a ruthless stretch against playoff-caliber teams, and the O’s will be hard pressed to keep their heads above water throughout. In fact, from now until mid-August, the Orioles will play 32 straight games against squads with winning records. It’s the closest you can get to a “trial by fire” in baseball without literally setting the stadium on fire (though doing so may actually be an improvement for Tampa’s Tropicana Field), and it has the potential to make or break Baltimore’s season.
Despite the daunting challenges ahead, there is a lot of positive energy around the Orioles right now. This is a team that has overcome the loss of its All-Star catcher and spent a chunk of the season without its superstar third baseman. And Earl only knows what’s happening with Chris Davis (though I have my dorky suspicions that Mark Reynolds has discovered how to brew Polyjuice Potion and has the real Crush locked in a trunk somewhere). Yet they are in first place with over half the season in the books, and they keep on winning.
I am very optimistic about this team and their chances of playing baseball in October. They have great talent, they have solid depth at every position, and they have key players who can contribute at a much higher level than they are currently. But I think the main reason for my enthusiasm is the energy surrounding the Orioles. In the dark days before the Showalter administration, my father used to say that the Orioles had forgotten how to be a winning team. And the first few years under Buck proved him right. This was a team that had been bad for so long that they had forgotten what playing good baseball felt like, and the biggest challenge of the new regime was instilling a winning culture in a clubhouse that had been full of despair for the better part of two decades.
The atmosphere around the club has undoubtedly improved over the last few years, but I didn’t really know that they were where they needed to be mentally and emotionally until Saturday night’s game against Boston. The O’s had suffered a heartbreaking walk-off loss to the Red Sox in the first game of the day/night doubleheader. They rebounded in the nightcap, taking a 7-4 lead into the 8th inning. Up to the plate stepped Nelson Cruz, who was already four-for-four with a homer, two singles, and a double. With the bases empty, Cruz blasted a ball over right fielder Daniel Nava’s head. It was an easy double, but he didn’t stop at second. The big outfielder, who will never be mistaken for Usain Bolt, dove headfirst into third. He wanted that triple, and he wanted to hit for the cycle. Unfortunately, a perfect relay from shortstop Stephen Drew just beat him. Cruz was out at third.
If this had happened in 2010, it’s safe to guess what the reaction would have been. The manager would have sat stone-faced on the bench. The other players would have shaken their heads, grumbling about a missed opportunity. But this play happened in 2014, and the reaction was incredible. Cruz got up, frustrated but smiling to himself as he walked back to join his squad. He was met with laughs, high fives, and huge grins. Buck said after the game that Cruz’s teammates were begging Buck to challenge the play, hoping the close call would be overturned. The skipper himself was even glimpsed smiling on the MASN broadcast as a result of his slugger’s bold attempt at glory. “If you can’t enjoy that and take it the way you need,” Showalter said of the play in his post-game conference, “you’re taking yourself way too seriously.”
That is the culture of the Baltimore Orioles in 2014. They can play a division opponent on the road, mere hours after a close loss, and not only be in a position to try for something as relatively meaningless as hitting for the cycle but also to celebrate and laugh off the failed attempt. Even two years ago, when the Orioles had their first winning season and returned to the playoffs, I seriously doubt you would have seen that kind of reaction. As a team, they were not quite there yet. They are now, and that is all the reason needed for optimism.