ST. PETERSBURG -- The Orioles' TV ratings, merchandise sales and attendance figures are up -- way up -- this year following 2012's magical run to the American League Division Series, but all you have to do to assess the level of Baltimore's rabid return to the baseball scene is take a quick gander at center fielder Adam Jones' Twitter page.
"It's at-bat to at-bat," Jones said of the frenzy surrounding Orioles baseball from early spring to September, a time when interest has traditionally already turned toward the Ravens. "We awoke the whole fan base. There's a lot of events that happened in the past year that brought baseball back, and then this year, there's been expectations with that. It's been awesome."
But after ending a stretch of 15 consecutive losing seasons in 2012, with those expectations comes another previously foreign feeling for the O's: the pain of rejection.
Baltimore's skid reached five games on Monday with a 5-4 loss that saw rookie third baseman Manny Machado leave on a stretcher with a left knee injury. The club faces very long odds in the AL Wild Card race, trailing Cleveland by five games with six to go. At 81-75, the Orioles still have a chance to finish with a winning record, a respectable achievement in the AL East. That would have been cause for celebration a year ago. But not now.
"Would you rather not be [counted on to win]?" manager Buck Showalter said. "Our guys, it's more than just them expecting, I don't think anybody felt last year was good enough, as evidenced by the competitiveness again that came in, and will be again. These guys, you are not always going to be lying in the weeds, Cinderella, all that stuff. You've got to graduate."
The Orioles are finding out how difficult it can be to sustain success while building for the future, all the while maintaining a competitive edge. And they're hardly alone. See the 2009 Rays, who missed the playoffs the year after finishing over .500 for the first time and going to the World Series. It's a tough task when you're no longer in that underdog role, and the O's are experiencing it firsthand during a sub-.500 second half.
"There's a lot of things that have to go right. And the most obvious thing is health," said reliever Darren O'Day, speaking several hours before Machado's season ended when he fell awkwardly while crossing first base. "If an important player gets hurt, it changes your plans from top to bottom.
"It's a long season, and this time of year it's hard to describe how everyone is feeling. I think there were definitely some expectations this year. And we welcome that, because we are all competitive guys. We want to be expected to be good."
While there was no prognosis for Machado, who is slated for an MRI exam in Baltimore on Tuesday, the Orioles' future as a whole is hopeful. Their core -- including slugger Chris Davis -- is under contract and relatively young. The team has eclipsed a Major League record for errorless games. The offense -- which has averaged more than a run less in the season's final month than during the first five months -- could use another bat or two, and the emphasis this winter will be on evening out an all-or-nothing lineup that too often relied on the home run.
"We're still not done," said Jones, who signed a contract extension last year. "Going into next year, there's going to be even more expectations. This team, I don't see us going back to that franchise because of the people we have -- first on the field, and the people we have in the front office. They are going to make sure we are going to put a competitive team on the field. And that's what you want."
Showalter, who turned around the organization's culture upon his hire at the end of 2010, challenged his players on the first day of Spring Training to still be in the race by September 1 by any means necessary, and they delivered. But making the postseason a regular occurrence will be a much tougher task than simply earning baseball's respect.
"Our guys care -- not that teams in the past here didn't care," Showalter said. "[Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette] cares. [Managing partner Peter Angelos] cares. We're in a good place. It's going to take a lot more than one year, two years, three years. I have the most respect for people that do it consistently, year in and year out. Any sport, when you see a team or an organization, a college or pro team, it doesn't matter. There are reasons why.
"The more I'm around professional sports, you kind of see something from afar and everyone always thinks it's a fluky Cinderella-ish thing, and then you get close to it and you go, 'There's a reason why. I got it now.' You know, spending time over at the Ravens, being around anybody that wins consistently ... I enjoy the fact that they've eliminated all the excuse making. Play better."
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.Less