The Baltimore Orioles' walk-off win over the Detroit Tigers in the 13th inning Saturday makes for an interesting moment, and not just for the O’s. You don’t expect to win a game in extras on your new backup catcher’s first hit of the year -- but the Orioles just did, thanks to Taylor Teagarden's two-run home run.
You can’t really top that for a first impression and this is an Orioles team that has been making a lot of fresh impressions. From starter Jason Hammel's turnaround from innings-eater to rotation front man, to closer Jim Johnson's All-Star invitation, to former top prospects like Adam Jones and Chris Davis finally living up to their billing.
Compare them to the Tigers, who spent like a champ and expected to win like one. They might complain how so many of their young players who were primed to start peaking, like Brennan Boesch or Max Scherzer, haven't. But even after a loss like this, it’s too soon to say they’re done, especially in the AL Central where 90 wins might still get you a division flag. If you think Dave Dombrowski has thrown in the towel, guess again.
Before a pitch was thrown this season nothing was expected of the Orioles, while just about everything was expected of the Tigers. That’s no longer true of either team. At this time of year outcomes can deliver outsized results -- and super-sized responses. The trade deadline is right around the corner, and execs and managers will be making decisions about what to do with what their teams have done so far.
With little more than 75 games left to go, both teams have something different to prove. The Orioles have to prove they aren’t a fluke and have a shot down the stretch. The Tigers have to prove their disappointing first half was only a fluke and that an always-winnable division is still within reach.
But a number like “75 games” gives too much credit to the idea that every game counts equally. It’s one of the handy truisms that gets repeated all season long: Every game counts the same in the standings. It’s true in the broadest sense, in terms of mathematical value, but it’s a statement that’s divorced from the world of real reactions to wins and losses. The day-to-day results have an impact on day-to-day decisions.
Not that big-picture considerations don’t also add pressure. Before the game, the Orioles dedicated their latest stadium statue to all-time franchise great Jim Palmer. It only seems like it’s been that long since they’ve mattered -- Palmer pitched for Baltimore’s last World Series winner in 1983, notching a win out of the bullpen. Though the O’s have their Jeffrey Maier-induced regrets since, it’s been a tough three decades. They haven’t won more than 70 games since 2005, and they haven’t had a winning season since their ALCS loss in 1997. Think they don’t want to change that? Guess again.
In the big picture, it’s easy to say that the Orioles have been lucky. You can use Pythagorean-projected wins and see the Orioles have won six more games than expected, easily the biggest number in the league. And they owe a lot of that to their 10-2 record in extra innings, not to mention their 16-6 record in one-run games. More complicated stats like ESPN’s RPI for baseball move the O’s-verperformance up to seven games; Clay Davenport’s projections has it at five, Baseball Prospectus has it at six.
So the Orioles have a case for being the luckiest team in the league, because whatever your brand of record-parsing, theirs is the biggest number in the league. It’s the sort of result that will get people to say this is not a team to take seriously. Project that forward, and you wind up with a lot of models saying that the Orioles will wind up around 80 or 81 wins -- going 34-41 from here on out, yet winding up with their best season in 15 years.
But even though the Orioles' 13-inning win Saturday might seem improbable -- delivered by an even more improbable hero -- it matters more than just one ballgame out of 75. That’s because it’s one of the few games left between now and the trade deadline -- just 17 games away. The team that's fielded after the deadline might be very different from the one people say is just lucky to be here.
Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette can take all of this at face value. Maybe his team really is just lucky to be here and he can accept regression to the mean. Or, he can do something about it. He can leverage the wins his team already has and try to add somebody who can change the equation. Because for the first time in a long time, Orioles fans will have a reason to see what their team does at the deadline.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.