The O's next challenge: West Coast
They've faced, and conquered, other obstacles. A brutal road trip is the next trial.
BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Orioles have accomplished some wonderful things this year while clinging to a "one game and one day at a time" mantra. Given how daunting their upcoming travel itinerary is, they might want to start thinking in terms of minutes and hours.
The Orioles have survived low expectations, potentially demoralizing injuries, instability in the starting rotation and a widely discussed negative run differential to claim a share of the American League East lead at 80-62 ahead of Thursday's games. Their next win will assure them of their first .500 season since 1997, when Davey Johnson was their manager and 3.7 million fans at Camden Yards looked forward to a bright and promising future. Those Baltimore diehards had absolutely no idea how many meaningless September games lay in store for them.
Now, thanks to a late, sadistic turn in the 2012 schedule, life is about to get even more challenging.
After concluding a seven-game homestand against Tampa Bay on Thursday, the O's will board a flight to Oakland for a three-game series with the pitching-rich Athletics starting Friday. Then they'll head to Seattle for three games with the Mariners (and a date with Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez in the series finale). After that, they'll hop a redeye flight back east to Boston, where they'll conclude the nine-game ordeal against the Red Sox at Fenway. An off day in Boston next Thursday extends the time away from home to 10 days in all.
"That's a long-ass trip," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, "but there are no excuses at this time in the season. Every game is important now. You just have to get as much rest as you can, strap it on and go."
Cross-country trips can be a challenge any time of year, for obvious reasons. Players routinely need a day or two to deal with the jet lag and re-set their body clocks, and it's easy to look up and see two or three losses suddenly morphing into a five- or six-game slide. West Coast trips can be even more imposing in September, when players are mentally taxed and physically fried from the accumulated grind since spring training.
But as Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters observes, the change of scenery can provide some welcome relief for players if they choose to look on the bright side.
"There are challenges to playing on the West Coast, but also advantages," Wieters said. "The biggest challenge, obviously, is that you're starting a game about the time you're used to finishing a game. But one of the positives is that the weather can give your body a rest. Between the temperatures out West and the lower humidity, you can give yourself a break."
The Orioles have displayed a flair for fast finishes since Buck Showalter took over for Juan Samuel as manager in July 2010. In three Septembers under Showalter through Wednesday of this week, the O's are 36-29. That win total puts them in a tie with Tampa Bay for the third-highest total in the majors behind Texas (41 September victories) and Detroit (40).
The past two years, Baltimore played well in September because Showalter injected the clubhouse with a sense of pride, and Baltimore's veterans and kids alike kept playing hard while auditioning for roster spots. Last year, the Orioles went 69-93 and finished 28 games out of first in the AL East, but they posted a 15-13 record in September and eliminated the Red Sox from playoff contention on the final day of the season on Robert Andino's walk-off single against Jonathan Papelbon.
The Orioles are 26-7 in one-run games and 12-2 in extra-inning contests so far this season. Although the law of averages says that run of good fortune has to end eventually, Baltimore continues to defy conventional wisdom.
"It's not easy to keep winning extra-inning games and one-run games," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "That speaks to their tenacity a little bit. Primarily, I think it's an attitude type of thing. You can see that they're not going to be denied. Even though they might run some guys out there who aren't household names, they play [the game] right. If you play it right, you can win."
The Orioles are in a good place because of their ability to bond through setbacks and maintain an upbeat narrative. They could have suffered an emotional letdown after leadoff man Nick Markakis broke his left thumb Saturday night and they got blasted 13-3 by the Yankees in a Sunday matinee. But after a day off, they regrouped to beat the Rays 9-2 behind two home runs from shortstop J.J. Hardy. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel suffered a knee injury in that game, but his teammates, seemingly oblivious to setbacks, beat the Rays 3-2 on Wednesday on Nate McLouth's walk-off hit.
Markakis, a clubhouse favorite, will accompany the Orioles on their upcoming trip and try to give them moral support from the dugout. His fellow Orioles will derive an extra smidge of motivation from trying to extend their season until his cast comes off and he's ready to play again.
"You know it's a long shot for him to be able to make it physically," Showalter said. "But the one thing we've found with Nicky is, he's one of our better healers. I know he's talking about the amount of milk he's planning on drinking. That helps, right?"
With or without Markakis, Baltimore is starting to hit at just the right time. The Orioles rank second to the Washington Nationals with a .505 slugging percentage and 21 home runs in September. First baseman Mark Reynolds is tied with Texas' Adrian Beltre for the major league lead with seven homers this month. In addition, Wieters has a 1.052 OPS in September and Hardy (1.011) and Jones (.930) are close behind. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore's defense is tighter now that Reynolds has moved to first base, rookie Manny Machado has settled in at third base and McLouth has stabilized the picture in left field.
At the moment, the rotation consists of Wei-Yin Chen, Zach Britton, Joe Saunders and Miguel Gonzalez, with Chris Tillman likely to return in Oakland after missing some time with an elbow inflammation. Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson or Randy Wolf could also jump in and make an emergency start for Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair, who have learned to stay light on their feet and keep an open mind.
Showalter, a top contender for AL Manager of the Year along with Oakland's Bob Melvin, continues to exude a sense of calm and wry humor as the pressure rises. He spent part of his pregame news conference Wednesday drawing a distinction between "good tissue guys" and "bad tissue guys," while assessing Markakis' chances of returning in the playoffs. He also cited a line from the movie "Apollo 13," in which flight director Ed Harris (as Gene Kranz) predicts that a safe re-entry from a seemingly doomed spacecraft will result in NASA's "finest hour." Showalter might want to repeat that inspirational line while the Orioles are winging their way to California at 35,000 feet.
As the Orioles continue their improbable postseason quest, Showalter draws strength from a piece of maternal advice he received years ago. It helps define his team's ability to stay focused no matter how many obstacles arise.
"My mother used to say, 'The good Lord wouldn't give you more than you can handle,'" Showalter said. "But you wish he didn't have so much confidence in you."
The Orioles haven't let their manager or fans down yet this season. They're about to find out whether their special brand of magic plays on both coasts.