Orioles write new chapter in last-to-first story

Orioles write new chapter in last-to-first story

Orioles write new chapter in last-to-first story
BALTIMORE-- The Orioles, whose plane made an emergency landing in Jacksonville, Fla., en route to Tampa on Sunday night, also got good news, with the club learning it officially clinched a postseason berth with the Angels' 8-7 loss to Texas in the second game of a split doubleheader.

The postseason berth is the first for the Orioles since 1997, ending a 15-year drought for a city that has been starved for a winner. With modern technology ensuring the O's would be up to the minute on the team charter, manager Buck Showalter said his players' reaction was pretty professional.

"It's more of a look in someone's eyes, it's a firm handshake, a knowing look as much as anything," Showalter said en route to the team's hotel from the airport in St. Petersburg. "It's great, but we've got opportunities to do things that put us in a better position."

The Orioles and their fans anxiously awaited the end result of the first Angels-Rangers game on the JumboTron at Camden Yards Sunday afternoon, quietly retreating to the clubhouse when Anaheim pulled off a ninth inning comeback. The champagne stayed on ice, the plastic covering on the players' lockers lifted up, as the O's -- who secured a 6-3 series-sweeping win over Boston -- boarded the plane to Tampa with a magic number still at one.

Was it fitting for a group that has taken on Showalter's singular focus not to have a celebration filled with pomp and circumstance, but rather a moment just among themselves? Perhaps.

"This is our teams accomplishment, our players' accomplishment, and we are all very proud of them -- me, personally, for letting me come along in the ride," Showalter said. "Don't underestimate the emotions in this team ... anything you see from them is going to be sincere."

"Everyone knows where the finish line is and we're not there. You don't deal with these guys a ton without emotions involved, but they've always been in the right direction."

And the Orioles have been quite frank about what their end goal is: winning the division.

The Angels' loss also secured playoff spots for the Rangers and Yankees, who are tied with the Orioles atop the American League East. The O's trail Texas by a game for the league's best record and have three games remaining against the Rays to seal their fate. Should the Orioles and Yankees tie for the division, the deciding game would be played in Baltimore, since the O's hold a better AL East record. The two clubs tied for the season series, which is the first tiebreaker in establishing home field advantage.

"Hats off to Buck and the players," said executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.

"They know we have more work to do, and they are going to do everything they can, not only to have a playoff game in Baltimore for the fans, but to realize the goals and dream of the organization. I think people believe in the team, our fans believe in the team, and the think a lot of the investments the owners made in the team bear fruit. And I'm just happy we made the first step."

How have the Orioles done it, this last-to-first season?

Baltimore -- which clinched its first winning season since '97 earlier this year -- has been a sum-of-the-parts group that has won without a superstar and has been able to overcome numerous injuries with Duquette and Showalter never hesitating to make whatever roster moves necessary.

Of the team's active 35 players -- discounting injured Wilson Betemit, Nick Markakis and Jason Hammel -- 18 have played in the Minors this season, with the club receiving unexpected contributions from everywhere.

Showalter, considered a frontrunner for AL Manager of the Year, challenged his club this spring to raise their expectations and they delivered. The team is 28-9 in one-run games and 73-0 when leading after seven innings, with closer Jim Johnson recording his 50th save of the season on Sunday.

"It's a step," Showalter said of securing a postseason spot. "It's comforting to know we are going to be involved in it ... it's a step, and it started a long time ago, to get a return for what these guys have put into it.

"There's some ways we'd like to figure out how to play some games at our park in front of our fans and, once again, it's in our court and we put ourselves in a position to compete for the divisional title, and that's where we'll set our sights for a while."

Of the O's injured, none of the aforementioned trio has been completely ruled out for the postseason, although Betemit (right wrist) is the longest shot. Hammel will throw a four- or five-inning simulated game at the team's fall instructional league in Sarasota, Fla., on Monday and the 30-year-old could possibly line up for a postseason game later in the week.

Hammel, has thrown two bullpen sessions with a brace on his right knee and has responded favorably. The team's best starter when healthy, Hammel is 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts despite dealing with nagging knee issues.

Markakis is slated to have the two pins in his left thumb removed when he sees the doctor during the Tampa series and while there is no specific timetable after that, Showalter said Markakis' recovery has the potential to "be on the fast track."

It's doubtful the right fielder could return for the first round of the playoffs, but Markakis could join the O's if they advance to the League Championship Series.

It's unknown how the team will set up its postseason rotation, with the Orioles -- who are without a true ace -- still aiming to win the division and avoid a one-game playoff situation as a Wild Card team.

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.