Gritty, resilient O's impress with incredible run

Gritty, resilient O's impress with incredible run

Gritty, resilient O's impress with incredible run
BALTIMORE -- This was not a season in which the Orioles were supposed to succeed. But a gritty 2012 club refused to fall back on outside expectations, reaching the postseason for the first time in 15 years on an incredible run that ended with Friday's Game 5 loss to the Yankees in the American League Division Series.

"Derek [Jeter] and Mariano [Rivera] and Andy [Pettitte] used to talk about it all the time that first year we took them ... [to the postseason, saying], 'That's worth what you do,'" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of breaking the organization's playoff dry spell. "To get to that point and have those types of games being played, it makes it worthwhile what you do in the offseason, what you do during the season [when] you grind out."

"I think it's going to bode well for a lot of maturity for a lot of our young players to be exposed to that. When we talk about, 'This is why we do this, so we can do this,' they know what we're talking about."

Yes, 2012 was a valuable breeding ground for learning, and the Orioles -- who stunned the baseball world in turning around a franchise that hadn't had a winning record since 1997 -- proved to be a quick study. The club jumped out to a quick start in April, buoyed by the emergence of starter Jason Hammel -- who was acquired from the Rockies in exchange for right-hander Jeremy Guthrie over the winter -- and some stellar outings by their young pitching.

When their starters began to falter, the phenomenal relief corps helped the O's get by. Showalter -- a favorite for the AL Manager of the Year Award -- and first-year executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette made more roster moves than games in which the club played, juggling the team's composition by any means necessary to get them a competitive edge.

2012 season wraps
2013 outlooks

The Orioles used 52 different players in 2012, adopting a sum-of-their-parts approach that helped keep the club relaxed when the pressure is on. Everyone from 42-year-old veteran Jim Thome to 20-year-old Manny Machado played starring roles in certain games, with in-season additions such as outfielders Lew Ford and Nate McLouth helping the team overcome injuries to veteran players Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, along with Opening Day left fielder Nolan Reimold.

The Orioles had contributions up and down the lineup throughout the regular season. Center fielder Adam Jones had a career year, and first baseman/right fielder Chris Davis flourished in his first full season with Baltimore.

When the starting rotation struggled, the Orioles leaned on rookies Wei-Yin Chen and 28-year-old Miguel Gonzalez, a pair that didn't draw much national attention, and whose success mirrored that of the equally under-the-radar O's.

The O's had a 24-game improvement from 2011, winning 46 road games -- most in the AL -- and going an astounding 29-9 in one-run games, which was the best record in the Majors.

Nineteen pitchers recorded a win, including Davis, in one of the most surreal victories of the year at Fenway Park. The O's -- who won 16 consecutive extra-inning games to close out the season -- gave fans a lot of memorable moments, and Camden Yards was rocking during the final few weeks as the city got beyond its group of lovable unsung heroes.

"A base hit here or there, an out here or there, we'd be playing for the American League Championship," Duquette said Saturday afternoon.

"I think the experience of playing in the postseason is a good one for everyone to have. But I'm also keen enough to realize when you get into close competition, it helps you identify your strengths, but also the area you need to improve to win the championship. That's something we can take a look at in the offseason."

But before talk shifts to what the Orioles will do this winter, let's reflect back on an incredible summer. What follows is a look back on the highs, the lows and the points between of a 2012 season that re-energized Baltimore:

Record: 93-69, second in American League East

Defining moment: Were there more flashy games and marquee matchups? Certainly. But there's a strong case to be made for July 18's win in Minnesota as the game that helped turn the Orioles' season around. With losses in 17 of 24 coming in, the O's struggles -- which started on a tough road trip going into the All-Star Break -- showed no signs of letting up.

Enter right-hander Tommy Hunter, recalled from Triple-A earlier in the day, who pitched 7 1/3 strong innings to take some pressure off an overworked bullpen and put the team back on the right track. Hunter's outing, which marked the first time in eight games the Orioles got at least six innings from their starter, was exactly the boost Baltimore needed to stay afloat in the second half. The O's went 47-25 to close the season, with 24 of the 47 wins being decided by one or two runs.

What went right: At times, it seemed as if everything did. Showalter picks up his 1,000th career managerial win where he got his start: New York ... Davis pitches a scoreless 16th inning at Fenway Park, as the Orioles win in 17 in a game that will go down as one of the most memorable in club history ... Machado makes his professional debut on Aug. 9, he gets two hits, including a triple and a run scored with the home crowd chanting "Manny" ... Mark Reynolds moves to first base and, coupled with Machado's arrival, the defense gets a boost ... closer Jim Johnson sets a new club single-season saves record at 46 with Sept. 22's save in Boston. Johnson ends the year with a Major League-most 51 saves ... Brian Matusz is converted to relief in Triple-A and becomes a dominant late-innings lefty ... Hunter also gets a boost in the bullpen, hitting 101 mph in Boston ... Gonzalez defeats every divisional opponent in his rookie season ... Hammel throws a complete-game shutout, flirts with a no-hitter on June 16 in Atlanta. He retires 17 straight at one point in O's win ... top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who was promoted Sept. 19, retires both batters he faces in his professional debut Sept. 23 ... the Orioles, who dealt with a plane problem, find out they are officially in the postseason as they are en route to Tampa Bay for the last series of the year ... Joe Saunders, a late-season trade acquisition, helps the team stave off elimination in two playoff starts ... Markakis flourishes when moved to the leadoff spot with Roberts on the DL ... McLouth steps in to the top spot in the order and continues to perform well ... Chris Tillman is recalled from Triple-A in July and establishes himself as a legitimate starter ... Rule-5 Draft pick Ryan Flaherty emerges late in the season as a second-base platoon player ... reliever Darren O'Day has a career year out of the bullpen.

What went wrong: Inexperience, injuries and starting pitching. Batters couldn't get anything going in the postseason, with catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J.Hardy, Jones, Reynolds, Davis all struggling and contributing to the team's exit ... The O's dealt with injuries in droves, as they derailed the seasons of Reimold, Roberts and even Markakis, who had never been on the DL in his career before hitting it twice in 2012. The club also lost starter Tsuyoshi Wada for the season this spring, third baseman Wilson Betemit with a right wrist issue towards the end of the year and Hammel for two months after undergoing knee surgery ... Young starters Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton showed flashes of promise but largely underperformed, as the trio are still searching for some consistency. They were all demoted to Triple-A Norfolk at various points during the season, with Tillman the only young arm who was able to stay in the club's rotation ... The Orioles are without a true No. 1 starter, a fact made sorely evident in the postseason, and something that needs to improve ... Setup man Pedro Strop was excellent for three-fourths of the season, but he tired down the stretch and forced Showalter to juggle the bullpen around him until a redeeming Game 4 outing against the Yankees.

Biggest surprise: For a team with so many question marks this spring, the pitching was perhaps the biggest. The Orioles got much more than anyone could have expected out of the bullpen, which carried the rotation through its inconsistencies and often concealed the team's other glaring issues. Baltimore did not lose a regular-season game in which it was leading after seven innings, and Showalter took great care to ensure that the relievers stayed fresh throughout the year. The result was a relief corps that was a serious weapon for the Orioles, helping them win an unprecedented percentage of one-run games and ensure that late-game leads held up.

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.